Welcome to my blog. I write about fitting in, sticking out, and missing the motherland as a serial foreigner.

Thesis Draft Excerpt: Categories of cultural conflict

One of the most interesting things to come out of my research is how Western instructors and their Arab students are both concerned about cultural conflict in the classroom, but their specific worries differ. When I asked, via questionnaire and interview, about the kinds of culture-based conflicts that are happening in the classroom, the overwhelming response from instructors was that they were having problems with specific materials - offensive lyrics in music, offensive scenes in videos, textbook units focused on dating/alcohol, etc. One of the instructors I interviewed gave her opinion that

there’s quite a lot of stuff I really do want to use…on YouTube, and TED Talks, and all of that kind of stuff, [but] it has to be so cleverly vetted because within any one group that you teach…there was always the one or two [students] you could see were uncomfortable. So again, as a resource to actually teach something, I don’t use music. I just don’t. And 70% of [the students] would probably love it, but I don’t. It’s just not worth it.

This theme - and specific instances of the conflicts it can cause in class - was repeated again and again by instructors.

But guess what? The students, when asked the same thing, hardly mentioned controversial materials as being a problem. I think there was one instance reported, in all the questionnaires and all the interviews with students. One. Yes, the students reported conflict, but their most-cited category was boy/girl issues. Examples of this kind of conflict ranged from a male teacher insisting on shaking a female student's hand, to girls feeling uncomfortable being made to give presentations in from of their male classmates. Here is one typical example, where a teacher

asked students to put mobile phones away. One student put her mobile phone in a side pocket of her purse. The instructor (male) came over and unzipped her purse. She was very shocked that he would do that. He then started to look through it a little, looking for the phone. She said no, she can do that herself, and she put her phone inside. Later, she heard that people were saying she had slapped his hand away, which embarrassed her since females should not touch males in this way.

I point out in my thesis that the above example would also be considered a conflict in a US/UK classroom, but not because of the male/female dynamic. It would be because of the breach of privacy, don't you think? But when this student told me about what happened, the big issue was the end part, where word got around that the girl had touched the male teacher.

The instructors mentioned dealing with sensitive boy/girl issues as well, though not as much as the students. I thought this instructor said it pretty well in her interview:

[Y]ou’ve got the girls on the one side, the guys on the other, which I dislike intensely, but there you go. And I think many of them do as well, but again, who’s going to break that one down? [It] is there to protect against murmuring rumors or whatever and that’s fine. [At another campus], they have them doing group work together. I have never gone there. I’m just not willing to do it. Because again, we’re in the Northern Emirates. And the girl who says “yes,” bless her little heart, is the one who’s going to get talked about.

So it appears that we instructors are hyper-aware of culturally inappropriate material in our classrooms here in the UAE. And maybe we're succeeding at not letting too much of it get through (or perhaps the students don't care as much as we think they do), because the students themselves hardly report having problems with it.

The bigger issue for both parties seems to be the boy/girl dynamic. Many of the students in our classrooms are in mixed-gender groups for the first time. I loved this interview I had with two male students. Don't get whiplash as you watch their opinions flip back and forth with each exchange.
Student S: Cultural issues are more important for females because they are more sensitive. They cannot do stuff like the males. For example, male or female teachers can shake hands with anyone. But female students cannot touch the male teacher.
Student D: It doesn’t matter. Teachers can do anything they want to improve their students’ knowledge. They shouldn’t divide them [by gender].
Student S: I do like it when the Western teachers do something like dividing us into mixed groups. An Arab teacher would divide us into separate male and female groups. But a Western teacher, even if the teacher knows our culture, she will do this [form mixed groups] to make energy and change.
Student D: And the Arab girls don’t care. Maybe a few are very Islamic and they care, but the others don’t care.
Student S: Yeah, after three or four weeks, it’s normal, and they don’t care if they are in mixed groups.
Student D: But not always!

Take heart, Western instructors! Putting Muslim students in mixed-gender groups is just fine. Except when it isn't.

November 15th, outsourced