CULTURA here, there, and there: Thoughts after the Brown workshop

After this past weekend’s Language and Culture Workshop at Brown, my head is still full of thoughts about teaching culture in the language classroom, using technologies new and old. In a full day of presentations and small-group discussions, about 40 of us first heard inspirational intros from organizers Shoggy Waryn and Elsa Amanatidou of the Center for Language Studies. Then it was on to talks that touched on a broad variety of tools and techniques for teaching culture and language: Lynne de Benedette and William J. Comer on avoiding cultural tropes with a “soap opera” approach in their new online Russian textbook, Mezhdunami (Между нами); Stéphanie Ravillon on innovative ways to use translation in advanced language classes in order to push students to better understand relationships between cultural messages, linguistic forms, and performance; Beth Bauer on the power of Community-Based Language Education to transform not just the perceptions and experiences of language students, but also their instructors, academic disciplines, learning institutions, and participating community  members as well. This is of course only a sampling; if you’re reading this in mid-October, you should still be able to see live tweets from that day summarizing some of the other talks, too, at the #langcult hashtag. If not, then check @YaleCLS and scroll back to Oct. 5 tweets.

What really impressed me at this event, maybe because of the fact that I’m a new arrival at Yale from Berkeley, was the number of people who were not just interested but directly involved in a major, 15 year-old initiative in culture teaching that I had only read and heard about from others. I had vague associations with the names Gilberte Furstenberg, Sabine Levet and Shoggy Waryn, who had created the Cultura Project at MIT in the late 1990s. I know it has inspired countless other educators looking to weave intercultural competences into their foreign language curricula. And now I was at a workshop with Waryn and Levet, where Levet was herself giving two presentations–the second of which was an introduction to Cultura and its long history of intercultural exchanges.

As I listened, I was impressed again with the principle goals of the project, as stated on its website: to help students “develop understanding of the values, attitudes, beliefs and concepts inherent in another culture; to understand how people in the other culture interact, look at the world and frame their thoughts and ideas”. Through the project, a class of American university students learning French, in tandem with a class of French students learning English (the website is clear that there are many other language combinations that have participated too), might first fill out questionnaires in which they explore value-laden terms in their own and target languages, while exploring authentic texts in the foreign language. They would then discuss their findings among their own classmates, being pushed by their instructors to question their own cultural assumptions, while preparing to interact with their overseas peers. Then, in online discussion forums that are “perhaps the most important component of Cultura“, the students would interact with the observations and questions of their partners, each side writing in its native/expert language and reading their interlocutors’ words themselves as authentic target-language texts. In this manner, the cycles of in-class reflection and exercises, reading of target cultural materials, and guided online dialogue would continue, sometimes for several iterations. Learning about another culture, as is amply demonstrated in this learning model, is not a one-time affair. Rather, as the Cultura website states, “developing understanding of another culture is a process which involves a series of stages that take the intercultural learner along a journey of discovery and reflection.”

This all sounded wonderful to me, and it seemed to sound wonderful to the other participants of the Brown workshop, as well; several other presenters and audience members mentioned the project as having either directly or indirectly influenced their own teaching philosophy and practice. For my own purposes, I’d love to try it out when I next have a chance to teach a language class (it’s been a few years, unfortunately).

However, this wouldn’t be a real blog post unless it had a little twist at the end, a few questions that popped up in my mind during the workshop, and that still aren’t resolved. Just as I was admiring the Cultura Project’s ability to get students to dig below the surface and question the values and assumptions of their own culture’s words, I also wondered how the Cultura model, with its underlying principle of cultural comparisons or “juxtapositions”, might stand up to alternate visions of culture–perspectives that have, I think, gained much traction and wider audiences since the late 1990s. So, in that vein, I’d like to end my post with a few questions about culture that I would love to talk about with Levet, Waryn, and Furstenberg if we were all still in that workshop room together. They’re also questions I ask myself as I plan to integrate culture more centrally into my own teaching.

  • Is it still useful to conceive of cultures as relatively uniform in a given place, territory, or country? Or have cultures become so hybrid and complex that speaking of a single “French” or “American” or “Brazilian” or “Senegalese” culture is more counterproductive than productive? What would a Cultura Project look like if it made its object of learning not “an-other culture” but many, heterogeneous cultural spaces? (And here’s where my title comes in: Is there just a culture here, and a culture there? Or is there another “there”?)
  • Are the “cultural value systems that shape the thoughts and actions of people in other cultures” to which projects like Cultura try to attune language learners generally static, stable objects? Or are they more like processes, changing, and in motion? What would a pedagogy look like that focused on cultural change, as opposed to synchronous networks of meanings, values, associations, etc.?
  • Is culture primarily something that can be known, studied, read, viewed, and talked about, like an object? Or is culture more something that is done? Again, I remember that the Cultura site does say that the forums, where learners engage with each other, reading, writing, responding, and re-posititioning themselves with respect to each other, are the most central aspect of the project. And that the texts that the learners produce (a kind of “doing”) can themselves be studied as cultural texts. Would a perspective that sees culture as doing require more focus on the performative, action-oriented aspects of students’ learning? Would it require rethinking the assumption that writing in one’s native/expert language “is the only way the forums can function, since only one’s native or near native language can fully and expertly express the necessary nuances”? What about the doing culture that happens when language learners write and speak the words of a language in which they desperately want to be understood, yet only imperfectly control?
Each of these questions has a literature attached to it, I know, but for now I’ll leave it at that. In the meantime, I wonder what you think, dear reader?

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