Building a Framework for Understanding Cultural Differences

by Caryn E. Lindsay

With a diverse background of experiences from around the world, Caryn has been Director of International Programs since 2005. She has worked internationally for the U.S. Information Agency and for the State Department in Washington, D.C. and New York City. One of her most valued experiences was volunteering for a year with a women’s center in Prishtina, Kosovo. Caryn has lived in Germany, Chile, and Italy and has been fortunate to visit Australia, China, Ghana, Scotland, New Zealand and many European countries. She speaks German, Spanish and Albanian and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.

Caryn Lindsay

In the Honors Seminar “Becoming Global Citizens,” I attempt to share with students the things I wish I had known before studying and working abroad. It would have saved me some significant stress. Like the students, I love learning from people around the world, but enthusiasm is not enough. If we engage deeply with people with backgrounds different from our own, it can often lead to miscommunication and frustration. Why are “they” always late for appointments? Why do “they” talk so loudly — are they angry? Why won’t people offer me a ride home when they know I don’t have a car?  In short, why are “they” not acting as I expect?

Using Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, we are building a framework for understanding why behaviors differ and how we might step back, take a breath, and analyze the cultural differences at play in many of our interactions. I hope that the students will find the framework to be a valuable tool as they grow and develop in their academic and professional careers.

Having formed a common basis for understanding during our first few sessions, cross-cultural groups of three students are now beginning to work on a presentation. Each group has selected one of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study’s regional clusters. They will be responsible for creatively conveying the cultural characteristics of their cluster to their fellow students and applying the knowledge gained in the first sessions. The final project will then be to reflect upon the challenges and successes they had working toward a common goal in cross-cultural teams. I have designed this activity to replicate the teamwork within a multicultural environment that students can expect to encounter in graduate school and in their professions. Students will have an opportunity to practice working across cultures and then reflect upon the challenges this can bring. I hope that the students will develop the habit of reflecting on their interactions as they continue to improve their cultural competence. The students are engaging and interesting. I can only hope they are half as impressed with me as I am with them!

References 

Hofstede, G.H. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work – Related Values.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1980 (revised and expanded in 2001).

House R.J. et al.(eds.), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

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Teaching “Performance and Social Change” as an Honors Course

By Dr. Leah White

Dr. White is an Associate Professor and Director of Forensics in the Communication Studies Department at Minnesota State University, Mankato.   She received her BA degree in Communication from Concordia College, her MA in Speech from Kansas State University, and her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Arizona State University.  Leah’s academic interests include performance studies, feminist theory and forensic pedagogy.

Leah White

I have taught the Honors Seminar “Performance and Social Change” twice in the past five years and both experiences have been highlights of my academic career. I proposed the course because my experiences trying to teach Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre techniques as a unit in other courses had been unsuccessful. I realized to successfully teach this material, I needed a course format focused only on Boal’s methods and I needed students fully prepared to take on the risks that come with using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. The Honors Program provided me with the freedom to create this course, and access to students interested in taking on the challenge.

Although I am passionate about the course content and enjoy the opportunity to expose students to Boal’s work and the theoretical concepts behind his methods, it is the process of working with students to create an effective performance that excites me the most about the class. We begin the class with no predetermined performance goal, beyond a commitment to use the methods to address an issue of injustice present within the Mankato Community. The students choose the issue we will address and I work with them to find an appropriate performance opportunity. Performances grounded in Boal’s methods must emerge from the performers involved. Through storytelling and improvisational techniques, rough script outlines develop. Once I had taught students the methods I had to trust the students to work well collaboratively with only minimal guidance from me. As a person who thrives on schedules, plans and control, teaching this course has been a growth opportunity for me as well.

The performances went well both semesters. In 2011 we worked with 7th and 8th graders at St. Peter Middle School and in 2014 we worked with International Students at MNSU. My fondest memories of the classes, however, are not of the performances, but of the risks the students enrolled in the class took to get to the point they could present these performances. The course begins with students reading about and discussing concepts relevant to oppression and privilege. Many students have not yet had an opportunity to critically reflect on how their own lives are marked with elements of both privilege and oppression. Therefore, after a few weeks of intensive reading, but before we begin working closely with Boal’s methods, we take time to share some of our own stories related to these concepts. Students are asked to present a “Difficult Moments” narrative in which they share a memory of a time when they either experienced oppression, contributed to the oppression of another, or observed the oppression of another but did not intervene. These stories are difficult because we often shy away from openly discussing oppression and privilege. The discussions are frequently messy and emotionally charged. Yet, these experiences mark us in very deep ways and sharing them allows us to find points of commonality. Within this identification with others we are able to become proactive agents for change. I have been profoundly touched by the stories my students have shared during this assignment and the level of self-awareness emerging from the experience.

I believe when students choose to become members of the Honors Program they are making a commitment to being open to academic challenges beyond what other students will experience while at MNSU. This does not mean the classes are more rigorous in a traditional sense, but rather the classes are designed to disrupt one’s comfortable patterns and encourage academic reflection of difficult questions; many that may not have answers. I am very appreciative that the students enrolled in my Honors Seminar willingly embraced these unknowns.

How the Honors Program and Presidential Scholarship Benefit My College Experience

By Tyler Keller, ’18

Meet Presidential Scholar Tyler Keller, from Medford Minnesota. Tyler is one of our first-year honors students. He lives in the Honors Learning Community on campus and is studying Secondary Education and Mathematics. Keller says “I enjoy the Honors Program because of the sense of community. Through the Program I have built friendships I believe will last a lifetime.” Below he reports on his experience of starting college as both an Honors Student and a Presidential Scholar.

Tyler Picture

Sitting in front of a Presidential Scholar interviewer was one experience I will never forget. I remember feeling nervous, but trying not to show it. Once we got into conversation, my nerves went away. I asked a lot of questions and really took the time to get to know my interviewer. At the conclusion of my interview I had the opportunity to ask more questions to people from various organizations on campus, one of which was the Honors Program. I visited the honors lounge and met students, but was still hesitant about the idea of being in the Program. I was still unsure of what I wanted to do, but I decided to give it a try. This small decision has proven to be an asset to my Presidential Scholarship and has been very beneficial for my first year here at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

When I first arrived on campus for move-in day, I had so many emotions running through my head. I didn’t know anyone, the environment was completely new, and my parents were not there to guide me on this new journey. However, being in the Honors Program and a Presidential Scholar allowed me to take part in activities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to. These experiences made my transition into college a positive one.

After move-in day, I quickly made friends with other students who also decided to live in the Honors Learning Community. All of these students were highly-motivated individuals who had school as their top priority just like me. Being in the Honors Learning Community not only gave me the chance to familiarize myself with the Honors Program, but also build relationships with other first-year students. Many of us have been in the same classes and worked on homework together. It is nice to have a study group to count on in difficult classes. The honors faculty and staff are also very helpful. I have found myself going to them whenever I need a reference, help with writing a paper, or even in search of other scholarships.

Through my involvement in the Honors Program, I have been able to participate in unique activities and opportunities. In the beginning of the year, I participated in a scavenger hunt around campus with other students in the Program. It was a lot of fun and allowed me to explore campus. I also helped with a service project for the Make a Difference organization. Together as a Learning Community, we collected food from Mankato neighborhoods to donate to ECHO Food Shelf. Additionally, my first-year class elected me as their class representative in the Honors Student Council Executive Board. Through this position, I have had the opportunity to discuss future Honors courses, attend Honors events, and work with honors upperclassmen. This experience has been really great for me as it has given me something to stay involved with.

In September I had the chance to help out at the Purple and Gold Gala, a formal event where scholarship donors are recognized for their continuous support to the University, as a Presidential Scholar. The night included a delicious dinner and dessert bar. In the spring, the other Presidential Scholars and I will have the chance to visit President Davenport at his house and then attend a hockey game in the President’s suite. As a Presidential Scholar, I also get my very own mentor. Through monthly meetings, I have gotten to know my mentor very well and she has helped me with everything from registering for classes, to serving as a reference, to facilitating connections.

By being an honors student and a Presidential Scholar, I have been allowed to participate in many exciting events and activities. Both programs have been beneficial for my development and I am excited to see what the future holds.

For more information about the Honors Program, please call (507)-389-5191 or e-mail honors@mnsu.edu