If you are an international student, you may find this post worth reading.
Let me start with an anecdote.
My first class in an American university was not fun. It was on Thursday evenings, 7-10pm. Week after week, I failed to understand why the teacher wouldn’t teach! She would come to class, sit on the table, then ask, “so, what do you think?” And an older man in the back would start speaking. As someone who had not only studied but also taught a similar course back home, I had a significant amount of knowledge on the subject. This made it worse. The gentleman would continue to share his thoughts and responses and opinions and ideas but without much reference and (honestly) understanding of the text; there were two women who took occasional turns, but they didn’t contribute any depth either. But the teacher would just shake her head, and add more questions. One hour, two hours, almost three hours, and she would not start teaching. Three hours, the class is over, without her teaching anything. The other two courses I was taking were not so bad, but this one, I was totally lost.
After a few weeks, a light went off in my head. This approach to teaching was far better than what I knew before: lecturing forever. Theoretically, I definitely knew about the “student-centered” approach to teaching. But I had never thought that you could really put it into practice to the point of almost “not teaching” at all!
So now I started participating in the discussion myself. I liked it. I came more prepared to class, and I hope that I added depth and complexity to the discussion–though I am not sure if I did, because I could have just felt better when I got to share my own thoughts and responses. But the point is that now I was learning in a different way–no matter how grand my ideas were, even how perfect my understand of the readings was. It was important that the students did the talking, the learning–and not the teacher. By the end of the semester, this turned out to be one of the best courses that I have taken!
That was a manifestation of one particular feature of the American academic culture. Let me now share a few other thoughts and ideas that may be useful to international students in the US.
But first a caveat. In a deeply interconnected world like ours, cultural differences are only relative. Generalizations about cultures are only convenient learning/teaching tools; they are almost always unreliable, which is more true in this context. Cross-cultural comparisons are bound to end in overlaps and criss-crossing relations. If you can bear that in mind and won’t be mad at me for using bullet points in trying to summarize complex “cultural differences” behind academic practices in the “West” in relation to the “rest,” here are some of differences that characterize American higher education:
- Compared to other cultures, learners are expected to be more self-directed, self-motivated, and critically thinking in U.S. higher education.
- Learning is essentially an individual process; group work, when used, is expected to enhance the individual’s learning. Knowledge is ultimately “owned” by individuals who strive to create “new ideas” through the learning process.
- Classroom activities often involve seminars or discussions among students, with the teacher as facilitator; lectures are much less common in the U.S. academic culture than in most other societies. It is common for students come to class after having read the reading materials, and sometimes having done assignments as a preparation for class discussion and activities.
- In the US, teachers often ask what are called “Socratic questions”—questions with the pose of ignorance, not sounding like testing the students’ knowledge—rather than tell students what they think about an issue. This could be shocking to students from other cultures. The idea here is to give the learners the opportunity to present their ideas before the teacher shuts down the learning process with a definitive answer/solution to a question/problem.
- Expressing personal opinion, criticizing or analyzing texts written by experts, and disagreeing with colleagues or teachers is one potential difficulty with many international students.
- Students are encouraged to be conscious about how they learn—called metacognitive awareness—and do things in ways that they tend to do best. Assignments are sometimes open, leaving some students confused what the teacher wants.
- Research doesn’t mean merely finding out what the experts have said/found and then reporting the findings: it means asking a specific question, exploring the existing body of knowledge on the issue, and using the findings to make a new point/contribution to the discourse/discipline.
- A student is seen not just as a learner; he or she is also considered a maker of new knowledge. A student doesn’t need to wait until he or she becomes the expert, a certain age or position, before his or her ideas and opinions begin to be considered “knowledge.”
- There is no real hierarchy of power between students and teacher, especially in graduate school. Many professors ask graduate students to use their first names. Some professors invite their class for a party-like meeting at their home, especially at the end of the semester. Drinking and smoking in front of professors, in a responsible way, is not considered inappropriate. But remember that the social “distance” between students and teachers also depends quite considerably on the personality and preference of the individual teacher, whatever the general acceptability in the culture.
- You might also need to press the refresh button on the way you understand body language, as far as it becomes visible in the university. For example, it took me a few classes to not think it was awkward for one of my professor who sat on the teacher’s desk. I also learned to maintain more distance with men and less distance with women in this culture—and, this is funny, not to hold hands of a male friend while walking!
- In many other cultures, writing maybe considered mainly a means for students to express what they’ve learned. In the west, writing is often considered both a tool of expression and a process of learning.
- Independent study is not as common in other cultures as it is in the US. Teachers may want to intervene less than you want them to when you are doing an independent study course.
- Plagiarism: You must use other people’s ideas only by telling your readers who they belong to. It is plagiarism whether or not you do it deliberately—so learn to document sources as you do research. In western cultures, knowledge and its products have long been considered as possible to be owned or protected by individuals or organizations who have either created or somehow maintained ownership rights over them. Simply, people have been saying “that’s my idea” for a much longer time in the west than in other places. But in the academy, there has been a tradition of allowing people to “use” other people’s ideas for creating new knowledge. So, we are supposed to use other people’s ideas “fairly,” especially by telling our readers who the idea belongs to. When you knowingly or unknowingly fail to acknowledge that ownership of someone else’s idea, you are said to commit the intellectual crime of plagiarism—which is also a financial issue because we all operate in a world where knowledge has financial value.
- Writing is not the core part of many disciplines, but because writing can really deter your success in some courses even in the less writing intensive disciplines, you should be prepared to take that challenge and find out ways to meet expectations in this area as well. (RCN’s case) In writing, you need to understand most of all the discourse convention of your discipline as well as the general rhetorical styles that the American academy favors. For example, American writing generally favors the statement of an issue before elaborating it—topic sentence, transition, and explicit connection of every supporting point to the main point—but specific disciplines may emphasize that style in different degrees.
- Sometimes you may find yourself unfamiliar with the knowledge of the discipline that the teacher assumes that you already have—that you have already read some popular book. When you find yourself stuck in the gap between what you are expected to already know and what you are trying to learn, always meet with your instructor.
- If you are an international student whose long term goal is not acculturation into the American academy and if you are here to learn more about your discipline rather than change your learning style, you might want to become biliterate in the academic cultures of two places.
- Finally, some teachers might consider you (your different academic background and your different skills and points of view) as resource from which they and the class can benefit. Whether or not that happens, however, you should not forget that a different background need not be a hindrance. Looking at any subject matter from multiple perspectives is an important part of the critical thinking, research, and writing process in the American university. You should find out how to take advantage of your previous knowledge, experience, skills, and perspectives.
- One of the important issues that came up during the meeting was that of underlying cultural difference even when academic practices themselves may seem very similar around the world. Nurcan shared with us about some universities in Turkey, for instance, that could be better than American universities in terms of academics, and therefore academic transition of students from universities like those wouldn’t involve much challenge. But although some international students who have no problem adjusting and succeeding in some ways will find other things more challenging–like relationship with teachers, students’ role in the classroom, issues of race or gender, etc. Students in some cultures will consider their peers visiting the professor’s office as brown-nosing, whereas that is a good practice here in the US. Cultural concepts and issues underlying academic practices need to be explicated so that international students know what is right here.
- There are also many issues that are not exactly academic but will affect the overall university experience and perhaps studies. These might include time management (including using a scheduler and emailing to make appointment) and stress managing (including taking advantage of extra-curricular services available in the university). The workshop should also bring up such issues. As Amber pointed out in a previous meeting, we should talk about the “whole student” in the context of academic transition, because life adjustment can significantly influence academic performance of international students.
- Differences in academic practices among the disciplines here in the US are sometimes very wide. This increases the need/relevance of presenters from different disciplines. At the same time, different presenters will also highlight general issues of academic cultures best. This will make it necessary for us to chime in during presentations, and elicit audience response a few times.
Please add anything else that I missed.
* These notes were originally compiled for the “International Students Academic Transition Workshop” at the University of Louisville, a workshop that I started in 2009 and have presented three times, along with other graduate colleagues and faculty members.