Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 20 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Chicken/egg reflections on intercultural maturity, criticality, & open-connectedness


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 20 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Humor is contextual, isn’t it? My dad was an avid reader of Archie comics and MAD magazine. By the time I was 7 I was gobbling them up like candy, and they were my bedtime reading, my go-to reading any time of the day. I still remember my dad telling me that I would not understand all the jokes/humor in them because it had heavy American contextual references. He was right. And wrong. I understood more of it than he did because English was more familiar to me, in the sense that I read a lot more fiction by Americans and so American culture was familiar to me; and of course I lived in the age of TV, and absorbed US culture through movies and sitcoms and such. My school was English and so through interacting with a lot of English people (mainly teachers but also students from different nationalities), I developed a bit of an English sense of humor. That did not help at all when in 1990 we had to come and live in Egypt (Iraq invaded Kuwait, where I had grown up).

Egyptians will make fun of anything, even at the darkest of dark times. They are some of the funniest people in the world. Then again, it might just be because I now know them enough to understand their humor (not all of the time, I still feel kind of hybrid). In 1990, I had huge adaptation issues in Egypt, and the reasons are many, but one that stayed with me a long time is that I did not get their jokes. And I also laughed real hard at the bad jokes because I did not realize how overused they were. Disconnected from the culture. I still am, sort of.

I think I am lucky to be close to two of the funniest people in the world: my husband (who deserves to be a screenwriter for Jon Stewart or even one of the voice-over characters for South Park – he reminds me of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, he could soooo do any of that); and my friend at work, whom I have known since college. Then again, I realize that our ability to share humor might be a function of how well we know each other, our shares histories, our comfort to let go and let the humor out. Our shared cultural understanding that makes the jokes catch quick. I have a friend who’s also a Virgo and we often share jokes out loud that no one else in the room understands. What is that?

Then this got me thinking about the difficulty of sharing humor not only across cultures, but online. What about the people we know online but have never met? I have had several hangouts with the really cool gang hacking #tvsz and we laugh a LOT in these hangouts. And yet, there are a lot of “do you know that game…?” And “have you seen that movie?” types of pauses. And some “i have nooo idea what you’re talking about” things 🙂 It’s interesting to study the effect of this on how well creative brainstorming works…

Then y/day I was talking to Michael Weller about how I never got the refs to Greek mythology. Guess i am a bit more familiar with ancient Egyptian mythology, maybe we use it as extensively as Westerners use Greek myths but i don’t notice it coz it has become familiar.

Ok but all of this is a roundabout way of getting to another point I want to make. In my PhD research, I ask a chicken-and-egg question about intercultural maturity and critical thinking. A good critical thinker (defining critical thinking is problematic, but some of the characteristics i mention now will make sense to most ppl who study or teach it, i think) is likely to be open-minded, curious, willing to question one’s own views, interested in understanding different world views – all of which mean this person is likely to behave positively in an intercultural learning experience (I would also add empathy into this mix, a less commonly used dimension of criticality, but it’s their in the feminist literature). But how to develop these characteristics? I’d think exposure to diversity (as in intercultural) is one of the best ways of achieving this. So which comes first? If you’re closed minded and not curious, you’re unlikely to seek intercultural exchange, or if in a situation, unlikely to use it well or to full advantage. But if you have never been with people different from yourself, how do you learn to behave in these situations in such a way that helps you learn from it? These things take time. If you were not raised your whole life in a diverse environment, how do you break free of that?

The main question for me is, how do you develop critical thinking needed to develop intercultural maturity without being in an intercultural experience; and yet, how do you get someone into intercultural experiences, have them navigate them successfully, if they don’t have some of these characteristics to begin with?

Same questions could be asked of open/connected learners. Is it that you start out as someone who loves openness and connection, and so you keep finding yourself in situations and you take advantages of opportunities to connect openly, and then you reap the benefits of that, which fuels you further? Or is it the benefits that should draw you in? But how would you “get in” if you don’t already have that attitude? [and i need to write a separate post about what we “assume” about people who are open educators, such as that they are pro-democratic pedagogy, anti-capitalist, liberal in their approach to ppl of other cultures, etc, but I could be wrong!]

That question plagues me with reference to whether we can actually draw people into open/connected learning (assuming it is ‘good’ because it benefits us) who are not naturally like that. Like Laura Gibbs, i’d take curiosity over security any day. But not everyone is like that. And some contexts require that caution.

A discussion in the comments on Simon Ensor’s post got this response from Simon:

A lot of people are monuments/avatars/objects before we decide to engage

And this applies to both intercultural interaction (the topic of his post originally, though possibly a metaphor?) and to open online interaction.

This also reminds me of sthg said in a hangout today: Someone said her students were shocked when a book author (Howard Rheingold) replied to their tweets. As in, they had not before really thought of him as a real person. Funny.

But not that funny, really, because how often do we get to interact with authors? Yes, now, with email and twitter, we can and sometimes do. I’m at weird person who emails novelists and sometimes authors of academic articles. It can be so cool.

But back to my question: is it possible for someone to get interested in open and connected learning, to become a connected educator, without first experiencing the beauty, the potential of that, if they are not originally of open/connecting attitude? Or not digitally literate, even.

How do you draw them in to try? If you give a workshop on it, hands-on, will they come? Will it sound like gibberish and feel overwhelming?

Will they not get the jokes, like my dad didn’t always get the jokes?

When I went to live in America (Houston, as an oil city, reminded me so much of Kuwait) as an adult I did not feel ‘alien’ (even if my husband’s status was “alien physician” – not funny! But true). I was familiar enough with US culture (from pop culture and my American univ education right here in Egypt) to fit in. I met people on the bus and chatted with them. I volunteered at the children’s hospital and talked easily with parents and kids. But the turning point was when we came back to Egypt and realized that we now better understood the jokes on Jon Stewart and South Park because we’d been immersed in the cultural context of that.

Where did I read that quote, on Terry’s post? (Will link and quote properly when I find it, or someone help? I saw this quote in several places. But now drawing a blank) – about how joining an academic conversation midway feels? It’s the same for joining an open online community or finding oneself in a new culture. It takes time to figure out where to start, whom to talk to, how to talk, how to engage in culturally acceptable ways, etc.

I don’t know that this is teachable, but it’s scaffoldable, i think, and I am glad some participants in #ccourses are willing to be buddies to newbies 🙂



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  2. These are very interesting observations Maha. You asked “how do you develop critical thinking needed to develop intercultural maturity without being in an intercultural experience”. You seem to predicate critical thinking skills on intercultural experience. I am making some assumptions about what you mean by “intercultural experence” but I still think that there are many examples of critical thinking emerging naturally … it is what most children do, after all. One of my favorite examples is a short narrative in the Quran about Abraham, pondering the stars then the moon then the sun and saying after each, “this is my Lord” until he gets to the Sun, which he notices sets and disappears from view… so, this could not be it… We do not know much about his world or the conditions of his life, but the story is not presented in any particular context, and it places Abraham in a situation that is quite familiar to anyone who has ever seen the sky – that is a shared human culture.

    Humor, though, is highly contextualized and often does not connect unless we are “inside”. I think that’s a different view of culture entirely.

    • Hey Mark, well I think capacity to understand different worldviews, as an aspect of critical thinking, develops best by deep interaction with diff views, which can happen in monocultural situations but supposedly are stronger in intercultural? Other aspects of critical thinking i think can develop via different experiences.
      Pondering the Abraham example. That’s questioning, right? But I always thought that conversation in the Quran was rhetorical!

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