Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Talking Intercultural

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Today, I co-facilitated a session with Mia Zamora and Alan Levine for the folks at Coventry University (Daniel Villar-Onrubia is my main contact there who asked me to do several virtual sessions with them ahead of a daylong engagement in April inshallah – where Mia, Alan and others will join us inshallah).

Today’s session was entitled “Goals, Practices and Challenges of Intercultural Learning: a discussion across 4 countries” and the blurb was as follows:

The session will uncover our own experiences of intercultural learning – what our goals have been, how they played out in practice, and the kinds of challenges we continue to face, with a special emphasis on the complex dimensions of cultural shame and shaming in both the US and Egyptian contexts. We’ll ask the audience to contribute some of the biggest challenges they face and we’ll discuss our various practices.

Mia, Alan and I backchanneled to prepare some ice breakers and then we started sharing particular stories and experiences, and the participants in the room shared some as well.

First off, I want to say I loved the emergent nature of the session. Although we had a rough plan in mind, we didn’t stick to it and went with the flow, which was great. Mia also did this incredibly beautiful thing, which was follow up on something I said, followed by something Marina in the room said, and she sort of spontaneously came up with a theoretical framework about intercultural interaction: trust, hiddenness and discomfort. I’m gonna use this in my first day of class tomorrow :)) inshallah

I also want to say that I found it really interesting how issues of identity, colonialism, religion and difference all came up during the session in a beautiful way and that so many topics were opened that we can and should continue to discuss more deeply… Near the end, Marina and Luca both expressed an interest in continuing the conversation because folks felt so many interesting topics were opened up and then they had to leave… But with online, there is really no reason for a conversation to stop because of time/space limitations. That’s what asynchronous is for 🙂 It does not work for everyone, but it will, I hope, work for a few people. And I think Alan, Mia and I will discuss various options with Daniel and Marina going forward. There are possibilities of google docs, cross-blogging, Slack team, Twitter or whatever platform seems to work best for the folks at Coventry. It can be the start of a really useful learning community there and crossing over with others.

The other two things I wanted to say are kinda meta and relate to the format of the session…

First thing – I really think Autumm Caines’ concept of Interpersonal Multitudes Barrier is accurate. Too many people in a room, and you can’t truly have a dialogic situation. I also think Virtually Connecting gets something right.. in that there are multiple virtual people and the onsite people are huddled around the device connecting them, seeing the text chat. We had one participant who joined virtually and we had a much more intimate conversation with her on the backchannel than we could have with folks in the room, who, while sitting beside each other, weren’t looking at each other, but rather at the screen. Having a good hybrid experience really benefits a lot from seating arrangements onsite that don’t dampen the onsite experience while also allowing for onsite folks to look at virtual folks. I mean, simply the setup that meant that people looking at the screen were giving us their profile took away from the experience. These things happen and we don’t always know ahead of time what kind of room we’ll get… so I’m not blaming anyone, but just reflecting aloud. If that’s allowed 🙂 Bonnie Stewart told me several times that vconnecting with a room with many people doesn’t work well. I’ve tried it several times now… and yeah, if you’re lecturing or doing a keynote it’s fine (and I don’t even like keynoting that way but I understand the necessity), but not so much if you’re looking for an interactive experience.

The other thing is something several of us thought might be good – have most of us (not necessarily all) virtual. I realize this is not gonna be comfortable for all people and means more people will have tech issues getting on… so maybe those who are comfortable could. It does allow for this backchanneling and it really helps with these sessions.

Another thing that’s a frequent issue with this kind of setup is the importance of audio… the importance of the virtual folks being able to hear the onsite folks. The opposite is usually simple(ish), a speaker. But for virtual folks to hear onsite folks you need a wireless mic or ipad or something going around and you need a way to ensure people don’t have to come up to front of the room each time they wanna talk. It is an additional barrier that may make some people more uncomfortable. Synchronous online sessions don’t come naturally to many people and I used to be one of those people even after I’d done them a lot… I’m not fully comfortable with them and all that can go wrong with one that it’s no longer stressful for me… but I know it’s not like that for everyone, and any additional complications just make them harder for those people.

Last thing is that it makes a huge difference if folks know each other ahead of time or not. I knew Luca from the room and automatically kept talking to him. I was aware of where he was even though he was far away from the camera. Everyone else was too far away and because I mostly don’t know them, I could not make deep connections with each one… but I did get to hear a little bit about most people in the room with he intro activity, so I’m glad we had some idea about who was there, or one aspect of who they were 🙂

Thinking about what we might do as a follow-up beyond today’s session, here are some ideas and I’ll see what others think of as well:

  1. Create a Slack team if this is something Coventry folks would be interested in
  2. Possibly invite them to submit something to my #FlipIntercultural and use those as starting points for conversations? This idea came to me for two reasons. First, because I structured this session slightly as a warmup to my UniCollaboration keynote, which that blogpost is also about; and partly because we focused on these challenges of shaming and such, some of the stories shared during the session by others also brought up these interesting unexpected reactions to various things… and it was really useful. I learned a lot. I hope everyone in the session learned too.
  3. I invited them to join #EngageMOOC which starts inshallah in a couple weeks. Engagement in a Time of Polarization which I plan to have my students participate in, inshallah
  4. Mia, Alan and I are joining our 3 classes in Norway, US and Egypt to work together on Digital Narrative Games (I focus on those that promote empathy so there is a strong intercultural competence/maturity dimension in mine – here is my “old” assignment for this… it will be slightly different this semester with Alan and Mia’s students).

I’ll send this blogpost to Alan, Mia, Daniel, Marina and Luca and see what ideas they’ve got…

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