One of the great things about teaching is that it forces us as instructors to make theory and research findings applicable to real-world contexts. As a researcher of culture, identity, and intergroup relations, I feel fortunate that these applications come relatively easy. For example, teaching business students about factors influencing cultural adaptation may be beneficial for their own effectiveness in global settings and/or for their ability to manage diverse employees. I find these applications to be exciting and feel energized when I know that the students are gaining insight about how to use course material to be more successful outside of the classroom. As an instructor, I strive to achieve four primary goals in the classroom: Critical engagement, student involvement, inclusiveness for diverse learners, and scientific inquiry.
My first goal is to instill critical engagement. I recently achieved this while teaching my own course, Psychology of Globalization. Globalization is difficult to define, not only for undergraduate students, but also for researchers who make a career in understanding it. In the first few weeks of class, my primary goal was to work with my 18 students to design a working definition of globalization that would guide our discussions for the rest of the semester. Each week, we discussed different perspectives and debates, such as whether globalization flattens, by making every culture more similar, or diversifies, by encouraging intercultural contact and differentiation. In these debates, I encouraged my students to deconstruct and question every working definition of globalization. Though the students expressed frustration about not having clear answers, it became apparent in the fifth week that they were very engaged with these debates. At this point in the semester, we were transitioning to a well-researched area of study—namely cultural identity—and I promised my students that it would be easier from this point because the research was more established (i.e., John Berry’s model of acculturation). To my surprise, my students did not find this easy to grasp because they wanted to deconstruct everything. They wanted to question the definitions of identity, culture, biculturalism, and anything else we discussed. My initial reaction was to be frustrated by their unwillingness to accept these findings as fact, but I quickly realized that they had learned early in the semester to think critically about the material I was presenting. I was thrilled that my emphasis on critical thinking had organically led to a group-wide culture of questioning that extended from the very first day of class until the last day.
My second goal is encouragement of student involvement in their own learning through a focus on in-class discussion. As a cultural psychologist, I am knowledgeable about cultural differences in learning styles and know that involvement may not look the same for all students. Therefore, I use various approaches to engaging students, such as large group discussion, small discussions with partners, small in-class writing assignments, and online discussion forums. I believe this style of instruction is especially valuable for business students who will need to be comfortable presenting to audiences of various sizes. Another way in which I facilitate student involvement is by encouraging all students to come to office hours at least once during the semester. I use this as an opportunity to check in with them about their perceptions of their success in the classroom. I find that the most common concern is about participation and I have learned a lot from students in these conversations. For example, I recently taught a Muslim woman who told me that she was cautious about speaking up in class because she felt like a “token Muslim” and that her contributions carried too much weight. We worked together to find other ways for her to participate in class, including individual meetings and making sure she was engaged during smaller group activities. This student felt comfortable taking ownership of her learning and participation while also teaching me about how to be more understanding and creative about engaging students with diverse backgrounds and identities.
Third, and in conjunction with the previous aim, I strive to create an environment of inclusiveness for diverse learners where all perspectives are heard and valued. The first way of achieving this goal is through the design of my course syllabi. I aim to include material from diverse scholarly and geographical backgrounds. The second is through activities to help students get to know one another. I like to start each semester with an activity where I ask small groups of students to find two things that they all have in common and one thing that is unique about each person. This activity allows students to find commonalities with their classmates and provides an opportunity to notice diverse perspectives in the room. The following student’s comments reflect the context of inclusion that I aim to create: “Amazing classroom environment where students really feel comfortable to share and talk amongst one another. Class felt a bit like a family. Really enjoyed coming to class every day!!! That alone speaks miles.”
Finally, I believe that the best way for students to engage with the material is through scientific inquiry. To meet this goal in my Psychology of Globalization course, students complete a group research project on a consequence of globalization. This past semester, one group chose to investigate global standards of beauty by doing a qualitative analysis of photos from the Miss World Beauty Pageant. Another group used the World Values Survey and other publicly available data to look at changes across time in religious freedom and tolerance in the European Union. This assignment allows students to not only apply course materials, but also to gain experience in developing a research question, conducting research, presenting findings to an audience, writing up a research paper, and working with a group. Moreover, this assignment builds on and strengthens student skills in critical thinking which I emphasize throughout the course. While I consult with the groups about their projects to facilitate team cohesion and effectiveness, I have found that group projects work better in classrooms where I have already established a community of inclusiveness. If I have achieved this goal, the students have more of a connection with their classmates and they are more motivated to achieve in the group setting. In all my teaching, I incorporate extensive group work to build skills for productivity in settings outside of the classroom that may require cooperation with people from diverse backgrounds, learning styles, expertise, and status.