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Academic culture shock

How can students learn the academic culture of their university?

August 22, 2016 — 

Think about the last time you took a trip abroad. Did you experience culture shock? Was food or weather an issue? Perhaps language? An inability to communicate effectively can be one of the largest contributors to culture shock. In cross-cultural interactions, misunderstandings arise because so much of social interaction – greetings, eye contact, and non-verbal communication – is specific to culture. When one is transplanted somewhere new and has no background on how or why locals communicate like they do, then stress will follow.

But what about in the classroom? Within any country there are customs and norms associated with teaching and learning. Looking back on my experience as an undergraduate student, the academic culture emphasized critical thought and interaction. But the first time I became aware of academic culture was when I worked as an assistant English teacher at a high school in Japan.

In my initial observations of how teachers at my school delivered their lessons, it seemed that they focused solely on grammar and textbook memorization. After a few weeks, I started to wonder: where were the lessons plans that prepared students to use English in the real world? At this point, I took it upon myself to shake up the classes. Surely the students would respond when they were presented with lesson plans that went beyond grammar and the textbook.

The only problem was that my lessons bombed. I asked my Japanese counterparts why they relied so heavily on practicing grammar and memorization. They explained that their priority was to prepare students for exams, which would focus primarily on grammar and reciting material from the textbook.

This took me a while to understand. Initially I thought, “If students aren’t encouraged to think critically now, how will they be able to compete when they enter the workforce?” However, the academic culture made sense when I found out what happens in Japan when graduates enter the workforce. When a recent graduate in Japan begins their job search, what distinguishes them is not what they studied, but where they studied. In Japan, regardless of major, the more prestigious the university you graduate from, the easier it is to find a job.  Part of the reason for this is thorough on-the-job-training for new hires. New hires often spend a few years doing menial tasks while monitored by supervisors. This serves to not only impart skills but also to reinforce hierarchy and company culture.

The emphasis on hierarchy in Japan also explained students’ reluctance to engage with me in the classroom. In Japan, the teacher is the one who has mastery of course material, and their role is to directly transmit their knowledge to the students. Thus, there was no reason for students to ask questions. In fact, if they were to ask me questions it would be insinuating that I was a poor educator. I find that in classrooms at the U of M, the relationship between the professor and students is more the “first among equals”. This means that professors expect students to play a role in the classroom, and are even disappointed when students don’t ask them questions. At the U of M, high-achieving students make the effort to ask their professors questions.

What I took away from my experience is that an academic culture will reflect what is valued in the larger culture. I thought I was helping my Japanese students by creating interactive lessons that had them using the language in creative ways, but what I was actually doing was diverting them from their goals and taking them too far out of their comfort zone.

How can you learn the academic culture of your university? Ask yourself:

  1. Are students only graded on exams? This is a good indication that there is a focus on memorization.
  2. What assignments are students graded on? If essays are assigned, then there is a focus on critical thinking.
  3. How do students interact with their professors? If a professor encourages interaction in the classroom (there may even be marks designated for participation), then this indicates that students are expected to find information through their own efforts.
  4. Do professors deviate from a textbook? If professors assign readings from multiple sources, then students can expect that it will be necessary to seek information outside the textbook in order to do well.

Adapting to an academic culture is similar to adapting to a new culture in general. Make a point of observing how others interact within that culture, and then integrate what you observe into your own interactions.  Remember that this will take time and you will have to go out of your comfort zone, so try not to get too frustrated and have fun!

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