CULTURA here, there, and there: Thoughts after the Brown workshop

After this past weekend’s Language and Culture Workshop at Brown, my head is still full of thoughts about teaching culture in the language classroom, using technologies new and old. In a full day of presentations and small-group discussions, about 40 of us first heard inspirational intros from organizers Shoggy Waryn and Elsa Amanatidou of the Center for Language Studies. Then it was on to talks that touched on a broad variety of tools and techniques for teaching culture and language: Lynne de Benedette and William J. Comer on avoiding cultural tropes with a “soap opera” approach in their new online Russian textbook, Mezhdunami (Между нами); Stéphanie Ravillon on innovative ways to use translation in advanced language classes in order to push students to better understand relationships between cultural messages, linguistic forms, and performance; Beth Bauer on the power of Community-Based Language Education to transform not just the perceptions and experiences of language students, but also their instructors, academic disciplines, learning institutions, and participating community  members as well. This is of course only a sampling; if you’re reading this in mid-October, you should still be able to see live tweets from that day summarizing some of the other talks, too, at the #langcult hashtag. If not, then check @YaleCLS and scroll back to Oct. 5 tweets.

What really impressed me at this event, maybe because of the fact that I’m a new arrival at Yale from Berkeley, was the number of people who were not just interested but directly involved in a major, 15 year-old initiative in culture teaching that I had only read and heard about from others. I had vague associations with the names Gilberte Furstenberg, Sabine Levet and Shoggy Waryn, who had created the Cultura Project at MIT in the late 1990s. I know it has inspired countless other educators looking to weave intercultural competences into their foreign language curricula. And now I was at a workshop with Waryn and Levet, where Levet was herself giving two presentations–the second of which was an introduction to Cultura and its long history of intercultural exchanges.

As I listened, I was impressed again with the principle goals of the project, as stated on its website: to help students “develop understanding of the values, attitudes, beliefs and concepts inherent in another culture; to understand how people in the other culture interact, look at the world and frame their thoughts and ideas”. Through the project, a class of American university students learning French, in tandem with a class of French students learning English (the website is clear that there are many other language combinations that have participated too), might first fill out questionnaires in which they explore value-laden terms in their own and target languages, while exploring authentic texts in the foreign language. They would then discuss their findings among their own classmates, being pushed by their instructors to question their own cultural assumptions, while preparing to interact with their overseas peers. Then, in online discussion forums that are “perhaps the most important component of Cultura“, the students would interact with the observations and questions of their partners, each side writing in its native/expert language and reading their interlocutors’ words themselves as authentic target-language texts. In this manner, the cycles of in-class reflection and exercises, reading of target cultural materials, and guided online dialogue would continue, sometimes for several iterations. Learning about another culture, as is amply demonstrated in this learning model, is not a one-time affair. Rather, as the Cultura website states, “developing understanding of another culture is a process which involves a series of stages that take the intercultural learner along a journey of discovery and reflection.”

This all sounded wonderful to me, and it seemed to sound wonderful to the other participants of the Brown workshop, as well; several other presenters and audience members mentioned the project as having either directly or indirectly influenced their own teaching philosophy and practice. For my own purposes, I’d love to try it out when I next have a chance to teach a language class (it’s been a few years, unfortunately).

However, this wouldn’t be a real blog post unless it had a little twist at the end, a few questions that popped up in my mind during the workshop, and that still aren’t resolved. Just as I was admiring the Cultura Project’s ability to get students to dig below the surface and question the values and assumptions of their own culture’s words, I also wondered how the Cultura model, with its underlying principle of cultural comparisons or “juxtapositions”, might stand up to alternate visions of culture–perspectives that have, I think, gained much traction and wider audiences since the late 1990s. So, in that vein, I’d like to end my post with a few questions about culture that I would love to talk about with Levet, Waryn, and Furstenberg if we were all still in that workshop room together. They’re also questions I ask myself as I plan to integrate culture more centrally into my own teaching.

  • Is it still useful to conceive of cultures as relatively uniform in a given place, territory, or country? Or have cultures become so hybrid and complex that speaking of a single “French” or “American” or “Brazilian” or “Senegalese” culture is more counterproductive than productive? What would a Cultura Project look like if it made its object of learning not “an-other culture” but many, heterogeneous cultural spaces? (And here’s where my title comes in: Is there just a culture here, and a culture there? Or is there another “there”?)
  • Are the “cultural value systems that shape the thoughts and actions of people in other cultures” to which projects like Cultura try to attune language learners generally static, stable objects? Or are they more like processes, changing, and in motion? What would a pedagogy look like that focused on cultural change, as opposed to synchronous networks of meanings, values, associations, etc.?
  • Is culture primarily something that can be known, studied, read, viewed, and talked about, like an object? Or is culture more something that is done? Again, I remember that the Cultura site does say that the forums, where learners engage with each other, reading, writing, responding, and re-posititioning themselves with respect to each other, are the most central aspect of the project. And that the texts that the learners produce (a kind of “doing”) can themselves be studied as cultural texts. Would a perspective that sees culture as doing require more focus on the performative, action-oriented aspects of students’ learning? Would it require rethinking the assumption that writing in one’s native/expert language “is the only way the forums can function, since only one’s native or near native language can fully and expertly express the necessary nuances”? What about the doing culture that happens when language learners write and speak the words of a language in which they desperately want to be understood, yet only imperfectly control?
Each of these questions has a literature attached to it, I know, but for now I’ll leave it at that. In the meantime, I wonder what you think, dear reader?

Glenn Levine on Americans studying abroad in Germany: Lingering questions of technology

Last Wednesday, UC Irvine Professor of German and German Language Program Director Glenn Levine gave the first in a series of lunchtime lectures at the CLS, raising more questions about the quality of U.S. university students’ German study abroad experiences than perhaps even he had planned.

The talk, entitled “‘Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg (nicht) verloren’: A human ecological approach to study abroad and language teaching” (link to PDF), follows in a line of recent research (see Celeste Kinginger’s work, for example, and the 2005 book by Valerie Pellegrino Aveni) critically examining the degrees and ways in which American students are (or are not) in fact becoming linguistically, interculturally, and symbolically competent in their stays abroad. Reporting on a multi-year ethnographic study with a number of American residents at a German co-educational fraternity/residence, Levine asked into the ways that six American focal participants were socializing, studying and living with German, English, and other languages, both inside and outside the classroom–and with considerable attention paid to the students’ networking and media practices online.

In essence, Levine said that his provisional findings are that German tends to be used as a classroom language, and not nearly as much of a social language, as is English. When students write and correct their essays, compose Powerpoint presentations, and read aloud in class, they use German. When they go out, interact with friends and family online, and otherwise build and maintain their social ties, they tend to use English. Here Levine invoked Kinginger’s aphorism that social media and other computer-mediated communications tools like Facebook and Twitter are akin to an “electronic umbilical cord,” keeping students abroad tethered to their home communities. On this point, he asked, does the use of such media impede the students’ formation of social networks with local German speaking peers? Or is it a practice that is necessary and even validating of their sense of self in a foreign and unknown environment?

At more than one point, Levine seemed to be answering “yes” to both questions. But he also said more than once that his data didn’t show precisely how the students’ linguistic and cultural development and the formation of social networks were related to their digital media practices. At the end of his presentation he called for a more complex and adaptive view of language and cultural learning in study abroad situations, such that formal classroom instruction be contingent upon, and responsive to, the changing social worlds inhabited by language learners abroad. He did not, however, make any hard-and-fast recommendations about the kinds of digital media that students ought to be using, the social and cultural purposes for which they should be using it, or the language(s) students abroad should use in their online communications.

To me, the tension between students’ capabilities in the German language, their developing sense of self and social ties in a study abroad context, and their digital activities and lives was palpable throughout the whole talk. Although in a complex “human ecological approach to study abroad and language teaching” it would be impossible to causally link a certain number of hours spent online or written word counts in English and German, for example, to a disposition to see German as an academic language and English as a social one, Levine’s presentation led me to wonder just how “technology” might be transforming the nature of the study abroad experience, and the kinds of selves made in study abroad.

Especially, the “ethical” question that Levine raised–that of study abroad participants wanting and perhaps needing to be seen, felt, and understood as who they are in a strange land (a point he made more than once, pointing to Pellegrino’s work)–seemed almost to speak as evidence of a powerful, insulating force of technologies of communication that are as much human and social as they are digital. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons (not least of which might be the increase among U.S. university students of 6-month or even shorter sojourns abroad in comparison with the previously standard “year abroad”), American students abroad might be less able now than before to reap the sometimes distressing and uncomfortable rewards of becoming strangers to themselves, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva described:

Being alienated from myself, as painful as that may be, provides me with that exquisite distance within which perverse pleasure begins, as well as the possibility of my imagining and thinking, the impetus of my culture” (Kristeva, 1991, Strangers to ourselves, p. 13-4)

When, where, and how, I wonder, are American students abroad today allowed to be strange, to be alienated, to be lost?

Constantine Muravnik reports on the 2013 AATSEEL Conference

On January 3 – 5, 2013, I attended the annual AATSEEL conference in Boston.  (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages

I served as the chair and discussant on the panel “Nabokov’s Ethics and Aesthetics.”  I delivered a half-hour presentation on three papers sent to me one month in advance and moderated a discussion.  The topic of the panel was of special interest to me: I wrote a dissertation on Nabokov’s Philosophy of Art (Yale’10) and have used Nabokov’s work in my content courses in Russian.  The panel helped me compare and discuss my personal views on the matter with the views of those who currently work on similar topics.  The panel largely confirmed my own polemics against both dominant trends in Nabokov Studies, the “metaphysical” and the “metaliterary,” in favor of the aesthetic one (with ethical implications inherent in it).

Out of many interesting panels and round tables at the conference, I found one called “Making Content the Core in the Intermediate Language Classroom” to be particularly stimulating.  One of the presenters from Brown University, Lynn deBenedette, discussed her intermediate courses organized exclusively around content, not form.  While generally attracted to this model, I have one fundamental concern related to it.  Of course, it is wonderful when content and form reinforce each other in a language course.  However, as it often happens in intermediate courses, too much emphasis on content may compromise the presentation of and practice on formal grammar without quite raising its “content” to the level appropriate to a standard college course.  In other words, such a hybrid course, while entertaining for students and instructors, may end up being insufficiently rigorous both linguistically and intellectually.  The test of its intellectual appropriateness seems to be easy: we just need to ask ourselves if such a course would stand on its own as a college course if its linguistic component were to be entirely eliminated.  If not, then it would be intellectually “inferior.”  And the same with its linguistic component: is it sufficiently deep and thorough to qualify for a language course?  Or is the designation for such a course as “intermediate” sufficient to justify its shortcomings in both areas? I would say that much depends on the course and Lynn’s example, in my view, showed how one can successfully navigate between Scylla and Charybdis of content and form in second language acquisition.

Julia Titus reports on the ASEEES 2012 Conference

I participated in the annual conference of Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), held on November 15-18, 2012 in New Orleans, LA. ASEEES, a nonprofit, non-political, scholarly society, is the leading private organization in the world dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about the former Soviet Union (including Eurasia) and Eastern and Central Europe. ASEEES supports teaching, research, and publication relating to Slavic, East-Central European and Eurasian studies nationally and internationally.

Since my recent research work has been focused on working with authentic literary text in the language classroom, for this conference I organized a panel on Teaching Language through Literature where I presented a paper Teaching Poetry to the Beginners. This presentation grew out of my work on an anthology of Russian Poetry for Learners of Russian, forthcoming from Yale University Press.  Our panel was well-attended and we had a lot of productive discussion afterwards. Yale Press also participated in the convention and they exhibited my annotated reader of Dostoevsky on their display. 

Since another area of my interests is heritage learners’ pedagogy, I was also invited to be a discussant on a panel dedicated to the methods and approaches of teaching heritage learners. At this panel we had several presenters from the UK and were able to have a lively professional exchange comparing our teaching methods and techniques. This panel was extremely useful for me as an instructor here at Yale, since I have been teaching a heritage learners’ course for more than ten years.


I feel that the language pedagogy panels, as well as the informal conversations with colleagues from other schools, were very stimulating, and I was able to get a lot of new ideas to apply in my classes here at Yale.

Aaron Butts reports on the Society of Biblical Literature conference

I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, IL on Nov. 17-20, 2012. At this conference, I presented a paper entitled “From Manuscripts to Edition: The Case of the Syriac History of St. Cyriacus and his Mother Julitta.” The paper grew out of an Intermediate Syriac course (SMTC 522) that I taught in Spring of 2012 at Yale, and two of the students from that class were in fact co-authors of the paper (Karen Connor [now at Harvard University] and Daniel Schriever). The collaborative aspect of the paper allowed me to mentor these two graduate students in writing and presenting an academic paper as well as to provide them with direction in the professionalization process that is essential to their development as scholars. 

Our paper was presented in a workshop on Manuscripts from the Eastern Christian Traditions, which aims to familiarize students and scholars, especially those who have not worked with manuscripts before, with manuscript studies within the broader fields of eastern Christianity in any of its languages and literary traditions. Our paper explored important methodological issues with the process of moving from manuscripts to an edition, particularly: What choices are we making when we edit texts? Why are we making these choices? What are their repercussions? If the vibrant discussion after our paper was any indication, this topic continues to be of pressing importance for scholars working in the field of manuscript studies.

 At the conference, I also presided over a panel of the International Syriac Language Project (ISLP) on “Perspectives on Valency in Ancient Language Research.” The papers in this panel explored how valency theory can provide a framework superior to traditional descriptions of verbs in ancient languages, especially Biblical Hebrew. For me, this panel raised questions about how one can best incorporate theoretical linguistic approaches into language description and ultimately language pedagogy.

Over the three days of the conference, I was able to attend a number of other interesting papers on topics ranging from the Arabic version of the New Testament to Ethiopic Biblical Commentaries to new discoveries in Ethiopic manuscripts. One of the most valuable aspects of the conference for me was the opportunity to learn about the newest studies being conducted on the texts and languages that I myself teach and research.

Marion Gehlker reports on ACTFL 2012 and German Studies

I attended the ACTFL conference in Philadelphia on November 16-18, 2012.  In addition to a poster presentation on “Teaching Advanced German” at the AAUSC (American Association of University Supervisors and Coordinators) business meeting, I gave a presentation on “Turkish for Beginners in Intermediate German”, as part of a session on short films in the intermediate classroom.  I attended a similar session on Sunday morning, during which instructors presented the same German TV series as part of a semester-long syllabus for advanced German.  Questions and comments by the audience following the sessions sparked the idea of creating an online project, where all the materials for this series that have been developed by different instructors could be saved in one place.  Ideally, instructors could build on what has already been developed and engage interactively with the material and with other instructors.

 I also attended a session, conducted by Heidi Byrnes and Marianna Ryshina-Pankova from Georgetown’s German department, on multiple literacies.  This approach fits nicely into college programs that seek to design a text- and task-based curriculum that combines the teaching of language, culture and literature from the first semester of language study up to the introduction to literature, as promoted by the MLA report.

Ling Mu reports on ACTFL 2012 and East Asian Languages

I attended the ACTFL conference in Philadelphia on November 16-18, 2012.  My panel, “New Tools for the Chinese E-Learning Environment,” drew an audience of around 30 colleagues. My presentation, “Quickly Create and Manage Graded Multimedia Chinese Texts Online” which, introduced a web tool offered by, which allows teachers to create annotated Chinese reading texts in minutes.

Graded reading adapted to Chinese courses at all level is a desirable component for students to expand their reading scope after class. With controlled vocabulary, graded reading will provide an enhanced reading experience without burdening students with excessive new vocabulary, especially at the advanced Chinese level, when students need more reading materials to reinforce what they learn in class. With the web tool, every Chinese instructor can create a text with audio files and with every character and words clickable to activate glossaries with pinyin and character stroke demonstration. The finished online text is accessible to students. The teacher can simply email the URL to his students, and then the text becomes available. The web site also allows the instructor to create and manage his own class. Instead of mailing students the individual URL, the instructor can create a special class which allows his students to register, so that students can access a whole semester’s reading documents in one place. This free tool is best for advanced Chinese courses, especially those that require a large amount of supplementary readings, such as media, literature, film, and business Chinese.

I also attended several other panels. I was very impressed by the presentation by Yuanyuan Meng from Columbia University on “Chinese for Specific Purposes: Context, Curriculum Design, and Material Development.” Her presentation was on a new course she has taught in recent years, entitled “Media Chinese,” quite similar to Yale’s Media and Society. Her presentation pointed to a very clear trend in Chinese curriculum building. More and more students find it necessary to go beyond the regular textbooks and to read a variety of Chinese texts covering broader fields. Students at Columbia, like those at Yale, are increasingly interested in content-based texts, especially if those students want to find jobs related to China after they graduate. Meng’s course is designed for students of both heritage and non-heritage. She has chosen texts from various sources, including newspapers, blogs, online publications, movies, TV news, journals, among others. While the course is effective, it is demanding, since the inclusion of time-sensitive materials requires that the instructor update course materials regularly.

CLS Pedagogy Workshop 2012

The CLS Pedagogy Workshop takes place on August 21-24, from 8:30 to 1:00. In the workshop, new language lectors and TFs work across languages to share teaching strategies and practical ideas for the classroom. For more information, contact Suzanne Young. For the schedule, click here.

Marion Gehlker Attends AAUSC / CERCLL SUMMER WORKSHOP on June 4-5, 2012

I participated in an intensive 2-day workshop on “Implementing literacy-based instruction in collegiate FL programs”, jointly offered by CERCLL (Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy), the Title VI Language Resource Center at the University of Arizona, and the AAUSC (American Association of University Supervisors and Coordinators).

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Ame Cividanes Presents at UC Language Consortium Conference

I was able to present at the UC Language Consortium’s 6th Biennial Conference in April 2012.  The title of my presentation was “Effective Strategies for Weaving Literature in the Intermediate Level Language Curriculum.”  The focus of my talk was on the ways we use literature in the language class and how, as instructors of language, our general assumptions on literature integration tend to parallel what Olga Bottino presented as three paradigms: Cultural Model, Language Model and Personal Growth Model.


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