When West meets Middle East in Arab
classrooms, teachers hit a confusing cultural wall. Two researchers want
to tear it down through understanding
By Nancy Bartosek
classroom where students talk openly among themselves while the teacher
lectures. Where a grade or an absence is always negotiable. Where a group
shows up to arbitrate one student's personal concern. Where teachers are
so worried that they will offend a student that some academic topics never
Such is the
classroom Western professors encounter when teaching in the Middle East.
It's a clash of cultures where there's no right or wrong so much as different
expectations, said Will Powers, professor of speech communication. It's
a complex situation that Powers and Professor Don Love of Zayed University,
a college for women in the United Arab Emirates, hope to make less confusing
through their research.
Arab community is a closed society, especially among the female population,
it's very difficult for outsiders to understand their communication strategies,"
Powers said. "We hope to shed some light on these differences so misunderstandings
can be minimized."
published in the December 2002 Journal of Intercultural Communication
Research, identifies five themes that were drawn from surveys and
observations of teacher/student interactions at Zayed over a two-year
researchers noted that since the Arab community gives extraordinary respect
to females, a high degree of distance between women and any non-family-member
male is expected. The classroom is one of the rare environments where
a male outside the family has contact with a female. But strong social
norms not familiar to Western culture still apply.
A woman is
never to be touched or offended, for example, even by accident. This is
so ingrained at orientation that male teachers stay nervous about inadvertently
bumping into a student; some are afraid to look directly at anyone. This
extends to conversations that might offend or provoke a girl (unmarried
Arab women are called girls, no matter their age). Even female faculty
members find themselves stifling personal interaction with the students,
fearful that they might offend unknowingly.
in the study reported: "It affects my behavior because whenever I interact
with them I have to keep in mind not to provoke them. I have, like, this
split personality since I came here. It is not natural. It is not really
"The students are looking at me to see if I am politically correct according
to their standards, not my own."
the students don't seem to like this restricted form of interaction. Many
in the survey said it negatively impacts their education, and they wish
that teachers were not instructed to be so sensitive. "The teachers should
not worry so much about what they do that is wrong," said one. "There
are wrong people everywhere. We see these things É it is not a big problem."
of the strong Arabic tradition of bartering, students are skilled negotiators.
Every grade, every answer, even a late arrival in class is negotiable,
and the students can be quite persistent.
student was refused admittance to a class, she ended up in the dean's
office with her request, which had been denied repeatedly. Asked why she
persisted, she replied, "If you talk to the proper person, you can make
a 'no' change to a 'yes.' " She was eventually admitted to the class.
Faculty members in the study cited this culture of negotiation as a strong
source of frustration.
are the basis of an Arab woman's life, and strong bonds with other women
come naturally. Not unlike social cliques in high school, students band
together to decide class schedules, to work on assignments, even to arrive
at a professor's desk to ask a question or discuss a private matter. It
can be difficult for a professor to determine who in the group has the
problem. The one who is most outspoken or has the best command of English,
often speaks for the whole group.
prefer to work in groups and will assess individual performance by comparing
their work with others, rather than accept the professor's grade based
on their performance. With group assignments, the most capable students
will bear the load for the others without comment or complaint, a situation
that makes individual grading difficult. Individual privacy is neither
expected nor wanted in these situations, and groups of students will negotiate
with the professor all at once.
communication style can be a challenge when the class leaders determine
that the professor is wrong.
who expect students to listen quietly during class are surprised to find
that students talk openly in Arabic during lectures. While the students
surveyed believed that the discomfort with their conversations was because
they speak in Arabic, the professors found the talking rude regardless
of the language. While sometimes the students are clarifying what the
professor is saying to those with lesser English skills, that's not always
conversation among the students is in contrast to the dearth of communication
toward the professor. Silence and few visual clues follow queries directed
at the class.
uncomfortable looks," one professor said. "You say, 'Do you understand?'
and the students will nod their heads 'yes' but not really understand."
that determining the mood of the class is very difficult. "Sometimes I
see a smiling face, sometimes a depressive face, and I don't know what
to do. Should I be funny with them? Serious with them? I can never tell
what they are thinking because their actions are not true to their feelings.
And, of course, the ones who are covered up, I have no idea what they
are thinking. They could be asleep."
theme deals with the physical distance required by the Arabic culture.
While it is expected that male teachers will respect that relationship,
most of the professors in the study were startled to discover how distant
they must be. One student stood at least three feet from a professor as
she tried to whisper a question to him. If a male professor steps into
personal space, say while showing a student something on a computer, the
other students will speak up for the one offended. Many of the male teachers
find the situation very stressful, as they are never sure where the boundaries
on the other hand, experience quite the opposite. Students will hold the
professor's hand or place their heads on her shoulder while speaking to
her. As many as 20 girls might crowd around a teacher, invading the Western
professor's expectation of personal space. After overcoming their initial
surprise at this tactile behavior, some of the female professors admitted
to liking the situation. One remarked, "When the students finally warm
up to you, they treat you more like friends."
ways to bridge these cultural gaps will become more and more important
as the planet gets smaller, Powers said. Western educators are in high
demand in the Middle East, where their presence extends a level of credibility
to the educational process. Westerners are increasingly drawn to the area
by high salaries and the chance to teach and learn in a rich cultural
setting. Easing that transition will require greater understanding.
of the United Arab Emirates realize that to advance their society, they
need more females in leadership positions, Love said. As the two cultures
become more integrated, better understanding about communication styles
people who would not want to come to Western society," he said. "They've
got an extremely good system, in their minds. They see it as a form of
democracy that is lucrative for them. Whereas we think oppression, or
a very segregated society, it makes sense to them. They don't understand
why people would object."
have a greater understanding of Western society than Westerners do of
them, it's a one-way communication, Love noted.
is that through further research, that discussion can begin to go both
Powers at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Love at Don.Love@zu.ac.ae.
A healthy helping
Horned Frogs are changing the dinner
plans for a whole community -- with the help of a few friends.
By Nancy Bartosek
has a new guardian angel. It's her grandson, David Ortis, 10. David knows
that sodium contributes to his grandmother's high blood pressure, a fact
he learned while participating in a multidiscipline program sponsored
by TCU and several Fort Worth community agencies. Ever since, he's been
nabbing the salt shaker when Frances reaches for it.
laughs as David relates his salt-stealing behavior over a plate of pasta
and vegetables at the Cornerstone Community Center near downtown.
been coming here, my blood pressure has gone down. So have my sugar levels,"
said the Fort Worth resident, noting that as a diabetic that's critical
to her health.
the Obesity Prevention Program, a cooperative effort involving four TCU
departments -- nursing, nutrition and dietetics, kinesiology and social
work -- as well as United Way, the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Cornerstone.
And while it's called an obesity study, in practice it focuses on teaching
good nutrition and exercise habits.
300 people within a select zip code participated in one or both of the
12-week programs, which began in June and concluded in November. Pat Bradley,
TCU professor of nursing and lead investigator on the project, said the
goal is to instill knowledge about nutrition and exercise that will help
participants develop health habits that they can maintain on their own.
them that regular, mild exercise, like walking or lifting light weights,
will help them maintain a healthier lifestyle," she said. During the class,
adult participants can be found doing chair exercises and lifting cans
of food. Kids find that time fun as they romp on the center's playground
or dash about under a large parachute they make billow above them.
classes offer tips on food choices, such as eating a rainbow of colors
to ensure variety, as well as help in developing skills like interpreting
labels and picking foods with the most essential vitamins and minerals
and the least amount of bad stuff. Kids aged 6 to 12 have their own class
where they learn nutritional tips such as how sugar affects your teeth
and why eating fruits and vegetables helps develop strong bodies.
said the lessons have changed the way she cooks. "I eat more fruits and
vegetables and now steam my vegetables instead of frying them," she said.
All of this
learning is anchored by a hot meal prepared by students and community
members hired to help. Professors watch over the menu and food preparation
to insure nutritional integrity.
end of the project includes the participants weighing during each class
and providing individual counseling to help them set goals. For several
months after the classes end, a follow-up procedure determines how well
the lessons have been adapted and maintained.
100 members of the TCU community were involved in the two sessions, which
gave students the chance to practice what they plan to do once they graduate.
Augie Longoria, a senior nutrition and dietetics major, said the experience
from working with the children has been invaluable.
helped me learn how to be a good teacher, which is really important since
I'm going to go into clinical practice," he said. "And it's been fun and
rewarding as well. It's only confirmed that this is what I want to do."
professors note the importance of the data gathered and benefits of TCU
and community groups cooperating on this project, the participants cite
more practical advantages.
resident Bessie Pachecano had been feeling poorly earlier in the day,
but once she got to the center and did her exercises, she perked right
to all these people who come from TCU makes me feel better," she said.
a blessing that they come here and help us."
Bradley at email@example.com.