Winter 2003
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TCU Magazine "Academe"

Distance learning

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

Imagine a 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 surface.

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.

"Since the 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."

Their study, 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 period.

Offensive communication

First, the 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.

One professor 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 me."

Another noted: "The students are looking at me to see if I am politically correct according to their standards, not my own."

Interestingly, 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."

Persuasive communication

Because 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.

When one 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.

Collective communication

Relationships 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.

The students 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.

This group-think communication style can be a challenge when the class leaders determine that the professor is wrong.

Quality of communication

Western professors 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 the case.

This excess 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.

"You get uncomfortable looks," one professor said. "You say, 'Do you understand?' and the students will nod their heads 'yes' but not really understand."

Another said 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."

Proxemic communication

The final 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 are.

Female professors, 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."


Finding 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.

The leaders 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 is essential.

"These are 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."

Since they have a greater understanding of Western society than Westerners do of them, it's a one-way communication, Love noted.

The hope is that through further research, that discussion can begin to go both ways.

Contact Powers at, or Love at

A healthy helping

Horned Frogs are changing the dinner plans for a whole community -- with the help of a few friends.

By Nancy Bartosek

Frances Camarillo 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.

She laughs as David relates his salt-stealing behavior over a plate of pasta and vegetables at the Cornerstone Community Center near downtown.

"Since I've 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.

"Here" is 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.

More than 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.

"We teach 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.

Nutrition 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.

Camarillo 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.

The research 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.

More than 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.

"It has 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."

While the 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.

Fort Worth 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 up.

"Talking to all these people who come from TCU makes me feel better," she said.

"It's such a blessing that they come here and help us."

Contact Bradley at