What We Talk about When We Talk about “Intercultural”

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

In 2007 the Luther College faculty approved our current curriculum, which organizes required student learning into four broad categories:

  • Common Ground (Paideia 111/112; Religion; Language; Wellness)
  • Fields of Inquiry: Inquiry in Depth (the major) and Inquiry across the Liberal Arts (Natural World; Human Behavior; Human Expression)
  • Integrative Understanding (Paideia 450; Senior Project)
  • Perspectives (Intercultural, Historical, Quantitative, Ethical) and Skills (Writing, Speaking, Research)

One of the slipperiest requirements that faculty have had to define and implement in the past decade is the Intercultural perspective. In fact, the very word “intercultural” has the power to wrinkle noses and raise hackles when uttered in a faculty meeting or a conversation about curriculum. The trouble is largely in defining what we mean by “intercultural” and what kind of learning leads a student to develop an intercultural perspective.

The slipperiness of the Intercultural perspective requirement is evident in its description: “Focused on the interactions and differences among cultures and peoples within the United States and beyond. This requirement recognizes the economic, political, religious, and cultural reality of globalization, and it affirms that our experience of diversity is always relational. Courses fulfilling this requirement will often include a historical dimension; all give attention to contemporary experience.” Clearly “intercultural” has something to do with diversity and understanding a globalized world, but what does it mean that an intercultural perspective “recognizes . . . [the] cultural reality of globalization” and “affirms that our experience of diversity is always relational?” I’d give my faculty colleagues and me an A for using early twenty-first century buzzwords, but we failed to adequately say what students with an intercultural perspective will know and be able to do.

Having started with a slippery definition of “intercultural,” efforts to grasp what Luther students are achieving in this perspective have felt like fishing for trout with our hands. As with other so-called soft skills, instructors tend to know intercultural skills when we observe them, and we are keenly aware when they are absent, but what characterizes a person with well-developed intercultural skills? And what kinds of assignments, projects, or other learning experiences help us develop these qualities?

Last fall, a small group of Luther faculty (Brooke Joyce, Greg Patton, Stephanie Travers, David Thompson) attended a workshop at the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College in order to begin an assessment project on student intercultural competence. In consultation with college administrators and the Academic Planning Committee, we want to answer the questions above by first locating examples of student work that show evidence of intercultural competence and then distill from exemplary student work the most desirable characteristics of intercultural competence. Our hope is that by the end of the year we can adopt a more precise definition of “intercultural” and use this definition to build an assessment framework, a better method of mapping how and where Luther students grow interculturally.

By now you are surely on the edge of your seat, wondering what will come of all this assessment and revised curricular requirements, but before you click away let me suggest why re-defining “intercultural” matters. One option is simply to let go of what we can’t grasp well and choose a different goal with terms that are easier to define. Although we have trouble saying what we mean by “intercultural” we cannot ignore the skills to which the term refers, since these skills are some of the most sought-after by the organizations and communities where Luther students land after graduation. No, we should not let go of “intercultural”; we should reach out and grab with both hands, even if we fumble at first, because there is much more at stake here than a curricular requirement. The well being of our campus community and the prosperity of Luther alumni depend upon our attention to developing intercultural skills.

Luther’s recently approved strategic plan for 2018-2023 makes intercultural skills a high priority. The plan calls for equipping students with “life-long learning and leadership” skills; investing in individuals who will build strong communities; and becoming an “inclusive community . . . that goes beyond hospitality and fairness.” The priorities for year one of the strategic plan include curricular revision “to foster intersection . . . between cultures and identities”; expanded “competencies and expertise in working across cultural differences”; and a campus-wide climate of “inclusive excellence.” In this most recent expression of our institutional aspirations some of the buzzwords are new, but the qualities we desire are not. If anything has changed in the past decade it is the increasing urgency to identify, cultivate, and celebrate intercultural skills. Might such skills even become the distinguishing feature of a Luther College education? While other colleges guarantee employment for graduates, an integrated pathway to graduation, or a hands-on learning experience, what if Luther College promised to create an inclusive community that produces graduates with exceptional intercultural skills? Can we issue such a promise? Should we even try?

Even if Luther College cannot guarantee that every graduate exhibits strong intercultural skills, I believe we should make this our aim. We know from strategic planning discussions that diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of our priorities; we know that employers and organizations want individuals with strong intercultural skills; and we know that a healthy (campus) community is comprised of interculturally-competent individuals. We also know that Luther students and community members often exhibit strong intercultural skills. What we need now is a clear definition of “intercultural” to articulate what we mean and to figure out where and how intercultural learning happens.

So far I have avoided offering a definition of intercultural competence, not to side-step the central question but because my colleagues and I on the project team decided to proceed inductively. We want first to look at examples of student work, identified by faculty, that open a window on the degrees of intercultural competence present in the student body. Analysis of actual student work will help ensure that the language we use later to define “intercultural” in the abstract is rooted in what we can observe in individual performance. Although there are many existing definitions of intercultural competence (e.g. the Intercultural Development Continuum and AAC&U Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE rubric), we want to start with what we observe among our students. We know that many Luther students exhibit strong intercultural skills, so the task before us is to pinpoint those skills at work and determine how to create courses, assignments, and other learning experiences in which students exercise and grow those abilities.

I encourage any faculty, staff, or students with ideas about where and how intercultural learning happens at Luther to contact me or any members of the project team.

David R. Thompson

David R. Thompson

David Thompson is a professor of Spanish and teaches courses in Spanish language and Hispanic cultures. One of the best parts of his job is leading J-term study abroad courses to Spain and Latin America, where students immerse themselves in the local culture and build their language proficiency and intercultural skills. He has published articles on contemporary Spanish poetry by women writers and on metacognition in foreign language courses -- how students become aware of and monitor their own learning. Currently he is developing a series of problem-based learning units for advanced students of Spanish.

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