Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Teaching Cross-Cultural Communication?

Tamsin Haigh, a student on the MA in the Idea of Toleration at York, has an interesting project called 'Teaching Cross-Cultural Communication: How Should Political Theory be taught in the 21st Century?'. She sent me (and I assume plenty of other people!) some questions about it; here they are, with my responses.

I am exploring the above question as part of a project involved in the construction of an alternative to the traditional undergraduate curriculum for political theory. The aim is to restructure the study of political
theory, in line with the current trend of 'internationalisation', in order to retain a place for this sort of exercise in today's academic context. I am writing to you, as a member of the PPR faculty, in the hope that you might be able to spare a few minutes to contribute your perspective on this issue.

- The current restructuring of higher education suggests that, in the future, students will demand more choice regarding the modules they study.

- Higher education is becoming internationalised. A global market has emerged, with an influx of international students and a demand for more internationalised subjects. In response to this, many traditional Politics degrees have moved towards international studies, with IR theory becoming part of the mainstream curriculum.

- There is a worry that the standard text-based approach to political theory, focusing on key thinkers from the Western canon of political thought, no longer addresses the needs of the modern community of political scientists. Like other areas of politics, it needs to broaden its scope.

- By internationalising the current approach, political theory will retain its place in the discipline as a vital mode of advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding.

1) You’re probably right that there will be more pressure from students to choose what modules to study in the future. This change is part of the wider transformation of universities towards a more commercial, ‘customer-focussed’ style. But I’m not sure that it implies demand for a more international political theory: some of the most successful courses I’ve taught – according to student feedback – have been very traditional close reading courses, in small groups, on canonical texts. My attempts to introduce non-canonical texts have been often resisted and resented by my students, many of whom have an instrumental, performative attitude to their studies. They know what to do with Mill’s On Liberty, they have a context and prior acquaintance, they understand (or think they understand) what’s expected of them. They’re quite unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar, because it’s too open-ended and risky.  I therefore think that increasing student power to influence course content is at least as likely to push in the direction of more conventional, canon-based study as it is to take us in the direction you suggest. 

[Later: I should have made two things clearer here: (1) that this is true only of some of my students; many are pleasingly independent; (2) that I don't blame the more instrumentalist students - they've been poorly served by A-levels, and in any case have good reasons for regarding a degree as a necessary passport to the lives they want, not as anything worth doing for its own sake].

2) Again, you’re right that higher education increasingly operates in a global market. But British Universities’ pursuit of international students is at least partly the product of a particular funding regime which incentivised, especially, efforts to recruit non-EU postgraduate students. That funding regime is being dismantled as we speak, and it’s very unclear what the effects of its replacement will be. It might, for example, shift recruitment efforts much more towards the most well-qualified of UK undergraduates (students with AAB or above at A-level), because there will no longer be a cap imposed on how many of them we can take, and each will be worth £9,000/year.

3) I and many other political theorists/philosophers are humanists deeply committed to the value of reading, interpreting, and arguing with great texts. We’ve invested a great deal in learning the skills involved in that kind of work, and in understanding particular texts through it. I teach John Stuart Mill, for example, because I’ve spent some years and effort becoming an expert on him, and I did so because I love both his work and the particular kind of investigation involved in understanding it. So I’m not sure that the changes you look forward to will be made easily, especially in an environment where we’ll be under student/customer pressure to teach more contact hours on more familiar material. When am I going to have the time to become an expert on Lao Tzu, for example? Would anyone take my course on him even if I did?

4) I’m not to be honest sure that political theory’s ‘place in the discipline’ is ‘advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding’. In the first place, which discipline? In the second, the obvious role of political theory – like any other academic discipline – is to expand our understanding of the world. If that fosters good things like cross-cultural communication, great, but it isn’t really my, or political theory’s, job.


  1. Cross cultural awareness training is usually a generic introduction into a culture, country, region or religion. The aim is to equip the trainee with the adequate knowledge to deal comfortably with people from different cultures, avoiding misunderstandings and mistakes.

  2. Hi Deborah - thanks. That makes me more confident that it isn't the job of political theory!