About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Digital Writing: Do you have to have visuals?

In response to in Yin Wah Krehar's post on making digital writing accessible, I realized that this is how I tend to write.  Living in area with limited internet access for many years, I'm always aware of the features of my writing.

So I'm going to flip the challenge Yin Wah Krehar gave the #digiwrimo community and ask instead, when is it appropriate to use visuals?

4 Questions to ask yourself before using a visual

1. Why do I want to use the Visual? Many times it is simply something that will catch the eye of the reader.  Or perhaps you've been told that blog posts or digital writing SHOULD have visuals. Perhaps it is personal preference.  However, if you really don't have a good reason (it will help you get your message across, it will reinforce an emotion you want to evoke, it will help the reader understand), then why use it?

2. Is the Visual you have chosen really relevant to what you are writing? Now, I have to be honest, I love that picture of the jelly fish at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium.  I might even be able to justify it by saying it's like writing in that a writer has all these ideas floating around and writing is a way to put them altogether in a uniform product. But really, it doesn't really do anything for my post except to illustrate that the visual should be relevant.

3. Is the visual easy to understand? For one of my assignments, I made my students create a visual on pinterest. Can you figure out what they were supposed to create? To be honest, I knew it would be difficult for them to achieve the kind of visual we discussed in class using pinterest.  While pinterest includes visuals, it doesn't allow for the type of task I assigned them (which was part of goal).  I was very impressed with the graphic they ended up with. However, for anyone who did not know the task, it would be difficult to understand the graphic.

4. Is it engaging? 

Would you be engaged in watching this video? The fact is that my students weren't and I think you'll understand why as you watch it.  I made this video so my students who were having trouble finding electronic materials from our library would have a visual aid.  It was not really made for engagement purposes but rather as a reference.  However, I do think I could have made it a bit more engaging by considering who my audience was and what questions they may ask.

So before putting that visual into your blog post, facebook post, or attaching it to a tweet, ask yourself if it is really necessary.

Our Activity for #Digiwri

I teach computer mediated communication at the University of Albany.  I am always looking for activities that will connect my students to the real work so that 1) they can get feedback from someone other than just myself and their classmates, who they will end up getting to know very well in class, and 2) so they can see how what we learn in class can be used in the real world.

This is the reason I decided to use #digiwrimo to work on online writing.  Surprisingly, this is a topic rarely covered in CMC classes.  I will be focusing on audience, format, message, and medium.  We will begin with a twitterchat from 3:00-3:30 PM Eastern Standard Time.

Then we will discuss the different forms of digital writing I have examples of for this class. These examples include writing for academic audiences, writing instructions, writing for a professional audience, writing for mobile technology, writing for social media, and writing for video clips.  Part of the writing process will be getting feedback on their writing and measuring its impact.

Finally, students will be asked to choose 3 mediums and produce writing for each.  In preparing for their writing, they will need to include who the audience is, their message, special features/considerations for digital platform they've chosen, and how they will measure impact (this worksheet will be available on Googledocs).

They will then share their digital writing via twitter, linkedin, and facebook.

Cross cultural dialog: Teaching our next generation to engage with others different than them

In my last post I wrote about the course I taught last semester and some of the activities I was using. Today, on the eve of Independence Day, it is even more important that our society restart the intercultural dialogues that have stopped and started, molded our society, led to civil wars and protests, and ultimately created our current society.

Intercultural dialog and conversations

As I began my course in January, there were many discussions of race and religion on campus. I teach at a very diverse university that draws from urban, suburban, and rural communities; diverse cultures including international students from most continents, along with indigenous (Mohawk and Iroquois mostly) students; differing sexual orientations; a wide variety of religions; and diverse socio economic backgrounds. Most of my class had very different living and family situations: you name it, there was probably someone who fit that live style.

My first month of class I used to get to know my students, their values, cultures they associated themselves with, how they identified themselves socially, biases (prejudices), and communication style. I used a categorization exercise to assess their starting point in understanding both other cultures and cross-cultural communication skills. I also used three other projects to assess their intercultural communication skills as we progressed through the semester: Intercultural/Diversity Interview, assimilation project and log, and a group intercultural training project. (These projects are all described in the previous blog post).

The intercultural/diversity interview allowed me to assess the preconceptions my students had coming into an intercultural/cross cultural dialog. For the most part, my students went into these interviews with an open mind. Some did not and it showed in their analysis as they did not try to understand the answers the person they interviewed had given them. They assumed they already knew the answer and there was very little discussion after the initial questions. However, many of my students were surprised by the answers they received, especially if they were interviewing close friends. The majority began to see their own values and biases that they used to lead discussions. I noticed in-class discussions had much more interaction and asking for explanations rather than giving just their view point. There also was much more intellectual conflict, with a deeper level of listening as students not only listened to others, but tried to understand what they were saying. There was also more identification of potential biases, but still not a recognition of others values and understanding. It was during this time that I introduced socio-linguistics and conversation "enders."

Conversation enders are things people say which will make others in the dialog stop listening or trying to make themselves understood. I was shocked at some of the things my students said they had heard or been called which shut them down from further dialog (either wanting to understand the others viewpoints or wanting to connect with another group). Every student in the class was able to identify at least one thing that they felt would stop the conversation.

The next project I had my students work on was a group project in which students collected first and secondary research on intercultural communication within a certain context (e.g. education, politics, healthcare, environmental conservation, customer service, law enforcement) and to choose 3 cultures for the analysis. Group members needed to find information on how each of those cultures discussed and communicated within each of those contexts. For my students, this was very difficult because they had never had to look at content and data from multiple perspectives. They began to understand the more subtle assumptions they made based on their own experiences. Perhaps the hardest part of this exercise was to identify and define the cultures they would be using. The labels they would put on groups often was very wide and identified their own biases. In some cases, a more complex group was identified based on shared beliefs rather than physical characteristics (e.g. people who have been incarcerated, law enforcers, those who have not had any experience with law enforcement).

Finally, my students were asked to participate in 3 events of a club or group whose culture was different than their own. Initially this was difficult as students were wary of immersing themselves into another group's culture. However, with the help of their classmates, all of the students participated in this activity. They had to keep a journal of their expectations, observations about the group, and strategies they used both before and after the event. They then handed these logs in along with an analysis of intercultural communication. These logs gave me insight into how they actually grew and engaged (or were not able to) in intercultural dialog. Their analyses revealed the pre-existing biases that interfered with intercultural conversations, the fear of insulting those of other beliefs, and the fear of being judged based on others pre-existing biases. However, it was this assignment more than any of the others that got them interacting with other groups and truly engaging with others in a meaningful way.

I assessed their final level of intercultural communication skills by giving them the same categorization activity I had given them the first class. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, many students were used to diversity. Their ability to recognize that others had different ways of communicate and behave was very advanced. However, they learned to cross a communication barrier to interact and actually engage in dialog with those outside of their own groups. The majority of the groups had much more difficulty creating categories as they could see numerous levels of culture and communication. In the end, many based their categories based on communication preferences (non-verbal/verbal preferences; direct/group/circular reasoning; social, group, individual). Even then, they had much more conversation and discussion that resulted in questions that could not be answered with out having the individual to speak to.

Lessons learned

It has been a while since I have taught this class.  One area that I noticed a difference was in the basic awareness of differences.  One reason could be that my university is diverse in many ways with a growing international student population; many first generation university students (who are many times also children of immigrants); rural, suburban, small town, and urban populations; a wide range of ethnic groups (including native Americans); and diverse age, lifestyle, ableness, gender/gender identity, and religious backgrounds.  However, despite this diversity, there seemed to be little dialogue outside of their social groups.  As a result, there seemed to be preconceived understanding or those outside of their own social groups.

I used by understanding of social groups as a starting point for my students which allowed them to go beyond cultural stereotypes and begin to understand others from of a view of outsiders/insiders.  Using this as a starting point helped to create opportunities for dialogue.

Another barrier I found to starting intercultural dialogue was the previous learning students had had in K-12 in which they were taught to treat each person as the "same."  While I understand this approach (find what you have in common and use as a starting point), this was often used instead as a way to shut down identifying differences.  As a result, students were afraid to speak about the elephant in the room-differences.  They were never given the tools to create these dialogues to use as a way of understanding other perspectives, creating communicative connections, and developing a relationship with those outside of their own social groups.  This needs to be discussed at the beginning of the course and included in my learning objectives.

I was a bit wary at first in pushing students out of their comfort level to interact with those of other cultures.  I still struggle with the fear of adverse reactions should they feel attacked, judged, or disapproval from their own social group.  I feel by letting them choose the "culture" that they wanted to interact with, they could decide the comfort level.  By allowing them to journal about this experience and then use that as a basis for analysis, they were able to understand their own transformation, level of understanding, and boundaries if they decide to immerse themselves in another culture.   It is important to give students choice (with teacher approval) while at the same time push them out of their comfort zone.  Much of the feedback I received from their analysis was positive.

Finally, I feel it is important that we begin to create diversity/cross-/intercultural training programs that focus on dialogue.  Many of the diversity programs I have seen were heavy on content and processes and light on actually engaging in intercultural dialogues that addressed problems and worked on finding solutions.   Diversity training programs that focus on intercultural dialogue training with a focus on problem solving take more commitment (resources, training, preparation, and time) so are rarely implemented.  I feel more research needs to be done on this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The need for intercultural dialogue: One approach to start the conversation

This semester I will finally get the opportunity to teach intercultural communication again. It has been many years and I feel it is long overdue. However, many things have changed over the last 20 years, one of which is how communication, dialog, and culture is taught in our schools. More than ever I see students come into my classroom with fossilized concepts, having been educated in a system in which knowledge is content and facts. As a result, I spend much of my classes trying to teach students how to think and communicate critically.

I foresee a course like critical communication creating very uncomfortable conversations. However, I want my students to engage in these conversations, yet at the same time feel safe to extend their knowledge boundaries. This is not always easy to achieve. So I decided to begin the class with an exercise that will hopefully allow them to access their emotions, perceptions, and beliefs in a safe space.


I will be using a card sorting activity adapted from a workshop given by Kimberly Tanner from SEPAL at San Francisco State University.

Step 1: Personal Reflection

First I will ask students to think about how they would react to the following people if they were working alone late at a convenience store in their neighborhood. Students will not be asked to share their answers (or write them down), rather they will be asked to react and note their reactions mentally. My goal here is to begin the dialog about stereotyping and profiling in a non-judgmental way. As humans, we tend to categorize people by attributes, language, "otherness", and "likeness". Often these categories are based on values, perceptions, experience, and beliefs developed through personal experiences, our families, and our communities. These then create the patterns of perception, attitudes, and beliefs that are the basis of culture.

  • A white professional middle aged woman with a dark complexioned young child
  • A group of teenage boys of mixed race dressed in sports uniforms
  • A group of black teenage girls dressed in hoodies
  • A white middle aged policeman
  • A dark complexioned man accompanied by a dark complexioned woman with a scarf
  • A homeless man in his 40's 
  • A homeless woman with an accent in her 70's
  • A man with dreadlocks (complexion non-descript) dressed in casual clothes
  • A group of East Asian men with no English dressed in business suits
  • Two latina women, in 20's and 40's. The younger speaks English, the elder does not.
  • An ungroomed older man (60's) in a wheelchair with a younger care giver bi-racial man with dreadlocks.
  • A group of teenage boys with tattoos and body piercings.
  • A bald white middle aged man dressed in camouflage with a Ron Paul button.
  • A middle aged woman wearing a sari with a cough.
  • A group of teenage boys with body piercings and British accents.

Step 2

Now I will break students up into groups. Some groups will be random, some will have commonalities (i.e. downstaters, foreign students, gender, major, language groups). I will then will give students cards with each of the groups listed above, one per card and ask them to sort the cards. The only directions will be there has to be at least 2 cards in each category and there has to be at least 2 categories. Students will be responsible for naming the categories into which they have sorted the cards. According to Dr. Tanner, categories tend to be superficial or based on simplistic visual cues for students that do not have a deep understanding of a topic. I expect that my students will sort according to physical attributes (age, race, fashion) or other easily recognizable attributes such as ability or accent. A more advanced student of intercultural communication might use other attributes (e.g. matriarchal, patriarchal, level of menace, distance from personal culture, approach in communication).


I was pleasantly surprised at the sophistication of categories my students created. One possibility could be the fact that my class is very diverse so when they were put randomly into groups (by counting off in class), there were different levels of expertise within the discussions. As a result, the discussion became more complex. Some of the categories included: in-group, outgroup, strangers (communication rings) and lifestyles (i.e. caregivers, no social ties, members of groups). The word "stereotypes" and "profiling" did come up in class and we agreed to put it aside to later class (I plan on using it in the socio-linguistics class planned in a couple of weeks as the term has become packed with social meaning due to its use in the media).

I look forward to some great discussions in my class although I am still a bit nervous about opening up what might be difficult conversations in the class. I will update this post with changes to the process based on the results from my class. I will also be replicating this activity the last class to see if student understanding changes over the course of the semester.