Thinking globally by collaborating locally

Reflections about the Faculty Learning Community on Intercultural Competence

By Julia Karolle-Berg

By the numbers, the final tally of the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on Intercultural Competence looked something like this: two years, seven faculty members, two dozen meetings, 25 drafts of a final report about global competence, and one tremendously fruitful professional development experience.

The idea to create an FLC was born in fall 2010 during a conversation with Anne Kugler, Director for the Center for Faculty Development. I expressed interest in working on the idea of intercultural competence, and Anne suggested broadening the idea to embrace a collaborative, interdisciplinary project. When we rolled out the proposal in December 2010, faculty members from four different departments volunteered to participate in the learning community. In the proposal, our goals included learning more about this interdisciplinary field, developing teaching materials and strategies to integrate intercultural competence into our courses, designing relevant and effective assessment tools, and proposing subsequent action based on our findings. For the most part, the faculty learning community achieved these goals – plus a few unanticipated outcomes.

A few moments stand out among our many interactions. In one of our earliest discussions, as we were attempting to frame our understanding of intercultural competence, participants described how their disciplines understood “culture.” For our anthropologist, culture is a nongenetic means by which humans adapt to their environment. For our language teachers, it was the practices, products, and perspectives through which we teach language acquisition. One of our political scientists quipped that “culture” also can serve as the catch-all factor for what cannot be captured quantitatively. During the following months, one of our challenges would be to arrive at a consensus definition of the term. We were off and running.

One of the reasons this endeavor was so rewarding was the consistent relevance of what we were discussing to other facets of our work and lives. Our engagement with intercultural competence came to frame how we interpreted our professions and the scholarship we do in it but also current events, and, I believe, our interactions with each other. A second memorable moment: One afternoon, after having concluded a heated discussion of a reading, I felt despair that our respective interpretations of the text seemed so at odds with each other. Then it occurred to me that academic disciplines could also create cultural difference. I realized I would have to work harder at communicating across cultures, and we would have to add another definition of it to the list.

A watershed came in September 2011, during a Saturday workshop led by a team of educators in intercultural competence from SIT in Brattleboro, VT. According to our original charter, our work in the FLC was supposed to turn to creating individual projects, and our workshop leaders were poised to launch us into this final stage. Instead, group members started considering how to link this work to other initiatives on campus, to think more comprehensively and globally, expanding our scope.

A third memorable moment: I left the workshop moved by the enthusiasm and commitment of my colleagues to continue their work. By December, the learning community, slightly reconfigured, had extended its charter for another year to create an institutional tool for assessing intercultural competence.

The rest of the story amounts to the balance of those 24 meetings and all of the 25 drafts. A final memorable moment: Some point in fall 2012, when the contours of a model took definite form, we had achieved consensus across disciplines. Early in April 2013, the FLC submitted its final report of an institutional model of global competence, the term we ultimately preferred rather than “intercultural competence,” although a concept of culture is still at the heart of the model.

As for the unanticipated outcomes, a recurring theme in the literature about global competence is we can increase our ability to tolerate ambiguity, expand our concept of culture, and potentially even transform our own identities through learning-rich interactions. Obviously, one enters into a learning community with the expectation of learning. But it’s a wondrous thing when these learning-rich interactions also transform.

Members of the Faculty Learning Community on Intercultural Competence (Spring 2011 – Spring 2013) were: Lauren Bowen, Luigi Ferri, Julia Karolle-Berg, Susan Long, Pamela Mason (Spring 2011-Fall 2011), Martha Pereszlenyi-Pinter, Jacqueline Schmidt, and Andreas Sobisch. A link to the Final Report of the Faculty Learning Community on Intercultural Competence can be found at: http://webmedia.jcu.edu/cfd/files/2013/05/Intercultural-Competence-Learning-Goals-2-April-2013.pdf.


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