Using class blogs to explore the daily lives of student peers in other cultural contexts
The ITEL project was conducted as part of my Cultural Psychology course. This course is a survey course of the field. Cultural psychology is a subfield of psychology that focuses on the cultural constitution of psychological phenomena (e.g., emotions, thoughts, behavior, social relationships). In this course, I introduce my students to current theories and research on culture, race, and ethnicity and examine evidence suggesting psychological processes are culture- and context-dependent. Students learn about cultural similarities and differences in the self, agency, motivation, emotion, cognition, and relationships. They also get exposure to empirical methods in cultural psychology, and achieve a better appreciation of diversity within and outside of the United States. This course emphasizes ethical and social responsibilities of global citizenship; the intellectual and personal challenges often implicit in cultural misunderstandings; engagement in debate and disagreement with respect; and building empathy and open-mindedness.
One of the key goals of this course is to help students understand their own values, experiences and actions as contextualized by the cultural meanings and practices in which they engage on a daily basis. Because it is hard to appreciate one’s own cultural context without exposure to other contexts, this goal is best achieved through exposure to other cultural models of being in the world. In order to address this goal, this course includes many class discussions, films, and activities (e.g., ethnographic interview) designed to help students gain first-hand exposure to the idea that cultural worlds are constructed differently in different countries or regions. The ITEL project relied on web-based blogs to expose students to the rich patterning of daily lives of their peers inhabiting other cultural contexts (Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and Hamline University in St. Paul, MN).
Students were asked to document a typical day in their lives with photographs and captions (see attached assignment). They then presented their typical day on a shared class blog. The purpose of this exercise was to encourage students to take a step back and examine to what extent their own cultural context shaped aspects of their daily lives. They did this activity jointly with students taking similar cultural psychology courses at Concordia and Hamline. Students were asked to comment on each other’s posts, identifying similarities and differences in models that govern our daily lives. Following this step, students were asked to write brief reflection papers on the exercise. We then followed this exercise by having several brief in-class discussions of students’ responses to this activity.
I have set up a blog on Livejournal (http://culturalday.livejournal.com/). Students were allowed to set their own level of privacy in deciding whether their posts would be public or visible only to other members of this blog community (i.e., other students and instructors). See this example of a student posting about their day publicly: http://culturalday.livejournal.com/28071.html
In doing this exercise, I intended to provide my students with a sense that the way they are living their lives as college students in a prestigious private university in Washington, DC is not a culturally-neutral way to live. We know from empirical research that this way of life encourages relational mobility (a sense that one has many options for finding new social partners), independence, preference for choice, and heightened positive illusions (sense of control, high self-esteem, optimism). It is easy for me to show my students data illustrating these points. It is harder to get them to truly appreciate what this means in the context of their own lives. Exposure to students their age who live very similar (e.g., going to classes, talking to friends, enjoying music and social media) and yet very different (e.g., more relationally embedded and connected to friends from home and family, living in bicultural and bilingual environment, engaging in less dating and more serious relationships) lives helps to connect abstract concepts to real life. I was hoping that technology would provide my students with a virtual window into other people’s lives. Secondarily, I was hoping that this project would help us ground our theoretical discussions of the impact of culture on daily life and about mutual constitution of culture and psychological processes.
At the end of the semester, my students were asked to respond to the standardized CNDLS survey about the ITEL project. In addition, I have closely examined my students’ responses to the activity. Many of them have noted that this project has helped them better link course material to their lives and recognize that their lives are not culture-free:
“As I was posting my journal entry, the series of activities that went on throughout my day was ordinary, almost boring. Not that my days are boring, but on paper they seem very mundane. But on a closer look, I see how it shows how culture contributes to my day.”
“Upon first receiving this assignment, I was worried that over the course of a normal day I did not do enough interesting activities to create a blog that would be meaningful or culturally saturated. However once I began taking pictures, putting the blog together, and reviewing the blogs of others, I realized that often times our culture is so influential in every aspect of our lives that we become blind to its impact.”
“Looking back on it now and thinking back on a conversation we had in class about choices I see that in one day we make countless choices, whether they be big or small our days are steered by the choices we make and these choices are greatly influenced by our cultures.”
Students have also identified many cultural similarities in their daily experiences:
“This assignment showed me how wrong I would have been to assume that we don’t all have the most rudimentary yet the most essential aspects of our lives in common.”
"I was moved by how despite each student’s uniqueness (both inter-culturally and across-culturally), there were many shared aspects of our day.”
In our class discussion, students zeroed in on two aspects of this activity. First, it allowed them to examine cultural impact of their religious backgrounds and GU’s Jesuit heritage on their lives. In particular, students focused on their use of religion to guide their emotion regulation in the face of stress. Second, students focused on the impact of moving versus not moving away from home for college on social relationships. They were fascinated by the fact that most Canadian students were still living in the same city with their old friends and family. My students have talked about the ways in which these differences impact their lives. For example, we have talked about the impact of being forced to rebuilt one’s social network on trust and emotional support. This discussion linked well to the course content, particularly to our prior discussion of social networks and relational mobility, as well as cultural similarities and differences in emotion regulation. From my perspective, this activity was successful in meeting my pedagogical goals.
My partners at Concordia and Hamline have observed similar patterns with their students. For example, the instructor at Concordia has written:
“I think the students found it a valuable activity and reading through their reflection I have the impression that they realized/learned a lot about how culture shapes their lives.”
This project inspires me to share this exercise with the larger community of my colleagues who teach similar classes. I have described it to a number of my colleagues teaching cultural psychology at other institutions, and there seem to be a lot of interest in adoption of this activity. In particular, Steven Heine, the author of the most popular cultural psychology textbook has offered to add this activity to the website that houses teaching resources for instructors who use his book.
In the future, I would like to expand this activity to include students in other countries that are less similar to the United States than Canada (e.g., Russia, Japan). In doing so, I think it would be useful to provide students with more examples of doing this activity in such a way as to facilitate linking of this activity to class. I would encourage students to provide more details and engage in more reflection in their posts.
As far as challenges, we experienced some technological challenges (slow service, problems with posting). We were ultimately able to resolve them without requesting additional support, but it took a lot of my teaching time during the week leading up to the assignment’s due date. It may be helpful to use a more user-friendly interface that would be accessible to all of the students. We decided against using the CNDLS-sponsored blog engine because of the hurdles of registering all of the off-site users. Also, in the past, my students have found it cumbersome to post a lot of photographs to the blog, forcing them to spend time editing their photographs to smaller sizes to make them easier to upload.
Additionally, another challenge we experienced was with timing. Because we wanted students to post at the same time across sites, we chose a common due date that did not come during the spring break for any of the three campuses. In our case, it meant that GU students had to post their assignment right after coming back from the spring break. Despite several reminders, many of the students seemed to forget about the assignment until the last minute. In the future, I may create 1-2 pre-assignment posts to make students familiarize themselves with the blog engine and plan their post prior to the main assignment’s due date.
Finally, one of my students complained that engagement in this and other similar activities have made it harder for her to get good grades on the exams. She has written: “I often felt (and wish I could've expressed in the survey, which would not submit through the server despite my many attempts through SurveyMonkey) that class time was not well planned and that we spent too much time on activities we were never tested on. It is unfair to students to spend time on class activities, then rush through lecture material in the last fifteen minutes of class.” In my response to the student, I have highlighted the fact that students receive course credit for all of their work, including their work on discussions and activities. I have also shown her that most of our time in class was spent on lecture. Yet, I also take this complaint seriously. As we engage in projects that focus on linking course material to students’ lives, we need to be mindful that we are attempting this in a context where students may place more importance on more traditional elements of teaching and assessment. In the future, I may want to do more to contextualize my emphasis on experiential activities.