Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cross-Cultural Rhetoric: Diversity on a Global Scale

Introductory Bio

Dr. Alyssa J. O'Brien is a Lecturer at Stanford University, where she directs the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric program and publishes scholarship and textbooks on visual rhetoric, writing pedagogy, and intercultural competencies.

Since arriving at Stanford in 2001, Alyssa has co-authored nine textbooks and instructor manuals as well as many articles and conference papers. These include three editions of Instructor's Notes with Professor Andrea Lunsford (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005, 2007, 2009), and three books concerning visual rhetoric with her colleague and friend, Christine Alfano: Envision: Persuasive Writing in a Visual World; Envision: Researching and Writing Arguments; Envision In-Depth: a Reader (Pearson/Longman, 2006-2009), along with three instructor’s manuals for those books.

Alyssa has been an invited speaker in Asia and Europe on subjects such as global learning, communication for leadership, visual rhetoric, and “mapping a change in writing.” Over the past three years, she’s directed the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric project (or CCR), a research and teaching endeavor originally funded by the Wallenberg Global Learning Network. CCR now connects students across five continents and involves universities from ten countries through video-conference technology and blogs. Since Alyssa began as the Project Director for the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric project during its first pilot in the fall of 2005, she has turned her research focus to intercultural communication theory, diversity on a global scale, and technology-enhanced learning. She has developed courses in Cross-Cultural Rhetoric, Globalization, and Intercultural Communication for Leadership. In addition to teaching these courses through collaborative connections with faculty colleagues at the University of Örebro, the University of Uppsala, National University of Singapore, the American University of Cairo, the University of Sydney, and Khabarovsk State Academy in Russia, Alyssa's responsibilities include serving as the Project Director, the Grant and Proposal Writer, the Report Writer, and the Data Analysis and Project Evaluation Coordinator for this important work.

Alyssa won the Phi Beta Kappa Outstanding Teaching Award in 2006, and what she enjoys most is helping people discover their voices in writing of all kinds. She is honored to be invited to contribute to the CCCC blog. Contact Alyssa at

Blog Entry

Stanford University is an incredibly diverse campus. I feel privileged to teach there as part of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Stanford even has a web portal devoted to diversity, where you can explore student groups and research initiatives or read Jane Stanford’s founding commitment: to “resist the tendency of stratification of society [by] keeping open an avenue whereby the deserving and the exceptional may rise through their own efforts.”

But a striking phenomenon I’ve noticed is that soon after arrival, students are quickly inculcated into what we (and they) call the “Stanford Bubble.” Does this happen elsewhere? After one week of dorm bonding activities, school chant practices, scavenger hunts into San Francisco, and the noble address of Convocation, students morph into a new, unified identity: part of the Stanford family, a member of a distinctly Stanford culture, with its obligatory othering process (Beat Cal!). My students even joke about the fact that they all wear Stanford gear to class, as if someone might forget the name of the University.

Now while this academic enculturation process may be funny, necessary, and even helpful (We pride ourselves on not letting any student “slip through the cracks” or get into trouble, as the family cares deeply about each member.), it has its consequences, I think, for diversity.

To meet the challenge of preparing students to interface with, communicate with, and live/work with diverse people outside the Stanford Bubble after graduation, I’ve been fortunate to work with several colleagues on a grant-funded research and teaching initiative called the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Project (CCR). As an emerging field within rhetoric and writing, cross-cultural rhetoric has, as its pedagogical goal, the transformation of students into global citizens, equipped with the communication and collaboration strategies they will need for active, ethical participation in a diverse world community. At its heart, the CCR Project believes that we need to connect students in our classes to real audiences—have them present their research, receive feedback on their writing and speeches, and learn about others through live class-to-class video conferences and dialogic blogging.

Since we started this work in 2006, the Stanford CCR project has connected students and teachers across five continents, and our strongest partnerships are with Sweden, Egypt, Australia, Singapore, and Russia. We are, however, always looking for new partners, especially from institutions in communities with cultures quite distinct from Palo Alto, California.

Perhaps paradoxically, our students love to have a “virtual class” with diverse populations just as much as they love being part of the “Stanford Bubble.”

I would like to thank Joyce Middleton for the opportunity to explain the project here and how it aims to support the mission of diversity at Stanford as well as in the academy at large.

CCR began as a research project in 2006. It was a collaboration between colleagues at Stanford–notably Andrea Lunsford, Christine Alfano, Marvin Diogenes, and myself–and colleagues in the Rhetoric Program at the University of Örebro, Sweden. Supported by a grant from the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, we developed a teaching methodology, global learning curriculum, set of pedagogical best practices, guidelines for dedicated-learning spaces, and technical parameters for digital learning in small globally-distributed teams. We connected our classes to other classes around the globe and found out the best ways that students could learn about the diverse views of those outside their own rhetorical situations.

An international version of Mary Louise Pratt’s theoretical conception of the Contact Zone, the intercultural encounter at the center of CCR, can be understood as a third space of learning. Elsewhere, I have theorized this as a space of negotiation—a new site of collaboration made possible by cross-cultural connections facilitated through digital pedagogy solutions (O’Brien & Eriksson, 2009). The goal is to produce deep learning about cultures, values, ways of communicating, and ways of perceiving the world.

In this site, global citizenship takes on active roles in constructing new knowledge, analyzing and defamiliarizing culture, and extending global learning beyond the sphere of individual or national boundaries. In this way, CCR helps foster intercultural competencies, what theorists Dixie Goswami and Carl Lovitt (1999) describe as the increasingly important skill of approaching others with consideration for and sensitivity towards diverse cultural contexts.

But isn’t such learning possible at campuses that emphasize diversity? To address this question, we set up a test-control condition to determine if students learned intercultural competencies from working with diverse students within the Stanford community as they did from collaborating with others abroad; our statistical analysis showed the force of academic enculturation and the need to connect students outside the campus in order to learn diverse viewpoints.

Thus, what we have learned in three years of research and teaching in CCR is that students experience a defamiliarization of their own cultures, coming to realize the rhetorical concepts of decorum and doxa. We defamiliarize ourselves from our own culture when we become aware of other people’s doxa, their hidden assumptions and things taken for granted. Theorist R. Brislin (2000) argues that intercultural communication competencies need to be transferrable from culture to culture. The benefit of a video-conference and collaborative-blog based methodology within a curriculum dedicated to global learning is that participants learn concrete skills and modes of communicating that are, in Brislin’s words, “practical when individuals or group members are about to go to many different countries” (p. 264).

I would add to Brislin’s formulation that intercultural competencies are increasingly necessary when individuals meet in virtual spaces of negotiation (video-conference or blogging), and these sites are more common modes of contact today with the economic and environmental challenges to actual travel.

Moreover, since rhetoric by its very disciplinary definition focuses on the art of discerning the best means of communicating in any situation, by applying a rhetorical approach to fostering intercultural competencies, the intercultural encounter made possible through video-conference teaching can avoid the dangers of immersion-based learning, namely, the pitfalls of selectivity and stereotype-reinscription noted by researchers Ronald and Suzanne Scollon (1995). By contrast, rhetoric enables what theorists Chen and Starosta (2000) call “an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences in order to promote appropriate and effective behavior in intercultural communication” (p. 408).

As one student wrote on an exit survey after a three-way connection between Stanford-Sweden-Egypt:

Overall, I thought it was great to have students from three different schools (and therefore three different countries). More schools/students meant more perspectives, and this enriched our discussion and overall experience tremendously. My group analyzed Nelson Mandela's speech, and it was amazing to see how the students in Sweden versus in Egypt versus in the US responded to the question "Would this speech work in other countries? Would it need to be changed?" Students from every country responded that the speech would have needed to be modified in their country of origin, but each country/school had different reasons. This experience broadened my understanding of how students from different countries look at the world, analyze rhetoric, and view their own culture in a larger globalized context.

While we’ve been thrilled and grateful to work on this project as an initiative dedicated to diversity on a global scale, we realize that for researchers and teachers working in this area—new challenges arise.

1. How might we foster intercultural competencies among students collaborating on writing projects in English only?
2. What is the role of translation at the site of intercultural exchange?
3. How can we avoid the limitations of contrastive rhetorics in which, as researchers Bennett and Salonen (2007) claim, “cultural knowledge does not equal intercultural competence”?

To address these concerns, my own teaching and research has recently been dedicated to developing a rhetorically-based writing pedagogy that allows for a diversity of languages and learning styles. My contention is that collaborative multimedia production as a rhetorical act enables deep learning of writing practices and cultures; a global learning curriculum therefore needs to include negotiated multimedia texts as alternative forms of academic writing. Perhaps in this way, the intercultural encounter can make possible what theorists Chen and Starosta (2000) call “an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences in order to promote appropriate and effective behavior in intercultural communication.”

If our own teaching and research practices help us break out of the “Bubble” we’ve been enculturated into, then we can better serve our students and our communities. I think we’ve only just begun this important work, and I welcome your comments, perspectives, and future collaboration in this effort.

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CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA