Engaging the Global: Some Teaching Strategies for the Writing Classroom

Written by Shyam Sharma, Rita Nezami, Cynthia Davidson, Soni Adhikari, Kevin Clouther

Introduction

     An increasing number of instructors in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric use global and transnational/cross-cultural issues and perspectives as curricular/pedagogical strategies to educate students as global citizens. As a recent group discussion and brown bag session indicated, we seem to “engage the global” in one way or another: by using literature from different cultures/countries and contexts/times, personal narratives and i-search process, news items and scholarly articles, translingual and transnational communication activities, cross-cultural research and experiential learning activities. In this essay, we summarize some of the teaching strategies and experiences that we shared among the group. We invite other colleagues to join the conversation and share their teaching ideas and strategies through the comments section below.

An "Artist's" rendition of The Globe of Perspectives, mostly to scale.

An “Artist’s” rendering of The Globe of Perspectives, mostly to scale.

Educating Global Citizens  – Rita Nezami

     Global literacy is an understanding of how the world is organized and interconnected. We live in a globalized world with which our students need to remain connected. Globally literate students analyze and think critically about the world and their roles in it. They understand and appreciate various global issues, systems, and relationships that influence people’s lives worldwide. Global knowledge can empower students to effect positive changes in an increasingly interconnected world. They are empowered by knowledge about terrorism, humanitarian crises, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and more. As a result, students may begin to see themselves as global citizens.

     Encouraged by PWR instructors, many of our students consider global events and news as subjects for argumentative research papers. Yet, some students continue to be satisfied with a horizon that they define by the limited content that they choose and filter via their mobile devices and social-media accounts. Even though we live in a world where global news is available 24/7 through a panoply of venues, some students remain uninformed about the planet beyond their immediate experience.

     As teachers, it is our task to convey the importance of open-mindedness and curiosity about the rest of the world. Part of the ethical aspect of our work is to give students a reason to pause and ask whether some global issues are especially urgent and warrant their attention. Exposure to a global perspective implicitly invites students to consider what moral obligations they may have to know what millions of people are experiencing.

     Global literature provides a powerful entrance to this larger sphere of human experience. Through it, students can directly engage with some of the most morally significant matters of our time: the anxieties of statelessness, the uncertainties of climate change, the fears of terrorism and racism, and the inevitable prospective conflicts over resource shortages. Writers whose aesthetic visions deal with these and other urgencies appeal to students’ emotions, intellects, and aesthetic sensibilities because their own lives’ futures and prospects are directly implicated. In these works, students enter into both immediately intriguing issues and the forces that will shape their own lives.

Memes as Global Communication – Cynthia Davidson

     We live in interesting times. While many of our students and faculty are well-traveled to the point of being cosmopolitan, prodigies of negotiating cultures physically, intellectually, and emotionally, traveling physically is not a condition of being a global communicator in the digital age. Global communication is coded into the multimodal system of signs that pervades the internet and traverses barriers of language, national, region, and culture. An example of a genre of global text is the much maligned, much loved, and lowly internet meme. When spread virally, memes revise to address the local conditions of their authors while opening themselves to readings flung far from those conditions.

     Designing assignments that ask students to treat the memes that wash across their screens as serious multimodal texts with global impact is a way to facilitate this. For example, when teaching textual analysis, instructors can ask students to:

  • analyze memes as multimodal texts, using the New London Group’s (1996) model for linguistic, visual, spatial, gestural, and aural (in the case of videos or songs/jingles) modalities (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, genre of a memetic text in the context in which they find it (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine design elements (emphasis, contrast, alignment, proximity, and organization) (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • research the history or lore of the meme, being aware it may have multiple “origins”
  • check the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, and genre of any texts that were poached or remixed in the making of a memetic text as a part of the process of determining how it was meant to be taken/read
  • examine adjacent content and design to determine context of the meme’s delivery
  • discover implicit arguments through the analysis of the modalities and design elements used in constructing the meme
  • examine how context can provide ways to uncover racist, sexist, or xenophobic meanings coded into the construction of memes or their responses
  • research the cultural meanings of memes depending on the context in which it is found, and infer how readings might change as memes traverse social, political, and cultural boundaries
  • research and analyze reactions to memes on social media sites and others delivery contexts

     After analysis, or as a part of process of analysis itself, a student could create their own meme as a response to the argument discovered through analysis using remix and write a reflection on their own choices as they relate to rhetorical features such as rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, genre, design elements, and argument. This is a fun and creative yet intellectually rigorous assignment that engages students on many levels.

Cross-cultural meme

Cross-Cultural Perspectives as Teaching/Learning Tools – Soni Adhikari

     Using global or cross-cultural texts and research can help us educate students about the larger world and foster respect and empathy toward people in other places. But as a teacher, I find this approach useful for improving student writing about local issues as well.

     Recently, a student started his research assignment by arguing that media censorship severs a critical bond between the government and people, creating distrust and dissatisfaction in any democracy. While this was a good thesis, I also found it utterly obvious, requiring no “persuasion” as a result. When talking to him, I realized that the student had assumed the American context and discourse to be universally relevant. So, I gave him the example of how Internet news sites and social media caused panic and chaos in Nepal during a major earthquake recently. This encouraged him to research what countries already have regulations for situations like that and learned about different political ideologies and cultural values regarding “freedom of speech” and also about weaknesses in prevailing assumptions in the United States.

     The revised introduction of the student’s paper read something like this: Our media has become increasingly partisan, driven by profit motive, irresponsible about informing/educating people. … As such, in extreme situations, reasonable regulations could prevent potential crises and alleviate social harm. …. a reliable government agency could be useful in holding any corrupt and irresponsible media accountable when they spread blatantly false or harmful “news” and opinion. It could help the society to prevent panic and fear, harm to children or vulnerable groups, and disruption of general social harmony.

     While the student continued to focus on the US context, he greatly improved his argument by questioning (rather than embracing) mainstream assumption and problematizing it to take a unique position of his own, giving evidence from other contexts and discourses. He also found it easier to write the paper, which was more interesting and persuasive to read.

Literature Across Time and Space – Kevin Clouther

     Very little literary fiction and poetry in the United States is published in translation, perhaps less than one percent. As such, it is not uncommon to encounter undergraduates who have read little that was not originally published in their native language. As I teach a fairly traditional syllabus with most of my texts consisting of written works, I deliberately select literature from different languages and periods, so as to expose students to writing from across the world over the last three centuries. Invariably, students discover that while the experiences–loss, longing, love, etc.–are familiar, the circumstances are different. Magicians like Chekhov who are able to inhabit different ages, genders, and classes are particularly effective teachers.

     I find that the translator one selects is enormously important, so I make an effort to sample different translators for the same author and read interviews with translators, wherein they discuss their process. One exercise I enjoy is having each student write a sentence in a language other than English and then walk the class through the translation with careful attention to each decision. The following is a sampling of authors and translators I have had success teaching in the PWR. I would be happy to discuss any of these authors and translators with anyone who is interested. I would also be happy to hear what other authors and translators, like our own Rita Nezami, our instructors teach.

Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver (Italian)

Anton Chekhov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian)

Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis (French)

Franz Kafka, trans. Susan Bernofsky (German)

Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson (Portuguese)

Alexander Pushkin, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian)

Ivan Turgenev, trans. Constance Garnett (Russian)

Alejandro Zambra, trans. Megan McDowell (Spanish)

Activities and Assignments – Shyam Sharma

     Transnational and global issues have become extremely popular in Writing Studies, but the field is yet to develop a good repertoire of pedagogical strategies and practices. Here are assignments, activities, and resources that I use in my class (some are recycled from a two-part essay I wrote for Transnational Writing, a special interest group at CCCC).

Image-Searching “Universal” Ideas— Students google words like “beauty” and toggle to “image,” then discuss issues like internet’s representation of ideas, how context and ideology shape meaning, values/problems of semantic algorithm, etc. In one course, students follow up with short essays.

Words, Idioms, world Englishes— To foster critical language awareness, I use untranslatable words, hilarious failures of machine translation, and communicative misfires in movies to help students discuss usage, appropriateness, political correctness, etc, in different cultures and contexts.

Assignment: Academic Transition Narratives— International and domestic students write about transitioning US and to college respectively, then share the stories to discuss issues about and approaches to education.

Research Paper on Global Issues— For the research argument essay in WRT102, I require students to research/write about global issues (on topics like these) or use transnational/cultural perspectives. I’ve written more about the issue here.

Multimodal Group Assignment— Students interested in related issues form groups to research, write, and present their findings using collaboratively created multimodal material.

Discussion Essay— Students write about contested issues “without” taking a position but instead using different national, cultural, contextual perspectives. This is based on the ancient South Asian rhetorical tradition of Nyaya Sutra (rhetoric of justice).

Peer Feedback— I ask students to focus on translingual, transcultural, and transnational issues and perspectives—and NOT on lower-order concerns—when reading each other’s work. I provide rubric to foreground cultural perspectives, complexity, nuance.

Conclusion

     The field of writing studies is probably a little behind in responding to the globalization of the classroom and the need to update the mission of traditional liberal arts to the demands of our time. But the last few years have shown rapid response in our national conferences, research and scholarship, and local/departmental conversations. Coming together to share our experiences and ideas, we have realized that PWR has started to very productively respond to diversification of the student body, increase of international students, exposure of all students to other cultures and global issues due to emerging media, increasing number of issues that demand global response, and the response of higher education in the United States to changing geopolitical dynamics.

     As the teaching strategies and experiences we’ve shared above indicate, there are many benefits of helping students go beyond local contexts, issues, and perspectives. Some of those benefits include (1) educational in that students learn about ongoing issues in the world and learn to care about the world at large, becoming more respectful of others and different value systems, (2) epistemological in that they are able to generate more sophisticated ideas, arguments, and perspectives by not taking the local contexts and values for granted, considering them as universally relevant, (3) political in that they may start taking action, intellectually and physically, toward helping tackle problems that cross political and national borders, (4) sociocultural in that they develop the ability to communicate and work with people of different backgrounds and persuasions, and (5) professional in that they develop practical skills to join an increasingly diversified and globalized workforce, in both physical and virtual modes, and whether they cross national borders or not. In fact, research in multilingualism and cross-cultural communication also shows that people are mentally healthier when they are able to cross linguistic, social, cultural, and political borders.

     Given that engaging the global is necessary and beneficial in education, how can we enhance this component in our curriculum/pedagogy and mission? How can we make our work in this area more visible on campus? What are some of the specific teaching strategies that you use in your classes?

Please share in the comments below. If you want to add teaching materials to this conversation, please email them to us and we can add to the shared Google Folder, whose link we’ve shared on our listserv.

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About josephtlabriola

Joe Labriola is an author, blogger, and lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. He enjoys writing, swimming, and cooking crazy Joe-coctions. His more eccentric hobbies include collecting beach glass, reading great books at bars, and describing himself in the third person when writing "about me" biographies. Please visit some of his very professional social media sites for more info!
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One Response to Engaging the Global: Some Teaching Strategies for the Writing Classroom

  1. Pingback: “Teaching Writing with Global Issues: Why and How (part 1)” by Soni Adhikari | RhetComp @ Stony Brook

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