Teaching in Another Culture—All Assumptions Up for Grabs

My recent silence on this page has been due in large part to my travels and teaching in India during the month of July, and the attendant follow-up.  As with my past visits in 2009 and 2011, the experience was exhilarating, and as much a time for learning as for teaching.   A short video  gives the flavor of some of  the work my colleague Karen Lee and I did in Kolkata, where we taught as part ofhe MS in Science Communication program sponsored by the National Council of Science Museums.

But I want to talk a bit about the learning aspect of teaching in India, where my unconscious world view is constantly made articulate and reflected back to me in ways I don’t expect.  Three examples:

Is Learning tangible or intangible?

This question came from a student a couple of years ago as we were talking about various theories of how people learn.  I thought it was a wonderful question, and it generated discussion not only in that class but in the next two sessions taught in Kolkata.  I could be wrong, but I’m not sure this query would have come from an American student unless he or she were a philosophy major. It’s not something that I had considered before.  But in a culture where the spiritual and the material are daily co-existing realities, no one questioned the validity of the question.

Spiritual and material side by side: the wall of one of four exquisite Jain temples
 surrounded by apartments and shops in a Kolkata neighborhood.
What we came up with in class was this:  The concept of learning could be considered to be intangible, i.e. not really perceivable by the senses; it is an abstract thought, an idea.  But the process of learning is being revealed more and more by current research to be tangible in the sense that it is measurable and quantifiable.  We can’t necessarily see a person learning with our naked eye, but under brain imaging we can increasingly watch neurons firing, various parts of the brain lighting up, and connections  apparently being made between what we knew before and new information.   And of course there are all kinds of real-world ways of measuring how and what people (even infants who can’t talk) are learning.  I think it was in the context of looking at some of Piaget’s experiments with children who could or could not conserve matter that this question arose.

Many readers’ eyes may already be glazing over with this discussion, but believe me any time I want to start a lively debate with a group of Indian colleagues all I need to do is ask the tangible/intangible question.

If life is a cycle of rebirth, why do infants have to learn everything anew?

Illustration from an article raising the question “What Are Babies Born Knowing?”
Again, as we were discussing current research on infant learning and watching videos that illustrate that infants have powerful abilities to take in new knowledge and relate it to prior learning, a student asked about the apparent contradiction between belief in reincarnation and these studies.   Why, he asked, if one assumes that reincarnation is a true belief, do babies need to learn at all? Wouldn’t they already know everything from a past life?  Though we did not get into students’ personal beliefs just then, the class engaged with it within what I perceived as their common belief system based on Hinduism: the question itself was not questioned. We ended up with a consensus that belief in reincarnation and current research in child development did not need to be in opposition.  In the first place the physical condition of infants as they come into the world and as ordained by Nature requires that they develop slowly: the brain, sense organs, muscles, skeleton and so forth of a healthy child are all engaging with the world to their absolute capacity from birth (or before) but all of these need to grow and develop before human beings can walk, talk, or live on their own.  Infants and children are indeed powerful learners, but in a developmental context.  As well, it seems that if you’re going to progress to your next life, you need to live the life you’ve been given, and not depend on what you knew in a previous life.  I’m not sure what a Hindu theologian would say to all this, but it seemed to make sense to the class.

What is an “information interview”?

Moving from the sublime to the more practical, I discovered in talking with students who were job hunting, that the phrase “information interview,” is not a familiar one.  It is used so prevalently in the US that I assumed (when will I learn?) that it is a universal concept. Now that I know better, I’ll explain for readers who may not know the term. 

An information interview is a meeting with a person who is experienced and expert in a discipline or profession in which you are interested, and you make an appointment with that person to learn, to gain information.  Perhaps this information will help you in a job search, or will simply to help you do your current work better.  You don’t set up an information interview for direct employment, but in order to seek advice and assistance.  The best way to gain a meeting with someone who is a leader or high achiever in a field is to be recommended by someone who knows both you and the expert.  That person calls or emails the expert to say that you may be calling, or tells you that you may use their name when contacting the expert.

 I verified the absence of this practice in India with one of our fellow teachers in the program–an Indian professor of museum administration. When I explained the concept to him, he maintained it wouldn’t work in India anyway, as anyone calling a company for such a meeting would be connected with someone in the marketing department who would agree to an appointment, but would ultimately try to sell the company’s training program to the caller.

Karen and I realized that we needed to explain this idea to our students, and to encourage them to try it, and so we did on our last day of class. We had indeed seen it work in one instance, and it is our belief that it could be useful in a culture where extended family ties are so important.  We emphasized that cold calling an institution is not the way to begin the information interview process.  But asking a relative or family friend to help you to meet a well-connected colleague or key person in a profession seems like something that could be tried more frequently.  Our Indian friend who did get a museum job as a result of this process has promised that he will “pay it forward,” making himself available to newcomers in the future. For anyone initiating this process in a culture or country where it is new, remember to follow all the protocols for a job interview:

        Appreciate and accept the time and opportunity the expert can give you, even if it is brief;

        Send a cv or resume in advance;

        Dress appropriately and be on time;

        Try to learn as much as possible about what the person does, how he or she got into the profession, and unusual trends or developments that you might pursue;

        Be sure to ask for other names to contact; the process builds on itself;

        Always send a thank you email or note. This is not only basic courtesy; it provides the expert with a repeat of your name and contact information to pass on to others.

And, if you are an expert or at the top of your game and are reading this, I hope you’ll consider it a professional duty to give the time and advice that can mean so much to an aspiring colleague.

Many thanks to all my students, colleagues, and friends in India for inspiring insights I could never have gained except by meeting them.

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