I was asked the question in an ice breaking game in my first semester at uni. ‘Glenffindor?’ I said to the partner I was assigned to. ‘Gryffindor? I love it as well.’ I hoped the tutor would not continue with a ‘why?’, otherwise people would figure out that I have only watched the first movie, at the age of 7, in Chinese. In other words, I completely had no idea of what it was all about. However, when I was asked the same question in another tutorial ice breaking game for the second time, I knew this ‘Harry Potter ice breaking’ was not a coincidence- at least not because tutors are all big fans of Harry Potter.
The problem is not about Harry Potter. The problem is that tutors presumed Harry Potter to be a cultural pre-requisite for everyone in the tutorial room without considering that there are people who are not interested in these series, and people from minority cultural backgrounds and people from overseas who just never watched them, or were not interested in watching it. While USyd promotes itself as a multicultural and global campus, and over one quarter of its students come from overseas, it’s disappointing to know the tutors are not fully culturally aware of the people they teach.
The classroom beyond ‘Harry Potter’
To avoid myself being predominantly occupied by my observer bias, two weeks ago, three other people, including one social science undergraduate, one tutor and one professor, participated ina focus group on International students’ English ability, but soon the discussion became focused on problems of cultural awareness on campus.
The ‘Harry Potter’ ice breaking game is not an isolated case. Ash, a second-year social work student in USyd said she remembers in some tutorials the class discussions would suddenly became a one-on-one chat between the tutor and one active student, with the others left behind, particular people like herself from overseas with English as their second language. Ben*, a tutor and PhD candidate who preferred to be anonymous,also recalled one of his colleagues ‘got into trouble’ for not being well aware of the different needs of students. In a role play game in an introductory international relations class, the tutor (his colleague) deliberately assigned Chinese international students to play the role of China in a model United Nations activity, whereas domestic students were put into the role of the ‘U.S’ and ‘Australia.’ This elicited quite an unfriendly atmosphere of debate amongst students. The role play game, as he described, became a battlefield for nationalism from both sides, exposing rifts in identity and ideology in the class. However, the tension could have been easily solved, with a further possibility of promoting mutual understanding with just small adjustments – in Ben’s class, he tried to make Chinese international students play U.S and Australia, and domestic students as ‘China.’ This helped the class understand why people think the way they do, and how this is shaped by the culture they were raised in. And of course, it was more enjoyable for all groups involved.
The cultural awareness of teaching staff is unquestionably important to promote class discussion and mutual understanding amongst students from different cultural backgrounds. For international students from East Asian cultures, who are often blamed and stigmatised for being silent and not contributing to class, they are willing to be active in class discussion and offer insights from their own cultural backgrounds if they are given an environment where they feel comfortable and supported doing so. An example from Ben is that, noting that East Asian background international students often come for individual consultation after class, with the views they want to contribute in the classroom but are too afraid to vocalise, he made it clear in his tutorials that everyone should respect the ideas of others. As a result, more and more international students contributed at the end of the semester.
Why a cultural awareness program?
This outcome is beneficial for all students, regardless if they are international or domestic. We, or at least a great number of ‘we’, all come to university with an implicit expectation of exchanging perspectives and making friends with people from different cultural backgrounds and communities. However, the truth is, the classroom has lacked voices from culturally diverse people, particularly English as a second language for international students. Despite the number of international students, the campus is becoming more split up.
‘I never saw it at ANU, but here in USyd, white people are with white people, ABCs with ABCs (Australian-born Chinese) and international students have their own bubbles.’ said Ash, who transferred to USyd from ANU 2 years ago, during the focus group.
Outside the classroom, there has been discriminating graffiti on campus, followed by verbal and physical harassment to Asian international students. Inside the classroom, some lecturers are concerned that tensions between ‘pro-Beijing’ and ‘pro-Hong Kong’ students may become disruptive. Since last year, The negative portrait of Chinese international students as ‘spies’ in the mainstream newspapers and documentaries has profoundly alienated this group of students. However, on some occasions, tutors and lecturers automatically seek the most convenient way to deal with the dispute – that is, to avoid discussion on ‘politically sensitive’ topics, or narrating class discussion in a way favourable to one stance but not the other. Prof. Wanning Sun, from the UTS Department of Media and Communication, who has written on this issue, said in the discussion that she believes avoiding ‘sensitive’ topics for the sake of managing differences and maintaining order is not necessarily the best approach. Conversely, these ‘politically sensitive’ moments are opportunities whereby critical analytical skills can be taught and learned, and whereby mutual understanding amongst students from different cultural backgrounds can be fostered. This requires both lecturers and tutors facilitate class discussions in a way where views of all sides can be respectfully and calmly aired.
From ‘Consent Matters’ to ‘Culture Matters’?
While Tutors and lecturers are responsible for not organising the classes in a way that is friendly to all,it’s not all their fault. Tutors are all on casual contracts, with most of them being PhD candidates. Some are even normal undergraduate or postgraduate students. In the Arts Faculty, the University does not offer any kind of official ‘training’ to tutors before their first class.
“When I stood outside the door before I stepped into my first tutorial class, I completely didn’t know what was going on.” Ben said in the focus group,
“I needed to get my own teaching material organised. The activities and the style of teaching completely depend on myself.”
Without cultural awareness training combined with a loose casual contract, it’s understandable for tutors to lack any sense of direction in making the classroom a friendly environment for all, and in facilitating discussion from both sides.
The sad fact is, the University doesn’t have any interest in promoting cultural awareness on campus, despite earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from international students every year. In 2018, the University made the consent education online program ‘Consent Matters’ a compulsory part of study for every newly enrolled student to address the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence. This proved the University at least has the capacity to make a shared online program for all staff and students, as long as it has the motivation to do so. However, in terms of cultural awareness, the university seems to have the strategy of ‘better say than do.’ Each year, the Vice Chancellor makes a statement on why cultural diversity matters to USyd after mainstream newspapers negatively portray Chinese international students. However, there’s neither training towards staff, particularly tutors on how to manage a multicultural classroom, nor compulsory units for students like ‘Consent Matters’ on how to respect others’ cultural norms and opinions in classroom discussion and group work.
Under the current circumstances, promoting a classroom that everyone can contribute to is crucial to dismantle the invisible barrier between domestic and international students. It provides an opportunity, at least on the Usyd campus, for people from different cultural backgrounds to understand each other through communication, not through fear.
A sincere thank you to Prof. Wanning Sun (UTS Media and Communication), Anonymous tutor B, and Ash Chen – Bachelor of Social Work and Bachelor of Arts II (Philosophy) for consenting to share your invaluable insights and experience in this article.