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Action Research, Ethnography, and Intercultural Learning: The CASA-Sevilla Program

by Davydd Greenwood, editorial board member of Learning and Teaching

Banks of Guadalquivir river, Spring 2017

Globalization means that living effectively in intercultural environments, including at home, is a professional and life necessity. Years back, the answer was to “take a foreign language”, do study abroad, or “see the world”, though this only applied to a small percentage of college students. Students doing this are still a very small minority of all US students (about 10 percent of graduates). A consequences is a large population lacking intercultural skills even though their careers and lives will be “global” whether they like it or not.

The immersion model of study abroad to learn interculturally (carried out in the local language, with homestays and direct enrollment directly in foreign universities) no longer works for many students. Decades ago, the internet was not a “thing”; smartphones, social media, and Netflix did not exist; a phone call home was a luxury; and there were no “low cost” airlines for long weekend tours accompanied by “selfies”.  The learner was on her own to come to terms with the stresses of cultural differences, language learning, and new routines. Some did so.

Universities also have changed, significantly compounding the problem. They now promise protective social environments with non-negotiable norms about cultural, racial, and gender diversity and permitted speech. Much on-campus teaching lacks an emphasis on learning how to learn. Social observational skills are not practiced. This protected life is called called “the college experience”.  While for many, their college years involve the most diverse environment in which they will have lived (and may ever live), engaging with other cultures and other groups, and dealing with the confusions, discomforts, and resultant opportunities to learn from this is not a university priority.

Organic olive oil tasting at Basilippo Farm, Fall 2016

The CASA-Sevilla Program is a successful intercultural immersion program founded more than three decades ago.  By about 2005, the program staff and faculty noticed decreased language learning, and a tendency to “escape” from intercultural interactions. Intercultural learning took a back seat ,and relations with local students, and even local host families, rarely developed.  Mere immersion no longer worked.

Overcoming this passivity and missing intercultural skills became the central challenge in a comprehensive effort to restructure the CASA-Sevilla Program. The students had to develop the ability to observe ethnographically, document and analyze observations, and face situations in which they felt confused or ill at ease by studying and analyzing them. To achieve this, we restructured the program around learning how to learn about other cultures through sustained critical reflection in writing and orally. In addition to homestays and University of Seville courses, the program now includes practice of linguistic and cultural observation skills and related assignments, engagement in community organizations, mentored and individualized learning, and more fully structured and active-learning based cultural excursions— all treated as places to practice intercultural skills. Students, with their individual mentors, set and evaluate their own learning goals and accomplishments. This requirement to choose what to focus on has galvanized students, produced original and nuanced work, and created a shift from use of secondary to primary sources in research.  Formative and summative evaluation of the students and the staff are a core element in the program and a source of ideas for continuous improvement. Follow-up surveys after the time abroad are also now part of the system.

Goat cheese tasting at WellDone Factory, Fall 2018

The special issue of Learning and Teaching, with contributions from 16 individuals (staff and partners), documents the organizational change and learning required of both the local staff and the sponsoring universities in this reform. Taking advantage of the commitments and years of experience of all staff members and many actors from the sponsoring universities, a process of “Action Research” organized the work of evaluation, change, and implementation in a collaborative learning community.

The special issue documents the change process, the substance of the changes, and what was learned about ways to promote, consolidate, and evaluate intercultural learning.  The results are as relevant to life on home campuses as they are abroad.  Since preparation for life in an ever more complex and dynamic global system is needed, such intercultural skills are no longer optional.