Seminar at Georgetown

On the 22nd of September I gave a presentation at the Georgetown University Culture and Politics faculty seminar. It was called Language, culture, education in a Qatari English classroom – exploring areas of dialogue and tension in the diverse environment of the Academic Bridge Program, Education City, Doha, Qatar. I posted the ppt here.

I discussed the main parameters and background of my research which is centred on Qatari students’ educational experiences during the two-semester English language university preparation course in a western foundation programme where I teach.

The main points were:

  •  My professional biography (initially: ‘frustrated fascination’, at QU => passivity in class, superior position of teacher, knowledge transmission; unquestioning attitude, e.g. copying incorrect sentences from the board)
  • Story of my research (“Starting big…” – I started from large culture constructs, generalisations, anonymous letter by an American teacher, then other texts in a similar vein)
  • Proposed PhD work  (experiencing education as a cultural other => an ethnographic study)

 It took me a while to channel my frustration into a more constructive approach and shift my research from generalisations to more concrete, personal, experience-based descriptions of cultural encounters in an educational context. The proposed doctoral inquiry is a direct result of this shift of perspective as it focuses on the small and local while also considering the wider social and institutional context.

Why ethnographic? Brief explanation of methodology (constructing social reality, naturalistic, interpretive, advantages/challenges of ethnography, thick description)

  • Fundamental questions framing my research

What happens to my Qatari students during their year of studying English in the ABP?

a)      What is the nature and meaning of Qatari students’ educational experience in the English course I teach here?

b)      What are the main formative aspects of that experience?

c)      How can it be contextualised within the operational framework of EC/QF?

d)      What areas of dialogue and tension emerge in my students’ educational experience?

e)      What are most appropriate methodological approaches to maximise benefits/dialogue and minimize (personal/educational/cultural/social) tension in this complex setting?

  •  Context and background of my research: language, culture, education
  • Language issues (linguistic dualism, position of English vis-à-vis Arabic, pragmatic engagement with Eng-language education, nostalgia for the Arab “golden age” – BUT: is English taking over?)

a)      Paradigms of teaching English in the ABP

b)      English replacing Arabic as the academic language (my Eng vs. Arabic writing project and background study)?

  • Culture issues (Complexity => traditional system of values encountering modernity)

a)      Historical/social background (see extra info below)

b)      Modernisation means material progress but also opening up to new ideas, views and lifestyle.

c)      When does modernisation begin to mean westernisation?

  • Education issues (history of education, reforms, current situation)

a)      local educational traditions

b)      school system reform

c)      American/western education

  • Opposing forces operating in this context => resulting in areas of dialogue and tension
  • Macro-dialogue

a)      Qatar and the world

b)      QF and the world

c)      QF and western universities

  • Micro-dialogue = at the intersection of four zones, territories, “localities”: society, institutional complex, small classroom culture (Holliday’s typology) => students’ experience
  • Areas of tension

a)      Socio-cultural (value systems, social forms and behaviours, including co-education + dress code, body language, position of women, etc.)

b)      Institutional (procedures, styles of bureaucracy)

c)      Educational (in terms of underlying philosophies => liberal arts, academic freedom, academic integrity, student motivation)

d)      Methodological (classroom methods, interactions, requirements and expectations => teaching/learning strategies and approaches)

e)      Personal (all of the above) => combined in students’ experience

  • Strands of subversiveness

a)      Goals vs. Effects

b)      Theory vs. Practice (search for perfection vs. daily academic grind)

c)      The “THINK” campaign

d)      Liberal arts vs. pragmatic educational choices

e)      Maintenance/development vs. culture of acquisition and disposal

f)       Arabic vs. English

g)      My teaching/research biography (big => small)

h)      My students’ educational experience

  •  Large cultural dimensions = “black abayas” and “white thobes” => generalizations, impossible to capture and comprehend what really happens to individuals in an educational setting
  •  Individual faces of my students mean individual narratives, diverse stories of the struggle to grow and comprehend changes around them, to respond to educational challenges which mould  their personal and social life
  •  “…ending small” =  Global cultural paradigms need to be adjusted to fit the small, local size of my educational setting to facilitate a better informed and more action-oriented approach to (my) teaching.

The presentation went surprisingly well – it resulted in a rather lively discussion about  areas of educational dialogue and tension and a potentially subversive nature of western education here.

I had been bracing myself for critical remarks concerning my proposed methodology, conceptual framework, research focus, etc. but, instead,  I had questions from the audience about some of the points I made about educational developments in Qatar and students’ responses to them as seen in my classroom.

What I thought was well received was my path of research thinking from large cultural constructs to small classroom cultures and the resulting methodology of ethnography/thick description aiming at highlighting the personal, human dimension of ‘local’ educational experience in an internationalised context, with its cultural, social and institutional complexity.

It was rather unexpected that a couple of Qatari students from local high schools also attended my talk. They seemed very interested in what I was saying and even came up to me afterwards to ask me extra questions. They confirmed my observations concerning aspects of secondary education here.

I must admit, I was quite tense – it really was the first time I had presented my research context, focus and methodology in its (their?) entirety… Once I realized it resonated with the audience I felt much better!


One comment

  • Richard Fay

    You sure pack a lot into your presentations ! Fascinating stuff. I hope the move from the large to the small continues as I think this is where the powerful insights will emerge as set against a larger set of backgrounding contextual issues (which clearly you already have fluently to hand 🙂