I’m currently teaching a course on communication theory. It’s an undergraduate class, one of those that’s designed to recruit majors. Recently, one of my students, Joel, raised his hand in class. You know the type: he’s talkative, friendly and bright, a bit overbearing, and trying to figure out ‘what does it all mean’. And that is precisely what he asked in the middle of a lecture/discussion on the importance of communication theory: “But Miriam, what’s the point? How does this stuff work in the real world? Why should I care?”
It’s an age-old question, and one that students and teachers alike often struggle with, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities: what is the connection between abstract, above-the-clouds theory and the pragmatic, day-to-day life we lead in the world? But the question is, really, neither mundane nor naïve. Indeed, I would argue that, in intercultural communication, this question is particularly important and yet woefully under-addressed. We come up with all of these amazing theories to describe alienation, assimilation, identity processes, cultural difference—but we publish them in reputable journals and exorbitantly-priced textbooks and provide ‘in real life’ examples primarily at the undergraduate level. Meanwhile, interculturalists who work in the world (outside of academic research), in such areas as refugee counseling, immigration, study abroad, international business, etc., are often working with little-to-no theoretical training, or with outdated approaches to difference such as the U-Curve or Iceberg models.
Where is the dialogue between theorists and practitioners? What’s the point of doing such great and important work, on theories such as cosmopolitanism, hybridity, critical race theory, and others, if they are only accessible to other academics? Those of us who identify as critical intercultural scholars are constantly talking about teaching others that difference should be embraced rather than feared, and yet here we are, talking in a language that is only accessible (literally, in terms of access to academic articles; and figuratively, in terms of being able to translate the academese we learn in graduate school) to a small portion of the population: those most like us.
In a discussion of intercultural dialogue, we would do well to listen to questions like Joel’s—the “how does this work” and “why should I care” questions. If we are the idealists that the field really demands, then shouldn’t we be taking our work outside of the academy and applying it to those who need it, such as those who work with migrant populations, underserved urban youth, patients without health insurance, and on and on? How can we build bridges between the important work that is done by university researchers and the communities we intend to serve?
I don’t propose that we stop building intercultural theory. I think the work we do in intercultural research, particularly with today’s critical and postcolonial turns, is imperative to thriving in a world in which difference is coming closer to our doors rather than farther away. However, with this divide between town and gown, between theory and practice, particularly in intercultural communication research, too much is lost in the translation. I’d like to call for creative ways of applying academic theory to real world contexts, in ways that get our students jazzed about life beyond college, to see futures for their intercultural understandings of the world they learn in the classroom. Programs such as Dr. Amy Stornaiuolo’s work with adolescent literacy, called Space2cre8, are heeding such calls, but there is room for so much more. Students like Joel, those who understand that there could be more to theory than just memorization and regurgitation on an exam, can start to build these bridges, but only once we realize that our work needs to go further. Let’s get this conversation moving outward, starting by answering Joel’s question: “You should care because this work is essential to living in a multicultural world.” This is the opening of our dialogue.
Miriam S. Sobre-Denton
Assistant Professor | Intercultural Communication
Southern Illinois University Carbondale