How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

Guest PostsHow conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures.
By Trudy Milburn

As the new academic year gets underway, I’ve been thinking about the intersection between learning outcomes and assessment. In several posts, I will use examples from intercultural communication to illustrate some basic assumptions about culture and learning, and suggest ways to proceed.

First, consider the case of study abroad. Typically, instructors create basic goals for students engaged in this experience: to experience diverse cultures by engaging in observations, conversations and reflection. When I accompanied a group of students to Helsinki, Finland, my co-instructor and I provided a basic framework for students, suggesting how to learn about their upcoming adventure. For instance, we supplied them with Dell Hymes’ SPEAKING framework, to help them become more aware of practices that might be noticeable as culturally distinct. Consider a conversational exchange that occurred during our travels:

During a visit to a Finnish elementary school, we heard a U.S. student exclaim, “they’re wearing slippers to class!” Some jumped to immediate evaluations, “how lucky!” or “this must be a very lenient environment.” Others remained curious, “I wonder why they are allowed to do that?”

As instructors we noticed that the Hymes framework helped students to make initial observations about a way of acting (A). Upon reflection, I now recognize that they needed another way to articulate how this one observation fit into a larger cultural context before moving to evaluate if the observed behavior was good or bad. Carbaugh (2007) provides one such framework. To abbreviate [and change the steps slightly], he advocates that learning about other cultures begins with observations that lead to descriptions: what do you notice? After detailing the observation, one can compare the observation to other cultural practices that are known (often one’s own culture can serve as an initial basis for comparison). Following the comparison, one can start to inquire about the broader context within which the noticed behavior is a part. The social and cultural context that frames any one particular behavior helps us to understand how any given behavior can make sense, or be interpreted from the perspective of the people enacting that behavior. Finally, one can evaluate whether that behavior is valued or not within the given culture, as well as how it might be interpreted and valued or not within the comparative culture.

Let’s apply this to the slipper example above. First, U.S. study abroad students notice that Finnish elementary students wear slippers in class. They may notice this initially due to a comparison with their own experience: when they were in elementary school in the U.S. they did not wear slippers. Rather than jumping to the evaluation from the perspective of the comparative culture (that it is better or worse to wear slippers to class), they need to learn about the larger cultural context. Of which environmental and social factors is this behavior a part? In this case, the heavy winters and the value of playing outside for recess suggest reasons associated with the place where they are living as relevant to the interpretation of this practice. Because outdoor shoes would carry snow and slush into classrooms, they provide an area to stow outdoor winter-wear and don alternate indoor footwear, such as slippers and lighter articles of clothing. Recognizing these circumstances, the students would then dismiss any initial hypothesis that the teachers are more lenient than those in the U.S.

This example of intercultural discovery can serve as an analogy for outcomes assessment. When we are constructing a course, we may have a number of outcomes we hope students will achieve by the end of the course. In order to get to those outcomes, it might be useful for a student to recognize how those outcomes are different from current practice. The practices students bring with them to the classroom are based within particular cultural contexts. In order to demonstrate a new practice that is highly valued by the instructor, a student needs to begin to recognize the larger context within which this new practice is a part and within which it makes sense to engage in this new behavior.

In the next post, I will describe more about ways to create outcomes and assessments for intercultural communication.


Carbaugh, D. (2007). Cultural discourse analysis: Communication practices and intercultural encounters. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 36(3), 167-182. Available from:

Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Ethnography of Comm conference 2012

The “Ethnography of Communication: Ways Forward” conference was held June 10-14, 2012, at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Jay Leighter was the conference organizer, together with Dr. Donal Carbaugh; the National Communication Association sponsored the event as one of its summer conferences (along with funding from several parts of Creighton University).

I presented a paper co-authored with Dr. Patricia Lambert, of the Institut Français de l’Éducation in Lyon, entitled “A Prophet Abroad? The Impact of Hymes’ Notion of Communicative Competence in France and French-speaking Switzerland.” In addition, I was invited to participate in two roundtable discussions, one on “Ethnography of Communication Theory and Methodology: Taking Stock and Ways Forward” and the other “Ways Forward: Institutes, Centers, and Affiliations.” In the latter, I was invited to present a description of this Center, which resulted in many new “likes” to the Center’s facebook page.

Many of those participating in the conference are included in the following photo (though certainly several critical people are missing, including Dr. Gerry Philipsen and Dr. Donal Carbaugh).

One of the pleasures of the conference for me was the presence of so many of those involved in the NCA Summer Conference on Intercultural Dialogue, held in Istanbul in 2009, which led to the creation of this Center. This included several from the organizing committee (Drs. Tamar Katriel, Donal Carbaugh, Kristine Fitch Muñoz, and Saskia Witteborn), one of the guest speakers (Lisa Rudnick) and several of the participants (Drs. Todd Sandel, Chuck Braithwaite, Evelyn Ho, Eric Morgan, and Tabitha Hart). Another was catching up with Dr. Susan Poulsen, who organized “Ways of Speaking, Ways of Knowing: Ethnography of Communication” in Portland in 1992, the predecessor conference to this one in terms of topic. Other joys of the week included having time to connect with people I had not seen in a long time, previously only had met through correspondence, or students of my colleagues who I did not know at all.

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, Director
Center for Intercultural Dialogue

Ethnog of Comm conference

Ethnography of Communication: The Ways Forward June 10-14, 2012 Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska Proposal Deadline: December 17, 2011 Conference Organizers: Dr. Donal Carbaugh, University of Massachusetts and Dr. Jay Leighter, Creighton University

The summer of 2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of Dell Hymes’ 1962 landmark publication of The Ethnography of Speaking, and the 25th anniversary of Gerry Philipsen’s 1987 influential theoretical work, The Prospect for Cultural Communication. These milestones in the Ethnography of Communication (EC) come at a time when EC scholarship is developing intensively as it is being applied to practical concerns and social problems worldwide.

The Ethnography of Communication: The Ways Forward is a conference designed to bring together scholars in the EC tradition, broadly conceived. The conference takes as its impetus the celebration of several simultaneous milestones in the field of EC but aims to bring EC scholars from around the world together for the purpose of charting ways forward in research, teaching and practice.

Scores of Ph.D.s in communication have contributed EC scholarship and leadership to several areas in the field including but not limited to Environmental Communication, Ethnography, Intergroup Communication, International and Intercultural Communication, Language and Social Interaction, Performance Studies, Religious Communication, and Rhetoric and Public Address. The past several years have seen advances in theoretical and applied work in several settings. In addition, EC scholarship has had a foundational influence in the creation of two international research centers: The University of Washington Center for Local Strategies Research (UWCLSR) and the Center for Sustainable Social Change (CSSC, UMass Amherst). This conference provides an opportunity for intellectual discussion and discovery among beginning and established scholars within this broad tradition. EC scholars are spread worldwide and this event presents a unique forum for bringing them together to discuss theory, methodology and practice in a concentrated way.

We are now taking proposals for papers, panels, and roundtable discussions.
Proposals are due Dec. 17, 2011. Please submit your conference proposals to Jay Leighter.

Conference sponsorship includes: Department of Communication Studies, Creighton University and Office of Multicultural Affairs, Creighton University. Partial funding for doctoral student attendees is currently being sought and hopefully anticipated. Inquiries about doctoral student funding should be directed to Jay Leighter.

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