Intercultural Visual Communication

Intercultural Visual Communication
Guest post by Trudy Milburn

In February 2015 I had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my family and friends.  The first day in Milan, my friend Bethany remarked that she was surprised there was so much graffiti in the city.  As in many cities, Milan, Bologna and Rome have their share of writing-on-walls.  What my friend didn’t see initially was any potentially positive purpose behind the act.  She merely thought of it as defacing beautiful old buildings.  Rather than simply viewing the writing as criminal, we could think of wall writing as existing in “rhizomatic space” (Nandrea 1999 referencing Deleuze and Guattari), where “inscriptions can begin and end anywhere, can proceed unpredictably in any direction, can form surprising juxtapositions, layerings, and diagonal relations” (p. 111).

As we traveled south, we saw more mural-like wall paintings that seemed to convey political messages.

Visual Comm. Image1

Clearly the public display of opinion was alive and well in this college-town (Bologna).

When we arrived in Rome, at our apartment in Trastevere, the front door was covered in writing.  It was really the only such display on the nearby buildings.  One first impression might be that this was a sign of an undesirable location; perhaps a seedy section of town.  It was the first apartment I had rented in another country, so I was uncertain of what kind of place we had contracted.  Once inside we encountered very large and spacious rooms.  Later, we learned that this was a popular area for nightlife by local and study-abroad students.  

Visual Comm. Image2

Since this was our homebase for five days, it became a welcome site at the end long days of sight seeing. In fact, Johnson (2002), suggests we think of sites “not merely [as] the material backdrop from which a story is told,” but rather consider physical spaces themselves  as meaningful because they are “a sight-line of interpretation” (p. 293).

One of our final days was spent at the Coliseum.  It was here that we learned that the ancient Romans had some of the earliest forms of graffiti as demonstrated on a placard to illustrate the carvings into the stone (below).  While much writing in public places offers a more transient layer of potential meanings that can get worn away over time, that placard preserved ancient writing that was much more difficult to inscribe than modern tools of spray paint or marker.

Visual Comm. Image3

That night, we were having dinner with our friend Patrick who explained that his architecture class in Rome had just viewed, Exit Through the Giftshop (Cushing, D’Cruz & Gay-Rees, 2010), a film that depicts street art and artists from Los Angeles to the U.K. He described the importance of shifting how we come to understand the built landscape and the connotations it offers, moving from a simplistic view of graffiti as an act of vandalism to considering both the buildings and any layers of images and writing on them as meaningful additions.

While these images may be “curiously foreign script we cannot read” (Nandrea, 1999, p. 113), we shared an experience similar to what Nandrea (1999) observed, that that was that, “graffiti forces us to witness something” (p.114). Initially, we approached Italy as a site of historic monuments, but came to learn that  layers of newer symbols were added over time (and some have even been preserved). This trip helped us to acknowledge different form of communication and recognize that added writing, images or carvings shouldn’t be simply brushed aside as unimportant. When traveling, we seek to learn more about how is visual communication interpreted interculturally or internationally and how the multimodal layers will engage us in a different kinds of dialogue.

References

Cushing, H.; D’Cruz, J.; Gay-Rees, J. (Producers), Banksy (Director). (2010). Exit through the giftshop. [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Revolver Entertainment.

Iedema, R. (2003). Multimodal, resemiotization: Extending the analysis of discourse as multi-semiotic practice. Visual Communication, 2(1), 29-57.

Johnson, N. C. (2002). Mapping monuments: The shaping of public spaces and cultural identities. Visual Communication, 1(3), 293-298.

Nandrea, L. (1999). “Graffiti taught me everything I know about space”: Urban fronts and borders. Antipode, 31(1), 110-116.

Dialogue about Border Crossers

Dialogue about Border Crossers
Guest post by Trudy Milburn

On November 20th, 2015, on behalf of the Center for International Dialogue, I attended a unique event at the Scandinavia House in Manhattan. The event was entitled “What border have you crossed?” and provided an introduction to a new exhibition opening at the Queens Museum the following day. The speakers were two of the main organizers of the exhibition and of the organization, Bordrs: Chrissie Faniadis and Marcus Haraldsson, both from Sweden.

Bordr Pre-event Audience

Chrissie opened the session by recounting the way their five-person group (including a third member from Sweden, another from Seattle, US and one from Delhi, India) formed a new nonprofit organization year ago at a small, red house with white borders in the south-east of Sweden. They were interested in productive ways to contribute to the growing international dialogue about migrants and borders. In many news accounts, the problem is often one of numbers, such as the millions fleeing from Syria, or hundreds of thousands of refugees entering or trying to enter various countries. Chrissie said that their group’s goal was to “put a face back on the faceless.

After about 15 minutes, Marcus came up and began to involve the approximately 100-member audience, by asking, “Has anyone every crossed a border?” and then followed up with, “has anyone not crossed a border.” Perhaps because this was New York City on a Friday night, the responses were a bit intellectual (suggesting borders were metaphors) and some, a little cheeky (one woman saw no borders in life). Marcus then explained that throughout his journalism career and recent research, that he’s come to view borders as “the atomic particle of all human stories.” Subsequently, their group defines borders quite broadly, comprised of three legs: geographic (space), mental (emotion) and time-bound.

Bordr Projection

The Queens Museum exhibition is based on five different projects throughout the world. Some people were initially lent video cameras in order to tell their own stories, unmediated by a journalist interpretation. With additional digital recordings captured on smart phones and extensive interviews with each participant, they were able to create individual maps illustrating the important border events for each person.

Marcus drew to a close by emphasizing that their goal is to help people realize the connections and commonalities, rather than differences, among all of us who cross very different borders throughout our lives. [One audience member likened this interpretation of borders as to our ability to transcend “inhibitions;” others might call these life-transitions]. The group from Bordrs’ believes that feelings and thoughts are very important to this project and both can lead to much more empathy and understanding than seems to be present today.

 

Despite criticisms from a couple of audience members during the Q&A, that this is a very serious issue that should not be taken lightly, my interpretation is that the organizers of Bordr are interested in moving beyond the common discourse of blame that includes oppressor and victim dichotomies that are difficult to transcend. Perhaps by focusing on personal border stories, we may feel more compassionate than helpless; we may recognize that even if today we are not crossing a border, we all cross borders at some point in time.

Even if you cannot make it to Queens, NY during their exhibition, then you can still participate by using their new app, which will enable each of us to interact with others by considering smaller, everyday borders in each person’s life. We’re all border crossers, and you can see evidence of this by going to Queens Museum or Bordrs.

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Assessing Intercultural Competency – Part II – by Trudy Milburn

Assessing Intercultural Competency – Part II

Guest post by Trudy Milburn

Hello.
(Hi)
What’s your name?
(Response)
Where did you go to school?

If your student produced this as evidence of a cultural practice, how would it rate on this AAC&U Intercultural rubric criterion?

“Demonstrates sophisticated understanding of the complexity of elements important to members of another culture in relation to its history, values, politics, communication styles, economy, or beliefs and practices.”

At first blush, the interaction sequence might seem part of any typical introduction between two people who are meeting one another for the first time. Therefore, a student who produces this might appear to be “developing” on the low end of a graduated scale with a “target” level on the higher end. An instructor may evaluate the statement as evidence of a student’s initial awareness of an interactional pattern, but as lacking a nuanced understanding that its production may indicate a culturally significant pattern. However, perhaps there is more going on with this interactional sequence than one may initially assume.

If we heed Yep’s (2000) suggestion and consider both personal and broader social histories and how these intersect, we might re-consider the produced interaction from different subject positions. Consider these additional contextual features.

While traveling with students in Northern Ireland, we heard tour guides describe a greeting ritual that included the following parts: first asking, “What’s your name?” and then, “where did you go to school?” The guide explained that learning as much as you could about your interlocutors during introductions was very important throughout the tensest moments of the Conflict. It was considered vitally important to be able to quickly position a newcomer within an appropriate category, as Catholic or Protestant. Knowing relevant category could produce fear or solidarity. One guide described that he believed people with saint names were denied access to jobs. Therefore, upon meeting someone, if one heard (or did not hear) a saint name, the follow up question was used to ascertain if the individual attended a Catholic School or not. It was this practice that led one to know on which side of the Conflict the new person was most likely to be. It may have also led to further discriminatory practices.

Coming back to the notion of assessing intercultural competence, how, then does one evaluate a student who attempts to demonstrate intercultural competence by producing such an interactional sequence? While the rubric criterion above includes many features that are valuable to consider, including the social, historical and political contexts of various communicative practices, it leads us into the same trap that Yep (2000) warns about, creating cultural “others.” Even if one notices the interaction sequence from the vantage points of the interlocutors who enact it, where does the student stand in relation to this sequence? One suggestion is that as instructors, we can help students to reflect on how noticeable practices might illustrate a belief within the student’s own culture. It may be that this interaction sequence may be so typical within one’s own culture as to initially go unnoticed. In fact, as instructors who are conducting intercultural assessment, perhaps we should consider our own potential biases towards such practices and consider how our cultural beliefs influence both how we instruct as well as how we assess intercultural competency.

In my next post, I will consider the types of methods used for assessing intercultural competence as well as the role of assessors in this work.

Reference
Yep, G. A. (2000). Encounters with the ‘other’: Personal notes for a reconceptualization of intercultural communication competence. CATESOL Journal, 12(1), 117-144. 

How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

How conducting assessment is similar to learning about new cultures

Guest post 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.

References

Carbaugh, D. (2007). Cultural discourse analysis: Communication practices and intercultural encounters. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 36(3), 167-182. Available from: http://works.bepress.com/donal_carbaugh/11/

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

For further reading, please see:
http://www.cios.org/encyclopedia/ethnography/8references.htm

 

Intercultural Dialogue: Saudi Arabia

Listening carefully to intercultural dialogue in Saudi Arabia

By Trudy Milburn, Ph.D.

Associate Scholar of the University of Washington Center for Local Strategies Research

Asked to travel to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia last March to conduct training sessions at a local university I felt some trepidation, but ultimately agreed to go.  Fear of terrorist activity against foreigners was my main concern.  However, since I study intercultural communication, I was excited to learn first-hand about a culture and a region that seemed to only be in the news because of oil and war.

One interaction I witnessed in a public square has remained somewhat of a mystery.

Our guide escorted my colleague and I to the old city-center that functions as an historic landmark and museum. As we arrived, we heard the call from the loud-speakers near minarets to prayer time.  Everyone began moving in the direction of the nearest mosque. Some women knelt to pray on prayer rugs in or near the shops. I asked about the difference, and was told that the women can pray anywhere, it is only men who must go to the mosque. Our guide himself was exempt for two reasons, he was still a student and because he was working.

Standing quite near us, by the entrance to this museum, were about three or four young men, perhaps in their early twenties.  Their dress identified them as Muslim, but since they did not wear head coverings, I could not tell if they were Saudi men.  We watched an elderly woman approach the group of men and speak loudly, gesturing towards the mosque.  From an American perspective, it seemed that she was berating them for not going to the mosque.  Her tone and the volume of her talk made it sound like she was really disapproving of them. She stood near to the group and continued in this manner for some time. In comparison to her, the few others remaining in the square were quiet and you could begin to hear the chanting of the prayer from the mosque’s loudspeakers. She seemed to be causing quite a scene and the men shifted their stances as she approached, backed off, and re-approached.

We asked our guide what she was saying.  From our American perspective, we imagined that she must be chastising them for not attending the prayer with everyone else. What our guide told us surprised us.  He said that she was beseeching them, as good sons, to attend.  To confirm my recollection, I asked my colleague and he recounted that we were told that she was telling the men how much she cared for them and loved them and that they should be good and pray. My colleague was holding the camera taking the video while I was speaking; we saw interaction in the background. Here’s the video, since the individuals are too far away to identify.

The rhetorical choices she made to persuade these men to go to the mosque initially suggested she was breaking the social norm whereby women typically respond to men’s lead.  However, her ability to shift the frame and take the role of a concerned parent who was merely reminding them of their duty to Allah, indicates a rhetorical sensitivity we would be wise to heed.  Perhaps some situations where dialogue seems impossible actually have spaces where, given the proper roles, one can make statements that otherwise would be considered unlikely or impossible.

Trudy Milburn Researcher Profile

Trudy MilburnTrudy Milburn is the Director of Academic Programs in Liberal Studies and Continuing Education for Purchase College/State University of New York.

Her current work examines the ways membership categories are enacted and displayed in various workplace and nonprofit settings, both online and face-to-face.

Dr. Milburn has been a tenured Associate Professor at California State University, Channel Islands and Baruch College/City University of New York. You can read more about her professional accomplishments in her e-portfolio and see her brief analysis of rhetorical communication in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia here.

She is editor of Communicating User Experience: Applying Local Strategies Research to Digital Media Design (2015), co-author, with Susan Gilbertz of Citizen Discourse on Contaminated Water, Superfund Cleanups, and Landscape Restoration: (Re)making Milltown, Montana, and author of Nonprofit Organizations: Creating Membership through Communication.