The topic of intercultural studies in academia cannot be broached without awareness of the unsettling changes and resource challenges of higher education in today’s globalizing context. Shrinking budgets, the massive influx of international students, and the shift of focus...
The topic of intercultural studies in academia cannot be broached without awareness of the unsettling changes and resource challenges of higher education in today’s globalizing context. Shrinking budgets, the massive influx of international students, and the shift of focus from preoccupation with liberal learning to that of hands-on acquisition of competence all have a bearing on why I pick up a book like this, even though I am an occasional university lecturer rather than a full-time professor. My everyday experience is interrupted by frequent absence, while at the same time I sense that it gives me a helicopter perspective of the kind that an expatriate tends to acquire of her or his homeland.
At the start, Crossing Boundaries offers a quick but incisive overview of four types of approaches to the elusive (overused and abused) concept of culture. Rather than choosing to be eclectic, the Introduction examines the relevance and functionality of each as circumstances may dictate. The editors’ choice of a methodology based on auto-ethnography, treats the diverse slate of contributors as both researchers and subjects of the research. There are three perspectives emphasized in the experiences recounted: acculturation dynamics, identity negotiation, and language in live interactions, all of which are set in the context of working in the academic environment of a culture not one’s own. These themes structure the three parts of the book in which each contributor attempts to present, and interpret, then discuss their experience and share the perspectives derived. Inevitably these three perspectives will somewhat overlap in the accounts. Author profiles at the conclusion of each contribution can easily be consulted as framework for the understanding of its biographical context. It was particularly refreshing to find a wholesome gender balance in the selection of contributors.
The usefulness of the auto-ethnographic approach emerges when we realize that in unsettled times, “culture plays a more pronounced role and ideology guides people’s behavior.” Despite growing awareness among interculturalists of the dangers of essentialism, it is also critical to remember that social uncertainties reinforce the search for solid unquestionable identities for one’s self and the temptation to find simple labels for the others. We become desperate to create certainties, “brands” to believe in and act on. The stories in this book acknowledge this dynamic while validating the importance of recognizing its contextual relativity. The auto-ethnographic approach is an antidote to “hijacking cultural discourse” by using culture to explain everything a person says or does.
Thus the richness of this read lies in its narrative approach to cultural experience in academia. This also makes interpretation, for the editors as well as the reader, truly challenging. Notes and academic references point to resources used in each account for the interpretations in the text. Komisarof’s own story of acculturation to a Japanese academic context leads off the string of accounts as he describes the development of an acculturation framework consisting of several profiles involving differing levels of acceptance that can be experienced in various contexts. In each, he explores the behaviors which either facilitate or impede acceptance.
Though the authors take pains to describe the pains surrounding cultural misfit, the methodology is not about taking offense at cultural misunderstanding but learning its dynamics. Appropriately the book closes with practical insights into exploring liminal situations and exploiting constructive marginality, both personally (as do the contributors to the volume) and institutionally. Certainly this is a way to detour around the all-too-intense, often self-righteousness judgments of political correctness and the impediments they put in the way of culturally sensitive connections and taint training and learning efforts.
The importance of finding and using social support in both life and work found in immigrant career development and psychological adjustment is highlighted in several of the accounts. In academia the presence of successful foreign professors, for example, can in turn offer role models for students coming from abroad.
While Crossing Boundaries is focused on globalizing universities, it becomes obvious to the reader that the application of the methodology extends to intercultural work in all kinds of organizational and social environments. The book makes clear that having a solid methodology for telling our stories is clearly of major importance in creating the perspectives that will enable us to bunk down together on spaceship earth.