This semester I have been working with Professor Thomas Hallock to construct a cross-cultural correspondence between students at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) and our home university, the University of South Florida Saint Petersburg (USFSP). Alongside the hands-on work, I have been researching cross-cultural correspondence and composition instruction, and their value as tools to prepare students for a globalized society.
These few months have been the first time that I have ve ever engaged with students from a position other than a peer. At first it was profoundly intimidating—who am I, Queen of The Comma Splices, to critique student papers? Who am I, a white woman from rural North Georgia who has only left the South a handful of times, to write on the benefits of engaging one-on-one with someone from another country?
The most daunting element of this experiment, though, was the possibility of perfect failure. Perhaps the students would see me as an imposter–an idiot in academic’s clothing. Perhaps I would find myself faced with an essay and have no idea what it needed, what the writer needed from me. Perhaps the Mexican and American students wouldn’t like each other, or refuse to correspond, or the surveys I gave them would go unanswered. Perhaps I would find absolutely no extant research to support my belief that cross-cultural engagement is just what we need to fix our society’s ills.
I felt paralyzed with fear. And then, I forced myself to take the plunge. As I read student papers, skyped in on class, held videoconferences, conducted my research, gathered survey results, outlined, re-outlined, and re-re-outlined my own research project, I began to find some clarity.
Over these few months I have spent uncountable hours mulling over the most core questions of our work with UDLAP: what makes good cross-cultural composition instruction? The research tells us that much of it is about providing students with the scaffolding, technical instruction, readings, and examples. But in my experience, those were only supporting elements.
What made the essays I read really do the work of engaging a reader from another culture was already there in the first place: it was the Here. International relationships are not a blind reach across infinite distance. They are not a scavenging for middle ground. They are something which springs up naturally from an instruction that encourages students to bring themselves to the writing and the cross-cultural relationship.
As I read student papers about their town hauntings, the changes urbanization brings to rural areas, how to identify an interloper by their dialect, and the significance of religious figures in local lore, I see myself and my own culture. From this position of what it dear to us, we connect to what is dear to others. From the local, we access the global.
This is where the magic happens. Cross-cultural composition instruction is not a formula—when has education ever been so simple? The professor’s most valuable role is to empower and support students as they hone their own voices, their own stories. Students connect in similarities and expand their worldviews by comparing differences. The magic of cross-cultural engagement takes place where our planning ends. This is where students find each other.