Culture Shock in the College Classroom: It’s Not Just for International Students

by Debra Lohe, Director

With the growing number of international students in American universities, we hear a lot about the “culture shock” they experience in the classroom.  Expectations for everything from classroom participation to faculty-student interactions to collaborative learning to writing and academic integrity may differ greatly from their home countries, and students often are left to detect – and adapt to – these differences on their own.  To better meet international students’ needs, centers like ours encourage faculty to make explicit the implicit assumptions and expectations they bring into the classroom.

But what if international students aren’t the only ones with culture shock?

In fact, almost all students entering colleges and universities experience a version of culture shock, whether they’re coming from domestic high schools, entering an online degree program, or returning to college after years in the workforce.  For most students (even those from very strong college-prep high schools), the expectations for performance are not wholly visible, and the task of the first couple of semesters is to try to survive this new terrain and to identify strategies that can help with success in future courses.

In Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff describes the “mystification of academic culture” and the ways in which college students struggle to de-mystify it.  He describes in lively detail the ways in which undergraduates encounter this mystifying “culture” and lays out some of his own strategies for helping students enter into this special “club” and “breaking up its exclusivity,” which he does by “flushing out and engaging [students’] resistance to entering [the club], addressing questions about why as well as how” (24-25).  Specifically, Graff lays out what he calls the “Six Degrees of Obfuscation,” which are “the specific educational practices, structures, and beliefs that help prevent students and others from penetrating the secrets of academic culture” – chief among them, something we’ve all done: take academic discourse for granted (25).

The reality is, most of our students (and not just our international students) would be hard-pressed to articulate the mostly-concealed rules of academic discourse or explain them with any subtlety, and who could blame them?  We often don’t see it as our job to make those things explicit; many of us might struggle ourselves to explain those things.  But until we do see it as our job, our students will continue to be mystified by the exercises we put them through.  And to experience culture shock in our classrooms.

For learning to be transformative, it must create experiences that offer “a process by which previously uncritically assimilated assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspectives are questions and thereby become more open, permeable, and better justified” (Patricia Cranton, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning).

Here are two ways you can begin to uncover your own implicit assumptions and expectations and to make them visible to students:

First, reflect deeply on your own assumptions, beliefs, and expectations about what teaching and learning really look like; this weekly reflection podcast on this topic can help.

And second, check out Graff’s work, co-authored with Cathy Birkenstein, on “templates” that can help students better identify and use the implicit argumentative structures in scholarly writing, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.

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