Best Practices Conference in 2001
Best Practices Conference June 14-17, 2001
Remarks from the Closing Plenary session
Final Session: Closing Plenary
Sunday, June 17, 2001
As reported by a number of conference participants, this weekend has been a unique event. I've heard a number of reasons why this is so, including the following:
Peter Stanley's article (in the group of preparatory conference readings) notes that liberal arts colleges do a good job of integrating overseas study with the rest of a student's education. He also notes that we could do better "if we more tenaciously resisted the conventional peity that sees study abroad simply as 'a good thing' like regular exercise, a sound diet and an occasional trip to the opera" (281). This conference has been about unpacking "the good thing" of intercultural learning, and in the process many quesitons have been raised. To borrow a concept from Michael Monahan, we may now find ourselves in the "predicament" which compels us to continue to explore our way through the complexities of the intercultural learning process. Indeed, "best practices" in intercultural learning may be a bit of a misnomer, as Roger Casey alluded to on our first evening. Clearly, there are no "10 easy steps to better intercultural learning." Rather, best practices can be seen as a quest. The team projects are meant to be the next expression of that quest.
The stakes of effective intercultural learning are high. As Milton Bennett put it: "...if we cannot bring our own cultural context into perspective, then we cannot take the perspective of culturally-different others. And when we cannot take the perspective of others, we cannot imagine their reality. And if we do not imagine their reality, we cannot be competent in the intercultural communication demanded by multicultural societies and global internationalities" (conference packet, session abstracts). Clearly intercultural learning provides a moment of great opportunity and responsibility. It is manifested in no less than the goals we aspire to as educators, the way we function on our campuses and the manner in which we live our lives. This notion was overtly present in the presentations and discussions that followed. To quote some participants' ideas: "Liberal education is liberating education. It challenges both student and teacher to self critical awareness of one's cultural location, the assumptions and values that inform that location, and the inescapable task of forming onesself in response to it. Questions are effectively answered only when they are first effectively raised." Put another way, "...the point is to transform the world views of students by getting them to think critically about where they stand in relation to the world around them and empower them so that they can move beyond the role that society dictates is most appropriate for us: that of passive consumer" (both quotes from conference packet, session abstracts). In these characterizations, and as Peter Stanley points out as well, there is a shift from subject matter to learner. The empowerment of the student becomes a primary goal, not to the exclusion of content, but as a way of enhancing content.
For my own part, I have greatly enjoyed being here this weekend and creating this conference with you. I've learned that Southwestern University does some things well, and that we also have a lot more to work on. I hope you've discovered the same things about your own institution.
Sue's comments provide a wonderful summary of the importance and significance of our three days together. Let me add just a few observations from my perspective.
First, I feel one of the major contributors to the success of the conference was the mix of faculty, study abroad professionals, student life personnel and administrators from various college offices. The level of understanding of the theoretical framework for the connection between learning in a liberal arts context and intercultural understanding appeared to grow day by day for all participants. "Study abroad" was no longer perceived as that auxiliary enterprise existing outside of the core of the institution, but rather as an integral part of the BA degree program that was truly interdisciplinary and cross institutional.
Second, the opportunity to focus on substantive issues related to the conference topic afforded all participants the chance to think more deeply about significant issues of intercultural learning and the concepts inherent in the liberal arts. From the keynote address to the individual workshop sessions, the emphasis was on gaining new understanding of ideas, issues, and concepts well beyond the nitty-gritty of how to operate an off-campus program.
Third, all participants appeared to enter in to the spirit and substance of the conference with a sense of commitment and excitement. I heard none of the usual complaints about conferences (food/housing/dull, unproductive sessions, no time to process, etc.) that usually accompany professional meetings. The mix of people who aren't normally together at professional conferences moved this conference well beyond the "in-house", war-stories laden, incestuous nature of many professional organization meetings. It was a luxury for our team to spend quality time together around issues that concern us all, but that we've never had an opportunity to engage during our time on our own campus.
Finally, the sense that's it's never too late for us to reflect on our current practices and begin to think from a new and improved base for our efforts in this dimension of the liberal arts education. Throughout the three days of the conference I heard and participated in conversations that emphasized that "if we approach this facet within the framework of the Bennett model of intercultural development, there are a lot of things we can/could/should do". That was impressive. The conference was also designed to carry forward the enthusiasm and initiative shown during the days in Lake Forest. The team relationships and discussions will undoubtedly carry over on individual campuses for many of the participants. The Partners Projects will insure continued communication and cooperation between institutions of the three consortia. Ideas generated during the conference have provided incentives for people on one campus to get in touch with counterparts at other institutions for advice and cooperative ventures that go beyond the Partners Project ideas.
All in all, a positive experiences for many individuals and colleges who were represented at the conference.
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