Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Cross-cultural teaching goes both ways

When Associate Professor Kristen Swanson was asked to develop a doctoral level course in which students would advance a proposal, conduct independent research, and produce a formal paper in just two academic quarters, she thought it a challenging assignment. When she discovered that the chance make-up of the class included students from five different countries – Thailand, Taiwan, Canada, Brazil and the United States – the task grew even larger. But she was surprised and delighted by the outcome. "There was so much energy in that classroom that sometimes it sounded like sheer noise! The students were so animated about their learning, and so eager to talk about it. The class depended upon language and meaning and the ability to articulate yourself and yet, for many students, English was not their first language."

But conquering language barriers, she discovered, was only the beginning. "Working with students from different countries, I learned so much about the differences among cultures. Interviews with participants in the studies were held in native languages, then transcribed to English, then presented orally in class. So there was tremendous potential for losing track of meanings." One of the most illuminating examples of this occurred with a Thai student, Johnphajong Phengjard. Phengjard was doing a study about Thai families caring for a loved one with AIDS. In the study, families insisted that people living with AIDS must "accept and fight."

"I was so convinced that something had been lost in the translation," Swanson recalls. "How could one possibly accept and fight at the same time? It didn’t make sense to me."

What Swanson finally came to understand was that the concept of accepting and fighting is rooted in the principles of Buddhism, which teaches that individuals must fight for their lives even as they accept the inevitability of disease, loss and suffering.

"Passivity is not an option," Swanson learned. "It is essential to engage in the work of living while making peace with one’s condition."

In addition to the semantic issues, Phengjard’s manuscript seemed "devoid of emotion," and never mentioned the term "AIDS". Once again Swanson wondered if something had been lost in translation. What Phengjard explained was that, in Thai culture, there was such prejudice against AIDS that it was not considered polite or correct to refer to it as anything but "the disease."

"We worked over two transcripts for almost 20 hours to finally produce text that was understandable to both Westerners and to Thai audiences," Swanson recalls.

As a result of both her experiences in this class and her friendship with a visiting scholar from Thailand, Swanson has been invited to Chang Mai University in Thailand to teach a class in interpretive methods. Her expertise in this area dates back almost 20 years to an interest in the caring needs of women who experienced miscarriage. This inquiry as well as two later studies on women’s health issues evolved into a theoretical model on caring that has been adopted by several hospitals and schools in the United States and also replicated internationally.

"When I was presenting my findings at a conference in Chicago," Swanson explains, "a young African-American student challenged me about the caring model’s relevance to African-American women, and I was embarrassed to say that very few had been part of my study. The same was true with Latina women and those from Native American cultures."

When Swanson returned to the University she applied for funds from the Center for Women’s Health Research to study miscarriage in diverse populations. Her first study will focus on Native American and Latina women in the Yakima Valley.

"This has required learning all that I can about Latina and Native American health beliefs and practices. This is a new kind of learning for me, and I find it very exciting," Swanson admits. She believes her experience with cross-cultural teaching in the interpretive methods class, and the many opportunities which have evolved from that, could not have occurred without an openness to new ideas and new information, the root of lifelong learning.

CAPTION: Dr. Kristin Swanson assists doctoral candidate Johnphajong Phengjard, a visiting student from Thailand, with the final touches to her manuscript.