Professors help to bridge American-Chinese communication gap

WCU and Honghe students prepare to present their research and perspectives on “Creationism and Evolution.” The students are (from left) David Fernandez, Kirsten Townsend and Bezawit Seyoum from WCU and Li Chen, Hanmei Hua and Yuying Ji from Honghe. (Photo courtesy of Katerina Spasovska)

A semesterlong intercultural communication collaboration between students at Western Carolina University and Honghe University in Yunnan Province, China, culminated Dec. 5 in WCU’s first-ever real-time synchronous presentations with a student peer group at a Chinese university.

WCU students in an “Intercultural Communication” class taught by Jim Manning, associate professor of communication, and Honghe University students in Sihong Li’s advanced English classes spent the fall 2017 semester developing group presentations while simultaneously building their intercultural communication skills.

“The stated learning outcomes were pretty simple,” Manning said. “U.S. students would uniquely benefit through the exchange of ideas and perspectives with a culture vastly different from their own; Honghe students would benefit likewise plus improve both their English speaking and writing skills. But, I think everybody involved – from the students, professors and the Instructional Technology folks that helped make this happen – learned so much more.”

Many of the 84 Chinese students participating in the project were from rural areas, and this was their first opportunity to communicate using English with native English speakers.

“It was a fantastic experience for them (the Chinese students) for they not only had the opportunity to practice their English skills, but, more importantly, they learned how to become better communicators across cultures by working with WCU students,” Li said. “Although they may have a language barrier, they enjoyed interacting with their new American friends – sharing and expressing from different perspectives of both cultures.”

Manning and Li first met in the fall of 2016 when Li was a visiting instructor in WCU’s Department of World Languages and accepted Manning’s invitation to help a group of intercultural communication students conducting research on Chinese culture.

Before Li left for China this past summer, she and Manning met several times and developed a plan to pair six groups of students from WCU and Honghe University in an intercultural collaboration during the fall semester. Each group was assigned a specific topic and set of readings with the goal of co-presenting their findings and perspectives in a live, final group presentation via virtual conference software.

During the months of October and November, student groups from both universities were required to document their exchanges via daily communication logs of their research and interactions via WeChat, which is a Chinese platform similar to Skype. The communication logs verified the groups’ research progress on their assigned topics, which ranged from how the respective governments responded to natural disasters to more controversial topics such as race, ethnicity and government ethics.

For the final project, WCU students presented from the Cordelia Camp Building Teleconference Room, which features full motion video and audio. The center is primarily used for synchronous classes with other University of North Carolina System schools. The Chinese students presented from a similar facility in China.

“We’ve never ran an international class with such a high degree of interactivity, and we are happy Dr. Manning had the vision to pursue this,” said Zachary Phillips, IT video services manager. “Managing the technology between the two sites was complicated by time differences, as well as the fact that China has its own version of various applications, but the Chinese infrastructure appeared very modern.”

“It was a great experience, and not just for the technology, but to see the looks on the students’ faces. They were so engaged and interested to actually see and hear the peers they had been working with all semester. I hope more faculty will do this kind of thing,” Phillips said.

WCU student Ian Berryman, a communication major with a concentration in broadcasting from Marietta, Georgia, concurred that the experience was meaningful from the U.S. student perspective. “It has been a hectic, but good, learning experience,” he said. “I don’t think I would’ve had this exposure and perspective without taking this class. In addition to the challenges of communicating with the Chinese students, I also learned the Chinese culture, with its restrictions and curfews, was much different than I expected.”

Manning also believe his students witnessed firsthand the work ethic and solidarity of the Chinese, as well as developed a greater appreciation for the value and confines of American culture’s notions of individual expression. “We learned we need to be so much more flexible if we are to work with others half a world away,” Manning said.

Li said she believes helping individuals, especially young people, understand cultural differences is increasingly important. “At a time when the world is shrinking into a ‘village,’ it is our responsibility to build a bridge for the young generations from different countries to come together and learn from each other,” she said.

Although there were many challenges and obstacles to overcome during the project, both Manning and Li say they are interested in continuing the collaboration. Their immediate goal is to write a journal article so they can share what they’ve learned with the larger academic community.

For more information about the American-Chinese intercultural communication collaboration, contact Manning at jmanning@wcu.edu.