Transcultural encounters across programs: The impact of study abroad on students’ transcultural learning, on the development of language and identity, and on the curriculum

Grant recipients: Emma Betz and Michael Boehringer, Germanic & Slavic Studies

(Project timeline: April 2015 - March 2018)

Photo of Emma and Michael

Project Description

This project builds on a LITE Seed Grant (5/2014-4/2015), which examined the learning experiences of German and Canadian study abroad participants (undergraduate and graduate) as sites of deep personal and intercultural learning. We examined how students’ preoccupation with language proficiency can be roadblocks for deep, potentially transformative learning. Initial findings motivated a focus shift and broadening of the research question:

In the Full LITE project, we address the complexities of identity development during study abroad. The project includes three partly overlapping phases: on-going qualitative analysis of interviews and written reflections, the ensuing curriculum changes, and an impact study to assess curricular changes. The project will provide insights into our students’ experiences and the impact of study abroad, thus enabling us to design curricular elements that will raise students’ language and cultural awareness. We ultimately aim to provide a basis for a university-wide model that increases the effectiveness of study abroad.

Project Goals and Questions Investigated

Within the context of internationalization, study/work abroad experiences enable contact with other languages and cultures and challenge a person to adapt to new contexts, thus fostering increased global awareness and transcultural understanding. Individual experiences are complex, including positive and negative outcomes, but these complexities are rarely considered in the design of university curricula.  This project will examine them using rigorous qualitative analysis and then apply research insights by integrating students’ study abroad experiences into the curriculum. This includes designing pre- and post-departure learning modules, introducing transcultural content into individual courses, and designing student activities that increase transcultural learning (e.g., interactions between local students and sojourners). The project has three phases, each with specific research questions:

  1. Examining study abroad experiences: How do students experience different phases (pre-departure, study abroad, post-return)?  What role does the perception of language proficiency play in their experiences?  What are students’ expectations, challenges, and transcultural encounters?  How do they deal with liminality, i.e., their positions between cultures, both abroad and upon return?
  2. Curriculum development: Which activities that address sojourners’ needs and increase transcultural learning opportunities can be designed and integrated into the curriculum?  How could those also reach and educate students who do not go abroad?
  3. Testing curriculum development: (How) do the introduced curriculum components promote students’ transcultural learning and increased global awareness? (How) do they impact their experiences abroad?​

The ultimate aim of the project is to provide a basis for a university-wide model that increases the effectiveness of study abroad. The project thus has an impact on teaching, on learning, and on the curriculum.

Preliminary Findings/Insights

The seed grant helped us to build an initial corpus of interview data, and, as a first step for the analysis, to transcribe the recorded interviews. The initial analysis done as part of the seed grant has raised important questions and re-focused our attention to the complexities of personal and intercultural development in a study abroad situation.

As part of the full grant, data collection continued, with the goal of building a large data base for (1) empirically examining student's experiences, (2) making observations about changes over time (where long-term participation was possible), and (3) assessing the impact of changes introduced into the programs and curriculum at UW. We now have a collection of (a) 36 interviews and focus group discussions, conducted with 50 individuals, and including 7 UW undergraduate participants in the summer-school from different UW faculties, (b) 6 complete sets of written reflections from graduate participants, each over the course of 12-14 months abroad. Data collection and transcription continue during the second year of the project.

The qualitative analysis of the interviews has proven valuable in the discovery of identity positionings, reflexivity, and the construction of experiences and difficulties during study abroad. As expected (and already documented in the initial observations during the seed grant period), students addressed issues of language proficiency in their interviews, but they did so in a more complex way than anticipated: The level of ability in using the second language is often tied to situational, motivational and goal-oriented positioning in complex identity constructions. Our observations are in line with study abroad research that has recently taken a social turn (Kinginger 2013; Van Compernolle and McGregor, 2016): It conceptualizes study abroad participants as “whole people” (Coleman, 2013) and aims to document the complexity and non-linearity of study abroad experiences. In the work we are doing as part of this grant, we analyze study abroad experiences in order to shed empirical light on “transculturality” (Kramsch, 2006, 2009) – a concept that is as theoretically promising as it is difficult to grasp and translate into practice.

In examining constructions of transculturality in our corpora, we have begun to describe how transcultural understanding and learning becomes visible in the individual and discursive interpretations of experience and constructions of meaning. For example, we have shown that study abroad participants choose to take on different identities in response to the imagined Other in interaction, and this results in complex, situationbound
interactional positionings. Our interaction analysis of graduate student interviews has shown that specific actions, e.g., evaluation/assessments (Labov, 1972; Pomerantz, 1984), as part of “small stories” (Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008; Georgakopoulou, 2007, 2013), are particularly important in such positionings: They frame events or personal experiences as (inter)cultural moments and thus play a crucial role in negotiating
identity in situ. Based on these initial findings, we propose that transculturality can be described as the discursive practice (a) of creating, making relevant, and realizing new/more complex subject positions in and through the encounter with the Other, (b) of framing events and experiences, of defining self and other through these subject positionings – beyond the language learner identity.

In our current analysis of reflections by graduate student sojourners, we examine participants' own experiences and constructions of meaning in order to gain insight into how transcultural learning becomes visible. The written reflections we investigate as data are composed over the course of a year abroad and designed to engage students more deeply with their intercultural experiences. Students are asked to write about “any event that matters” (Ward et al., 2001), that is, insights, events, and experiences they consider
important in their cultural development, including so-called “critical incidents” of intercultural conflict. We investigate the narrative (re)construction of events and experiences to trace changing perceptions, frameworks, and notions of transculturality as expressed by sojourners. We find that reflections range widely in format, length, and detail, and in kinds of self- and other-positioning. Preliminary results show that sojourners understand the reflective task differently, (re)construct different expectations and target audiences for their writing, and thus display very different types of engagement with new communities (through, e.g., a tourist gaze, Urry, 1990).

Our work on reflections directly links to the more practical goals of the project. In tracing participants' reconstruction of their experiences, we document different types of “recipient design” (Clark, 1992; Hutchby 1995), that is, more or less explicit orientations to an intended audience (e.g., the department/graduate advisor) and to a normative instructional frame. In a current paper (to be presented at Congress 2016 in Calgary), we argue that a detailed analysis of these orientations, coupled with insights from existing research on the value of reflections as learning (Ash and Clayton, 2004; Hatton and Smith, 2006; Moon, 2006), will enable us to better frame the 'task' of reflecting and prepare students for it. This will enhancing sojourners' understanding of the value of reflections as learning and as a tool for personal growth, thus improving the effectiveness of reflections as part of our programs.

Dissemination and Impact

  • At the national and/or international levels:

Presentations (PI, co-applicant, collaborators, graduate students):

2015, July. “Proficiency development in learners of German during study abroad.” Paper presented at the Culture of Study Abroad for Second Languages conference, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada. [R. S. Schirm, graduate student]

2015, October. Panel “Study abroad perspectives on transculturality” (4 papers, 6 researchers from Canada and the US), German Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC, USA. [organizers: G. Liebscher and E. Betz]

2015, October. “Transcultural subject positioning in a short-term summer study abroad program.” Paper presented at the German Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC, USA. [E. Betz]

2015, October. “Discursive construction of transculturality in a graduate study abroad program.” Paper presented at the German Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC, USA. [G. Liebscher]

2016, May. “Building Transcultural Awareness for a Transnational Community: Self-Reflection during Study Abroad.” Paper to be presented at the CAUTG 2016, Calgary, AB, Canada. [E. Betz, M. Boehringer, and J. Krieger, graduate student]

Theses and Publications:

2015, August. Successful defense and completion of thesis by MA student who worked on the project and used the project data for his thesis. Title: “Also meine freundin sie kommt aus schwaben: Use of the German particle 'also' in a study abroad context.” [R. S. Schirm]

  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels:
    • Compiling an overview of study abroad activities (pre-departure, in-country, and upon reentry) on the UW campus, icluding affiliated colleges (RA report, Spring 2015)
    • Fall 2015 pre-departure workshop for new IcGS students, held by grad students involved in the project as RAs (2 workshop in Nov. 2015).
    • Current research overviews on various topics related to study abroad research and methodology (Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Winter 2016)
    • Research overviews were shared in the following way: Workshops for students and faculty on (1) the concept of transculturality and (2) approaches to measuring/documenting intercultural development, held by graduate students involved in the project as RAs (2 workshops in Dec. 2015)


Project reference list (PDF)

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