Multicultural Competencies: A New VU Publication

VU University (photo by Andrew Black)

By Pál Nyíri I have received a nicely designed and expensively printed booklet in the mail. It contains a synopsis written by Nicolien Zuijdgeest. This is based on a much more extensive research report by Lucy Kortram and published by the VU’s Onderwijscentrum, entitled Multiculturele competenties. Since “diversity is our business” — to borrow a chapter title from Ulf Hannerz’s latest book – I think we in the departments of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Communication, Organisation and Management, and History should take time to read this report and comment on it. I hope this post will elicit responses from colleagues who work in this particular field.

The report seems to fit in a recent effort by the VU to address the diversity of its student population in a more explicit way, and perhaps also in its hesitant efforts to “internationalize.” It summarizes a series of interviews with “autochthonous” (“native”), “allochthonous” (“non-native”) Dutch and “international” faculty and students on the way non-native students and cultural difference are treated in teaching and on the broader university environment. It indicates a number of problems and offers some recommendations.

The students whose nationality is indicated in the text are of Moroccan, Turkish, or Surinamese origin, probably reflecting the largest “allochthonous” groups at the VU (and the Netherlands). They make some interesting comments. Some complain about prejudiced staff – you have to work harder to prove yourself as a non-white –  and believe that some lecturers tend to judge a non-white student who is late or misses a class more harshly. Other students want a less Eurocentric philosophy curriculum or more space for the role of the Netherlands in colonial history, which is generally treated as something other nations did. (My colleague Susan Legene will surely agree with this.) A number of “allocthonous” students feel irked by allegations that they are “not engaged” or “not participating;” while they admit being part of different life-worlds at home and at the university, they report being interested in and making efforts to participate in student life. Here, of course, there is a range of responses, but self-isolation seems the exception rather than the norm.

In contrast, staff responses reveal a generally defensive attitude to the idea of reflecting on one’s cultural biases (“I think that’s for political scientists” or “science is science”). At the same time, a number of staff report feeling intimidated by the behaviour of “allochthonous” (specifically Dutch-Moroccan) youth, or else unsure about the reasons for unsatisfactory performance or disruptive behaviour and unwilling to engage with it for fear of being accused of discrimination. All of this suggests that the VU does, as an institution, have issues to address here.

My overall evaluation of the report is positive. The author remains in the background and largely limits herself to summarizing the views of staff and students. Generally speaking, she takes care to avoid reifying cultural difference. Granted, she does not question the “allochthonous” category, often treats it as a single whole, and sometimes allows the quotes from staff to conflate it with Muslims without drawing attention to this problem. Some of the quotes from staff essentialise particular forms of behaviour – such as unwillingness to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex – as “a custom within the religion” that “lecturers must know” (p. 17).

But the report also stresses that it is hard for lecturers to judge when cultural norms are presented in a manipulative way to achieve mundane interests. One group of Indonesian students is reported to have asked for Fridays off, only to be dismissed by an Indonesian professor. (This is presented as a case of cultural manipulation nipped in the bud, although the case does not seem so obvious to me.) Interestingly, Jewish students are described in one quote as particularly prone to religiously justified class avoidance. The report notes that lecturers should feel confident and capable of “drawing boundaries” of acceptable behaviour, and that the more they are aware of their own norms and biases the better they will be able to do so.

The report concludes by identifying eight “core multicultural competencies,” and despite my unease with this term, I think most are useful as goals to strive for. Here they are: a questioning attitude (towards statements about culture); ability to tell when generalisations about a group can and when they cannot be made; awareness of own norms, values and biases; understanding of norms and values of the “other” while being aware that these are dynamic and that student behaviour cannot be assumed to be culturally determined; avoiding stereotyping language and examples; creating a safe learning environment for everyone; awareness of language barriers; and ability to deal with conflicting emotions.

Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at VU University. He recently published Seeing Culture Everywhere. On Standplaats Wereld he earlier wrote about ‘interculturalism at the VU’. See also his other posts. In addition, Pál writes regularly for the Culture Matters and China Can’t Stop Saying No weblogs.

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