Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cross-Cultural Teaching as Co-Learning

Last night we returned to Delhi after a week away teaching at two different campuses of Jaypee University. It was an extraordinary experience and I certainly learned more from the students and faculty than they did from me.

I was invited to teach by the Jaypee Group’s Chief Operating Officer for Education, Dr. Yaj Medury. He earned his PhD at University of Wisconsin in Madison and is a friend of Professor Deepak Khazanchi, Associate Dean of the University of Nebraska’s Peter Kiewit Institute. When contemplating where to teach as part of my Fulbright, Deepak (who has sons playing in the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras) put me in contact with Yaj, an old friend of his from the Indian Institute of Technology, the premier university system in India. After an extended email exchange, we landed on my teaching Social Entrepreneurship at Jaypee Business School.

Jaypee University is a private university system that has “deemed university” status, meaning it is a government approved institution with a rigorous curriculum and not just a private money-making venture. With two-thirds of the 1.2 billion people in India under the age of 35 (twice the total population of the USA), there is a huge market of potential students to tap which has led to the proliferation of these private colleges many of which are of low quality.

But Jaypee University is a different sort; well-maintained facilities, top notch faculty and students from more privileged backgrounds. It has three campuses, the first two of which I visited this past week: (1) Jaypee Business School (www.jbs.ac.in) which is on the campus of JIIT in Noida, a suburb of Delhi; (2) Jaypee University of Information Technology (www.juit.ac.in) in Waknaghat, Himachal Pradesh State; and, (3) Jaypee University of Engineering and Technology in Guna, Madhya Pradesh State.

These educational institutions are the passion of Jaiprakash Gaur, the Founder and CEO of the Jaypee Group. Jaypee Group is a corporation with annual revenues of $1.5 billion and many lines of business including engineering and construction, hydropower, cement, real estate development, expressways and hospitality. I was told by an administrator at Jaypee University that the education business “takes profit from the other businesses and redirects it to do socially responsible work.” The educational institutions – not just the three universities, but 17 schools that serve 25,000 students at all levels – are partially funded through a nonprofit trust. Although this is the philanthropic work of the founder and his family, the universities “hope to break even” on the venture. 

JBS offers both MBA and PhD. degrees. Every MBA student must complete a “social internship” in their second year during which they work with a non-governmental organization for at least 3 weeks and write a research paper on the social issues being addressed. Rather than have me teach a stand-alone course, the JBS faculty decided to integrate my three-day course into the social internship requirement. This was great because it meant my class was mandatory. It was also a challenge because it meant that all second year MBA students were in my class. (Note to Self: Never again put essay questions on the final exam given to 257 students who do not speak English as their mother tongue!)   

Teaching in a cross-cultural setting of any sort is difficult, but I think it is particularly hard in another country. Not only do I have this funny American accent (yes, friends, it is us who have the accent when we are abroad), but the classroom norms, social hierarchies and expectations from students and faculty must all be figured out in a hurry.

When I entered the classroom, which was fully equipped with state-of-the-art technology, all the students rose from their seats and, in unison, greeted me with, “Good morning, Sir.” In one corner was an idol of Sarashwati, the goddess of Music, Education and Creativity… maybe an auspicious sign for a conductor’s husband to be teaching in this room. The students were deferential and respectful, curious and (mostly) engaged, bright and young (all in their early 20s and most in a dual degree program, B-Tech/MBA).


I taught two sections of approximately 125 each. My intention from the outset was to keep it simple and clear in design and delivery. I used PowerPoint slides for students to easily track things, but (as is my nature) took frequent tangents from the outline to address issues that came up in discussions. 

The students were a bit reluctant to engage at first. They were not used to being so interactive. So I started by asking questions and gently put students on the spot. “Please share your name? Where you are from? And what do you want to do after your MBA?” I asked. I also tried discussions in small groups of 2 or 3 before asking for volunteers to come up front and share the class assignments. Slowly they loosened up. The morning section of my course had students from the Marketing and HR tracks of the MBA. They were definitely more engaged and dialogic than the afternoon section which included students from the Finance and Operations tracks.

One assignment asked students to choose a social problem then design a social entrepreneurial approach to solve it. Almost 75% of the students named illiteracy or the flipside education as the problem. I asked them why? They are students so are living the topic. They see the great need for education, especially in the rural villages. And they see a connection between education and many other issues of social betterment. Nearly all the students mentioned government as the funder. Again I asked why? They saw the government as having the deepest pockets. And as being the only entity concerned with the public good. Unsaid was that there is still not much private philanthropy in India and after years of a quasi-socialist planned economy, having only opened up in 1991 under then Finance Minister now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, there is a certain dependency that many feel.

I had a great teaching assistant, Vishal, who is a doctoral student at JBS. He helped me with the logistics of the class, grading the multiple choice questions on the exams (I graded the essays!) and sharing insights into the culture of Indian classrooms. Two other doctoral students helped proctor the exams. And one, Vidit, accompanied my family to the magnificent Akshardaham Temple, near the recently constructed Commonwealth Games Village, where we watched an impressive evening “musical fountain” show with water and lights.

Discipline in the cross-cultural context is tricky. At one point, a particular student continued to chit-chat during class. I made eye contact with him, but it continued. I stood close to him, but it continued. Finally, I asked him a question about something I had just said and handed him the microphone to answer. After a long silence, I asked again. Finally, he answered. It was obvious to all what I had just done and there was no more chit-chat from anyone for that class period.

I was feeling bad after class, not sure that embarrassing this student in front of his classmates was right. So I asked Professor Naseem Abidi, my incredibly gracious host from the faculty, whether my discipline was culturally appropriate. “I would have thrown him out of the classroom. I think you were too easy on him,” Naseem reassured me. Vishal told me, “I think the students learned something from you today about how to handle a situation like that. What you did was very good.”

I tried hard to make the course relevant by using local examples of social entrepreneurs in India. I asked the country director for the Ashoka Foundation (named by founder Bill Drayton after the great Indian king who was exemplary in his dedication to give back to the people) whether he might provide names of a guest lecturer from the roster of Ashoka Fellows, chosen because of their innovative work as social entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, an Ashoka guest lecturer did not work out. But I had even better visitors to my class when the great social entrepreneur Aviva Segall talked about her work as Music Director of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras, and Ilana and Leora talk about highlights from their travels. (Ilana said the Taj Mahal on her birthday was the highlight. Leora would later say that the trip to an Amusement Park during our stay in Noida was, “The best day of my life!”)



On the morning after the horrific bombings in Mumbai, I integrated that into our class discussions by asking how a social entrepreneur might go beyond just dealing with the immediate suffering to addressing the deeper root causes of the bombings. We got off into a discussion of how religion can inspire people to commit acts of violence, as well as acts of peacemaking. I shared the example of my friend and social entrepreneur Beth Katz who started Project Interfaith to help build bridges between people of different religions. I cautioned the students not to jump to any conclusions about the culprits of the Mumbai attacks before the investigation was complete. I also shared some of my own religious background and belief that “there are many paths to God,” which is a rather controversial statement to some of my fellow Christians, not to mention many believers in other faiths.

Later, a JBS faculty member who sat in my class that morning complemented me for how I handled the discussion. He warned, “We have many Muslim students who might take offense if you accused them of being terrorists.” He also said about my sharing my own faith perspective, “That would not be done by an Indian professor, but you have more latitude as an American professor.”

The flattering feedback in emails I received from students confirmed that my teaching was well-received by at least some students.  One wrote, “Sir, your teaching style was awsome!!! You were more of a friend with us than just a teacher and I really appreciate that. Sir, your friendliness definitely crossed the cultural boundaries which you had been talking about a lot in the class.” Another wrote, “It was a pleasure listening to all those wonderful and insightful stories. The passion with which you taught us or rather talked about your life stories was simply incredible. It helped me a lot in understanding my own purpose in life a lot more clearly.”

After I finished at JBS, they sent my family up to the Waknaghat campus to give a guest lecture and interact with the faculty there. It was a four hour train ride followed by a three hour car ride winding up into the Himalayas. We spent the afternoon and sunset in Shimla, the hill station where the British Viceroy and his administrators would escape the summer heat of the lowlands. We visited the Viceroy’s palace, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (www.iias.org), which looked like a set for Harry Potter, and was the site of Gandhi’s unsuccessful negotiations with the Muslim League leaders to stop the partition of India and Pakistan.



As the car careened down the mountain to the train station in Kalka for our trip back to Delhi, it took harrowing hairpins at a potentially (literally) break-necking clip. I thought about how my own life has taken terrific turns and landed me with such amazing opportunities to learn about myself and others. This trip is another chapter of a life-story yet unfolding. I hope that I can stay on the winding road long enough to learn, grow and use my gifts to give back in ways that I am only just beginning to see.

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