The perils of digital illiteracy

Photo: REUTERS

Photo: REUTERS

The strange twists of the US presidential campaign continue. On Friday, the FBI notified members of the US Congress that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails would be re-opened. It seems that the Bureau found through an unrelated investigation emails on a laptop which may be related to the Clinton case. In another bizarre twist, that laptop was shared between Clinton top aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, notorious sexting enthusiast Anthony Weiner. The incident raises a host of questions, beginning with why the FBI would release this information 11 days before the election, therefore at a time when such a bombshell could affect the outcome. For me, one of the intriguing questions is why would the couple have been sharing a laptop. These are well-to-do folks who are likely heavy users of the Internet and social media. Couldn’t they manage to have their own laptops? Given Weiner’s unsavory use of online media, wouldn’t he want to keep his partner from having access to his messages? And given his history, wouldn’t she want that as well? It could be that, although using the same laptop, they may have had separate user accounts, requiring individual logins – but that is not really a foolproof way to secure privacy.

There has been speculation that Abedin may have had Clinton emails on the shared laptop because Clinton wanted her aide to print them for her to read. A number of media reports have indicated that Clinton is far from tech savvy. In some cases, it may be that Clinton has asserted ignorance of tech in order to protect herself, for example, when she took literally the “wiping” of her hard drive. But other stories seem to indicate a woeful ignorance of tech-related issues. Abedin apparently had a quite difficult time, for example, getting Clinton to understand how to use the telephone for faxing. Printing emails is a bad idea on a number of counts, not least of which is the possibility of having print copies of sensitive information lying around. In fact, the whole email controversy which has so dogged her campaign has been execrated by Clinton’s failure to explain clearly how her email was set up. That failure may derive from Clinton’s tendency to want to keep her affairs private, but it’s even more likely to be related to her not taking the time and effort to understand.

When I teach courses in intercultural communication, one of the reasons I list for having students become sensitive to issues of how to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures is that we want potential leaders to have those skills and knowledge. I would argue as well that we want our future leaders to be digitally literate – that’s important not only so as to avoid snafus like the Clinton email problem, but also to serve as role models. President Obama participated in a coding workshop in which he learned to write JavaScript. We probably don’t want the US President spending a lot of time writing code, but knowing what’s involved in that process can lead to more informed decisions involving technology.

English and the EU

Theresa May

Theresa May: No Brexit negotiations in French

One of the interesting questions surrounding Brexit is the status of English in the EU. This was raised in an article in the Guardian yesterday in which it was reported that the EU’s chief negotiator has indicated that he expects the talks to be conducted in French. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Just in case, the Guardian has published a tongue-in-cheek guide for the PM, Le Brexit: a linguistic guide for Theresa May. Included are French translations of such helpful phrases as “Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?” or “Can I interest you in a some tea and biscuits? I also have some very innovative jam to sell you”. The latter phrase is in connection with a recent tweet from the British trade secretary, “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades”.

The unhappiness in the EU over Brexit may be reflected in the recent comment by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, that he will no longer speak English in public. According to the article, “Speculation that English would be abandoned by Brussels emerged on the day after the referendum when the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is fluent in English, conducted his Brexit press conference in French”.

With Great Britain leaving, Ireland is left as the last native English speaking EU member. Irish Gaelic is one of the 23 official EU languages, so if English were to go, Irish officials may need to brush up on their likely rusty Gaelic (spoken as a mother tongue by less than 1% of the population). In reality, it’s not likely that there will be a change in the status of English, as it is widely used as the lingua franca in the EU, as it is elsewhere in the world.

As it happens, I am currently in London, having come over for a conference at the Open University on “MOOCs, informal language learning, and mobility”. Brexit was something which came up frequently, as a number of the projects presented at the conference were funded by the EU. For language educators, Brexit is unfortunate not just due to possible loss of project funding, but also for the isolationist message it sends. Of course, the kind of nationalism Brexit represents is not just to be seen in Britain, it’s been on full display in the US presidential campaign. I’ve had frequent pub conversations in the last few days about the election, with most Brits expressing incredulity over Trump and how far he’s gotten. Yesterday I was asked in separate conversations the same question: “Aren’t you ashamed?” Being in this situation as a US citizen abroad takes me back to the conversations I had in Europe during the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq – like the Trump candidacy, events that don’t show the US in the best light. However, during one conversation last night, “Tangled up in blue” played over the pub’s sound system, so I was able to say, there are things about the US I’m proud of, like our newly minted Nobel Laureate in literature!

Locker room talk

Locker_RoomThe infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording of Donald Trump on the set of a soap opera in which he boasted about using his celebrity to fondle and abuse women has been dismissed by Trump and his supporters as “locker room talk”. What does that mean? Apparently, the idea is that this is how men talk when they are among themselves, as they would be in a locker room, with the implication that this is meaningless boasting, not to be taken seriously. Many professional athletes, who have spent a lot of time talking in locker rooms, have expressed their disagreement with that perspective, claiming that comments about women are not the normal subject matter of the banter.

“Locker room talk” is apparently not an easy expression to translate into other languages, being a term with a lot of US cultural baggage. That was made clear to me as I as watching the German news recently, in which locker room was translated as “Umkleidekabine”, meaning a changing cubicle, normally a place where one would be by oneself, not a locale for communicating with others. “Locker room talk” was variously translated as “Männergerede [men talk] in der Umkleidekabine” or “Gequatsche, wie Männer es in der Umkleidekabine machen” [nonsensical talk, as men tend to use in changing booths]. What doesn’t come through in the German versions is the cultural connotation of male locker room culture. I’m curious about how locker room talk is being translated into other languages. Another term in that regard is “quip”, which is how vice-presidential candidate Pence described Trump’s comment during the last debate, that Clinton will be “in jail” if he is elected.

Two bodies at war

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”

Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of BodyLanguageSuccess.com, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:

The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.

Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.

Update: 9/28/2016
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:

debate

The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Ugly Americans?

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.16.20 PM

Ryan Lochte and fellow US swimmers in Rio

Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.30.57 PMThe Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.

From pose to reality

Source: PNAS Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

Source: PNAS / Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

There were 2 recent episodes in the NPR Invisibilia series that tell some interesting stories illustrating the power of transforming oneself through outward actions – who we hang out with, what our body language is, or how we dress. The first episode, “Outside in” has this as its starting point: “There’s a popular idea out there that you can change from the outside in. Power posing. Fake it ’til you make it. If you just assume the pose, inner transformation will follow.” One story shows how acting like a celebrity in order to ridicule US celebrity culture (having a “posse” following you around, driving up to a venue in a limousine, etc.) actually created the desire for fame. Another recounted a story from Rwanda in which an inexperienced female university debate team were inspired by Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing, eventually gaining enough confidence to overcome both social prejudice against women in that role and their own uncertainty whether they belonged in the competition.

The second episode is entitled “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes”. One of the stories is a portrait of a famous tailor, Marin Greenfield, who makes clothes for US presidents and many celebrities. According to the story, Greenfield “learned how to sew when the SS put him to work in the tailor shop at Auschwitz, where he did an amazing thing. After he ripped the shirt of a Nazi officer, and took a beating for it, Martin decided to take the shirt for himself. No other prisoners had a shirt under their uniform but he kept his, throughout the rest of the war. We explore whether this one shirt saved his life by making him feel more like himself.” It’s an amazing story. An especially dramatic episode was the first time he wore the shirt, going out of the wrong door from the prisoner barracks at Auschwitz – whether it was the shirt or the new confidence or new sense identity it brought, the Nazi guards surprisingly did not reprimand or punish him, just let him walk by. Another story talks about the power of sunglasses to transform behavior and attitudes.

The episodes remained me of a story from another NPR series, Shots, entitled “To Catch Someone On Tinder, Stretch Your Arms Wide”, about how body language in photos on dating sites make a big difference. It’s not just a question of attractiveness, but rather body language: expansive body posture leads (in the photo above, left) to better dating responses than the contracted posture (right). According to a study out of the University of California – Berkeley from Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, the open, expansive posture conveys power and openness: “The information packing in that nonverbal behavior is social dominance, and where that person stands in a hierarchy,” The presumption, according to the article, is that “the person high in the pecking order is sexy. Alphas are scarce and in demand.” It sounds like we haven’t evolved much from caveman days, especially in our nonverbal behavior patterns.

Brexit: Turning inward

brexit2There are many ramifications of the vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Most of the attention has gone to the possible economic consequences through the UK’s loss of access to the EU single market. Of course, it’s likely that special trade deals between the UK and the EU will be negotiated, possibly along the lines of existing relationships between the EU and Switzerland or other non-EU countries like Norway, but the uncertainty over how and when that will be worked out has worried markets and companies doing business in the UK. Uncertainty exists as well in respect to the status of foreigners currently in the EU. No longer being an EU member brings to an end not only the free movement of goods but also that of people. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a record of have a tough stance on immigration. There are already some indications that anti-immigrant attitudes are now being more publically expressed, as the Brexit vote seems to signal that such views are now mainstream in the UK, and therefore able to be voiced openly. It remains to be seen whether such voiced sentiments will result in violence against foreigners.

There has been less media attention paid to the cultural and educational consequences of Brexit. One concern for universities is the likelihood that UK scholars and students will no longer be able to participate in EU programs and projects, at least not with the same full access as EU member states. Much of the research done in recent years in an area I am interested in, educational technology, has been driven by funding from EU grant programs. In fact, in my experience with EU colleagues, it has been difficult to get them on board with any kind of teaching or research project that did not involve EU funding. Being out of the EU is likely to mean UK scholars will be as much on the outside as those from the US. The situation for students is similar, with the potential exclusion from the widely popular Erasmus exchange program, which has made it easy for students from EU countries to spend a semester or more at a university in another EU country, with full credit towards their degrees. There are numerous other EU arts and culture programs as well.

The Brexit vote is symptomatic of a worrying trend towards nationalism, accompanied frequently by xenophopia, a distrust of globalization, and a feeling that one’s own culture must be defended from all outside influences. This is by no means limited to the UK. We’ve seen similar sentiments expressed in the US presidential campaign as well as in political developments in Western Europe and elsewhere. Excluding other cultures from enriching a national culture is a sign that that culture is likely to be stagnant and in decline. As a visitor to the UK, I would much regret the absence of Indian influences on British food culture – it would be sad indeed to have to rely only on fish and chips and shepherd pie.

High heels empowering?

Japanese women taking walking lessons

Japanese women taking high heel walking lessons

I’m currently in Russia and one of the many cultural differences to the US is in how young women dress. I’ve been spending a good amount of time at playgrounds with my 5-year old grandson and have seen a lot of young mothers with their children. Inevitably, the women are dressed very well, often wearing high heels, not something you are likely to see in North American playgrounds. High heels have been in the news recently, with a group in Japan, the Japan High Heel Association (JHA), advising women to start wearing them for personal “empowerment”. As reported in the Daily Mail, JHA managing director ‘Madame’ Yumiko argues that wearing heels will help ‘Japanese women become more confident’:

She explains: ‘Many women are too shy to express themselves. In Japanese culture, women are not expected to stand out or put themselves first.’ Her solution is for women suffocated by such strict protocols to simply ‘throw on a pair of heels,’ arguing the freedom it brings can unlock the mind…’Chinese or Korean ladies don’t have these problems,’ she said. ‘It’s a result of Japan’s kimono culture and shuffling about in straw sandals. It’s ingrained in the way Japanese walk. ‘But very few Japanese wear a kimono all day anymore. We should know about Western culture and how to wear heels correctly,’ she added.

The JHA has started offering etiquette lessons (400,000 yen or US $4,000), with many young women signing up, according to the article. Critics have pointed out that this is just the wrong behavior to be advocating to women in an already staunchly patriarchal society, in which women have struggled to obtain equal rights to men.

The advocacy for heels comes at a time when women in the west are protesting that fashion accessory. Julia Roberts went barefoot on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival in May as a sign of protest against women being ejected last year from the festival for wearing flat shoes. A campaign in Britain to end high heel only policies at companies is being supported by a number of Members of Parliament.

Hijab question

hijab

Frank Boston/Flickr Creative Commons

For American Muslim women, the question of whether or not to cover their heads can be a difficult issue, as outlined in a piece on National Public Radio. Wearing the hijab can automatically change the dynamics of interactions with other US Americans. One Muslim woman in the piece had this perspective:

“Before I wore hijab, making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Maryam Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria. Before she began wearing a headscarf three years ago, people didn’t know she was Muslim — until she told them.
“I, like, Trojan-horsed my Islam,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘You’re already my friend. I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn about this faith.’ ” Once she started wearing a headscarf, she encountered a social obstacle she hadn’t seen before. “Now, I have to work a lot harder to get into people’s lives who aren’t Muslim,” she says.

Of course, hijabs, or other clothing associated with Islam such as the body-covering burqa are not the only clothing or body modification which can tend to put folks automatically into particular categories. Black leather, along with multiple tattoos, for example, may point to motorcycle club membership. But few decisions on dress and appearance are as complex as the decision facing US Muslim women in regard to head covering. They face widespread assumptions in the US, which are largely negative, with wearing a hijab most often seen as a sign of oppression. In reality, there are many possible factors, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied demonstrated in her TED talk. A provocative perspective was offered in a Washington Post op-ed by Asra Nomani. An opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this year by Ruqaiya Haris presented an interesting perspective on the introduction of high fashion hijabs, modeled by white Westerners:

As a Muslim woman and the intended target consumer, I thought that the pale white model wearing the clothing served as yet another stark reminder that eastern culture may only be celebrated when it is glamorised by western society, which can in turn capitalise on it. In the context of global Islamophobia, there is something that makes me feel quite uneasy seeing a towering white woman praised for looking glamorous in the same clothing that often leaves Muslim women perceived as “extremist” and puts them at risk of being attacked or even criminalised in some western societies.

A powerful speech act

steve3I attended yesterday the official swearing-in of a new judge on the Virginia Supreme Court, Steve McCullough. The process was an interesting example of a powerful “speech act” (an utterance that causes something to happen), namely having the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court transform an ordinary citizen into a fellow Supreme Court Justice by a few simple words spoken as an oath of office. The magical transformation only happens, however, if the oath is spoken correctly. President Obama in 2009 had to retake later the oath of office because Chief Justice John Roberts did not prompt him with the exact correct language, so that Obama did not say the line correctly. It’s not likely in that particular case that anyone would question whether Obama was really the President of the United States (although, given the birther controversy, that may have happened, if he had not retaken the oath). In the case of marriage vows, a similar transformational speech act, the absence of the concluding statement, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” often is played up in fiction and film as meaning that the couple is in fact not legally wed (i.e., The Graduate, The Princess Bride).

The oath of office actually was made interesting by the fact that the new Justice held his 2-year son, Andrew, as the oath was being administered, while Andrew’s mother held the bible on which Steve swore the oath (and tried to quiet down her son). Speech acts may be accompanied by such nonverbal signals as the presence of an official document of some sort or the wearing of prescribed clothing, as, in this case, the black robes, which visually transformed Steve from a citizen into a Justice (the “robing” was also done ceremoniously). Part of this official act was also that it took place in a prescribed location, namely the Chambers of the Virginia Supreme Court, a place set apart from normal everyday life (no cell phones allowed, sitting and standing at prescribed times, always beginning one’s addressing of the Justices with the formula, “may it please the court”). In linguistics, we would say that the “felicity conditions” (i.e., in this instance, all the outer trappings) for this “commissive” speech act (it commits Steve to fulfilling the oath of office) have been fulfilled.

Into this august environment came Andrew, who chimed in merrily while his father took the oath. It struck me at the time that the kind of informality represented by having a new Supreme Court Justice hold a babbling 2-year old during such an important official government ceremony, in the presence not only of the other Justices, but also of the Governor of Virginia, members of the Virginia legislature, and other high officials, was something that might not be done in all cultures. In the US, we like to see our government officials as being no different from ourselves, often choosing a political candidate by the fact that he’s “just like us” (open question of how well that works out). Being a doting father is part of that image projection and having children close by in such instances is both accepted and valued. When you’re the US President on an official visit to Vietnam, having noodles and cold beer at a neighborhood joint in Hanoi is just the kind of “ordinary joe” behavior we like to see.

I don’t usually hobnob with the Governor and the Supreme Court, but Steve is a former VCU student, whom I hired as a lab assistant back in the early 1990’s when I ran the Language Lab. After graduating from law school, he worked for a while for my wife’s law firm, so we’ve known Steve and his family for a long time. It’s great to see a former student have this degree of success. I asked Steve after the ceremony whether he figures that being a Supreme Court Justice will be an interesting line of work. He answered that there are likely to be engrossing cases that come up, but that a lot of it will be routine and less than exciting – just like all jobs.

Teaching in India

logo Coming to India to teach intercultural communication seems like taking coals to Newcastle – seems odd for an American, coming from a foreign language phobic land, to be telling multilingual Indians how to get along with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, one of the main themes in the course was the Western controlling influence over the traditional narratives around intercultural communication, with individualism (identified with the West) being seen positively – enabling creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurism – in contrast to the groupthink, passivity, and rigidity of collectivistic cultures. The course was live-streamed on YouTube, then archived: Intercultural Communication in Global Virtual Environments.

My colleague here at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) has mentioned that in her classes she typically has students representing a number of Indian states and a variety of Indian languages. English is the language of instruction, but it isn’t anyone’s first language. During breaks from the classes during the course, I heard a lot of code-switching among the participants. There was one student from Nigeria in the class – it was interesting to compare the different effects of British colonialism in both countries. Nigeria has a similar multilingual make-up; the student indicated that he regularly used four different language at home, the main ones being English and Housa, plus two local languages.

I learned some history of the Institute here that I hadn’t known, namely that it was the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, housing those fighting for independence in the 1930’s. This is now the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. The site was used as a British Royal Air Force airstrip and later as a US Air Force base. In fact, I was told yesterday that the Enola Gay refueled here on its way to drop its atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I am heading back to the US tomorrow. I will miss being here, and especially the contact with the students, but will not miss the weather. It was 110° F when I came and has been hotter than that some days; for Thursday the forecast says 117°.

Tech ruining travel?

woman-texting-overseas-paris-liveworkanywhereA post today in the Forbes blog by Monty Munford laments the millennial generation’s use of technology in planning travel. In the post, “Too Much Technology Is Making Travel Boring, Exhibitionist And Inauthentic,” Munford cites a recent study by Expedia, which he says shows that millennials do not have the “adventurous” attitude towards travel of earlier generations. His gripe is that before venturing abroad young people get information online the places they want to visist: “The shocking aspect I mentioned earlier about the report was the degree to which Millennials are using technology to check out the places they want to travel to before they leave.” He compares that experience to his own travels: “In my day you bought a Lonely Planet travel book, read it, remembered the places you’d read about and left the book at home. That was that. Onwards, empirical discovery and adventure. That was all the technology that was required.” He laments as well the fact that travelers post their experiences on social media, which, in fact, may be in part be a driver in deciding where to travel.

This point of view, I would imagine, would strike most people as very strange – who wouldn’t use the internet to check out in advance places one is hoping to visit, not just to find out about tourist sites, but to read travel journals, book hotels, even to make contact with folks at the sites abroad. Most people would be sure as well to find out what options there would be at the destination to stay connected. But having recently written a piece for Language Learning & Technology on “Integrating Technology into Study Abroad”, I’ve found that the view expressed by Munford can be frequently found in advice given to students going abroad:

It is not difficult to find numerous warnings for students going abroad about the downsides of remaining digitally connected, with articles such as “How the Internet screwed up study abroad” (Roberts, 2010) or “Benefits of study abroad WITHOUT technology” (Lee, 2015). National Public Radio in the US recently ran a story on how “Tech may get in the way of good culture shock while studying abroad” (Keck, 2015). In that report, a US student studying in Brazil described the epiphany she had when her phone (used for Internet connections) broke: “Without my phone I would just stay downstairs and talk with my [host] family. And it was like…it was great.” In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Facebook can ruin study abroad”, Robert Huesca (2013) recommends a media pledge for study abroad programs, similar to the pledge students often take to use the target language exclusively. In this case, the pledge would be not to use their digital music libraries, stream home television shows, or use instant messaging. Study abroad guidebooks frequently issue recommendations to students that they minimize their use of the Internet and mobile devices (Doerr, 2012). At least one study abroad provider, Carpe Diem Education, prohibits students from bringing cell phones on study abroad programs.

I argue in the article that this perspective is misguided – technology, used both in advance and during travel abroad – can considerably enrich the experience. But tech use is more likely to be effective, if thoughtful and guided, and oriented both to maintain contact back home and to establish relationships with the target culture:

The overreliance on home networks may indeed mitigate the value of the experience abroad as a means to gain a new perspective on one’s own cultural values and beliefs as well as those of people in the target culture. This makes orientation, guidance, and support before and during the program of great importance. The advice given needs to go beyond turning off cell phones, but should instead offer concrete tips on how both to maintain contacts back home and to engage with the host community electronically and in person.

Part of that preparation for going abroad should include at least some effort to learn both about the target culture and, if applicable, some elements at least of the language spoken.

Too many Chinese?

From Timothy Yu's blog

From Timothy Yu’s blog

A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:

When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.

Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.

Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.