New EUC pilot course to create critical world citizens
In July 2020 Ward Vloeberghs, Erasmus University College (EUC) finished the innovation project Critical world citizenship. This innovation project was supported by the Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI).
In the first half of 2020, EUC organised a pilot course in critical world citizenship set up as an academic exchange with the School of International Relations (SIR) in Tehran, Iran.
The original intent was to travel to Tehran with EUC students first and then host an incoming group of SIR students in Rotterdam. However, like so many others, because of Covid-19, they had to adjust and re-design the exchange programme to fit an online format.
In the first half of 2020, we at EUC organised a pilot course in critical world citizenship set up as an academic exchange with the School of International Relations (SIR) in Tehran, Iran.
The original intent was to travel to Tehran with EUC students first and then host an incoming group of SIR students in Rotterdam. However, like so many others, because of Covid-19, we had to adjust and re-design the exchange programme to fit an online format.
Together with SIR, we set up a digital exchange programme that spanned ten days and resulted in about 22 hours of interactive sessions online. To provide background knowledge and skills for this exchange, both EUC and SIR first organised a preparatory module familiarising our respective students with state and society issues of the ‘destination country’.
Content-wise, the programme was articulated around a cluster of five themes relevant to better understand both Iran and the Netherlands:
Process-wise, the programme is rooted in five distinct values aimed to guarantee a genuine exchange that goes beyond a classic country profile or a passive sightseeing exercise:
- Critical world citizenship
- Cross-cultural communication
- Two-way exchange
The assignments for this course (5 ECTS) were aimed at learning about each other’s country while at the same time reflecting critically at one’s own society. For example, students created a fact sheet in which they graphically summarized all materials for one of the five content topics. These documents were to serve as our ‘collective travel guide’ during the exchange. After the digital exchange, students also created a short video or podcast in which they reflected on the digital exchange through the lens of one of the process values of the programme.
This programme aimed to fill a gap in the EUC curriculum by allowing students to practice critical world citizenship in a secure, academically sound environment that is project-based and representative of their professional future, i.e. marked by human diversity and multiple, apparently contradictory preferences.
EUC aims to educate students into citizens who practice what they learn, reflect critically on their own actions and society with a sense of cosmopolitan belonging and responsibility. We currently offer many courses that provide knowledge, insights, and skills to foster critical world citizenship. Yet, there is still very limited opportunity within our curriculum to put this into practice. This programme contributes to fill that gap, by offering students a safe space to practice being a critical world citizen in a cross-cultural setting.
Furthermore, this programme aimed to let students take ownership of their own education process. With extensive guidance and feedback, we enabled students to take the lead during the digital mobility, for example by letting them decide what topic to focus on, what format their session should have, and what the desired learning outcomes are. This often resulted in small-scale, high-intensity education that built on their intrinsic motivation and interests.
Although more challenging than initially expected, this programme was a genuine exercise in practicing critical world citizenship in a cross-cultural setting for all of us. This experience has been an enhancement of our students’ study programme and will be of value as they progress into their professional careers since they will need their skills as critical world citizens in dealing with colleagues with different views and backgrounds.
Aside from increasing their knowledge about Iran and the Netherlands, students have practiced transferable skills that are unique to implementing a two-way exchange. These skills include communicating critically across cultural boundaries, taking responsibility to organise their own digital classes, and learning to allow others to look critically at their own state and society.
This is not to say that the programme and format were flawless. We should be mindful of the limits of such an exercise. Whilst there is no doubt that all of us gained from this programme, it is equally clear that none of us ‘mastered’ critical world citizenship in a cross-cultural setting after completing this programme. If anything, we were confronted with obstacles and questions that added to our sense of how much of a challenge exercising critical world citizenship really is and to what extent this challenge is recurrent in life. For example, early on in the programme, we were confronted with an Iranian state media video highlighting the allegedly failed and individualist European response to Covid-19. Many of us felt insulted by what we viewed as a propagandistic misrepresentation of our own societies. The true challenge here was to very show that we disagree with such videos, whilst continuing a conversation based on mutual understanding and respect. This was a genuine obstacle that we initially struggled to deal with.
We aspired to provide students with an opportunity to implement critical world citizenship in real-life circumstances. Looking back, we believe real-life threw up the biggest obstacle -and the biggest reward- to our participants: a capacity to persevere despite discouraging circumstances.
From the start, we experienced how setting up an exchange like this with Iran requires considerable conviction and mental flexibility to deal with unknown variables (e.g. travel safety, political turbulence, institutional pioneering). Due to this being a pilot course and because of the global health pandemic, this programme was probably even more challenging. Some genius reportedly once said that someone’s intelligence can be measured be that person’s ability to bear uncertainties. By that token, our participants surely qualify as intelligent individuals.
Given the difficulties we experienced, we are more convinced than before that offering students an opportunity to implement what they learn in an unfamiliar cultural context does add value to our curriculum. We also believe that it is crucial to do so on a small scale (this course had six participants, compared to twelve students in a typical EUC course) so that the exchange experience as a pedagogical technique (immersion) remains personal, authentic and feasible.
What set this programme apart from a ‘regular’ course at EUC is the end goal students have been working towards. Instead of working towards an exam or written assignment, their horizon was a practical application of their knowledge and skills in interaction with Iranian peers. As such, this programme provided students a genuine first at exercising what EUC aspires to teach them: becoming critical world citizens.
Based our experiences in this programme, we can formulate three suggestions:
Letting students take ownership of their own education can work really well. Allowing students to design and align the topics and formats (within certain parameters) that they find interesting or relevant leads to genuine commitment, high intrinsic motivation, and ultimately better education.
This also changes the role of the teaching staff. Instead of instructing students to engage with content chosen solely by us, during the digital exchange we had to ‘let go’ of our intuition to control things. This forced us to take on a role as a companion guiding students throughout the process of structuring their own education sessions.
This small-scale and student-led approach resulted in a relatively horizontal professional group dynamic built on high levels of mutual trust and respect. This dynamic was different to that of other ‘regular’ courses and led to the individual students’ identity and personality to emerge throughout the process.
Consider making your study visit two-way instead of one-way. Rather than only focus on learning about what goes wrong or well in Iran, we found it stimulating to see how much we learned about (Dutch) society by explaining its basic tenets to our Iranian peers.
During our exchange with SIR we learned the value of listening as an important academic exercise. Though being critical to others remains important, we believe that voicing immediate critique is sometimes overrated compared to listening and experiencing as necessary steps in having a critical conversation based on mutual understanding and respect. Again, this does not mean that speaking out should be abandoned; rather, that it may be more effective to engage first and only thereafter explain why you disagree or reject something.
Being critical to the outside world is only one part of what it means to be a critical world citizen. Being critical towards yourself and allowing others to be critical at you is a crucial second step.
Thus, when organising study visits, do consider the possibility of making this a two-way process. Instead of learning about your target audience, think about how this target audience can teach you. Even when there is no clear ‘other’ to listen to, there is always value in including an element of introspection and critical (self-)assessment into your education.
At certain points in our exchange we were confronted with frustrations, misunderstandings, and confrontation. Some of these feelings remained until the end of the programme and meant that students did not get a sense of closure (i.e. mastering a skill) when they completed the programme. However, we believe it is important to acknowledge that we do not expect anyone to finish this programme as masters of, for example, cross-cultural communication. In this case, it is experiencing the potential as well as the limits of communicating across cultural boundaries that was most important. In other words, the journey is the destination itself.