Crossing Boundaries

Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue

Holly Oberle

My original motivation to begin experimenting with blogging in my classroom was twofold: first, a commitment to a feminist pedagogy and thereby a desire to explore alternative modes of the “classroom discussion,” which has the tendency to alienate female students; and similarly, a desire to harness the cultural diversity of my students, especially those not inclined to speak, as a pedagogical resource in and of itself. The former stems from my academic interests in feminist linguistics and international relations; the latter from my personal experience of being an international student for seven years in four different countries. As an international student, I often found my personal blog to be one of few places where I was able to process culture shock. As an educator, my goal was to find a tool that had the potential to recalibrate the face-to-face discussion as well as foster more meaningful intercultural learning among diverse students. My experiment with web writing serves as a call for educators to treat their increasingly diverse classrooms as an instructional resource rather than a happy accident—a resource that can be (carefully) cultivated through the web. This essay explores the delicate relationship between diversity and the web and, by extension, the potential difficulties and risks of web writing in the liberal arts classroom.

Defining Intercultural Dialogue

While the term “intercultural” is often used to refer to the interaction between people of different nationalities, I use it here to encompass not only the international, but also the exchange among those of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and socioeconomic classes. Due to my own international orientation, however, the examples discussed herein focus on dialogue among different nationalities, but my strategies and recommendations can be applied to any form of diversity.

Diversity policies in higher education take on many forms including the recruitment of traditionally under-represented domestic populations as well as international students, institutional support structures targeting these students, and the development of curriculum designed to satisfy an intercultural learning requirement. These approaches aim not only to increase the number of students from different backgrounds, but also towards specific educational outcomes related to cultural awareness and identity exploration. However, there is little evidence to indicate that these desired outcomes are actually happening, an issue to which I will return shortly.

If diversity policies are designed to foster intercultural learning, the time has never been better than now. According to the Institute for International Education, the 2011-2012 academic year was witness to the largest ever enrollment of international students in the United States with nearly 765,000 students.[1] And a recent report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts that by 2020, 45 percent of high school graduates in the US will be “minorities,” most of whom are destined for college admission.[2] These trends indicate both a challenge and a chance for educators to go beyond merely adding a “global perspective” to their curriculum and truly seize upon the increasingly diverse classroom as an avenue through which to achieve that perspective.

Strange Bedfellows: The Web and Diversity Policies

The web and educational policies have a number of rather remarkable things in common. First, both have been credited with the power to foster a “global village:” a more inclusive global society and a space free of prejudice.[3] Perhaps it is because of this imagined outcome that both continue to aggressively shape the mission statements of institutions worldwide. And while the enthusiasm for the utopian vision of the web’s potential has quelled somewhat, it is also finding new traction with the rise of Web 2.0 platforms and social media.[4]

Yet, as Selfe points out, the global village may be less about the dissolution of borders and more about the age-old American belief in technological progress as social progress.[5] Scholars are now fleeing the village for what Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson call “cyber-Balkans:” fiercely isolated and homogeneous groups identifying along more salient dimensions than mere geography.[6] Similarly, several have observed that students in otherwise diverse institutions tend to self-segregate along ethnic, religious, or even gendered lines, leaving the classroom as the most promising setting for cross-cultural exchange.[7]

I suspect that the failure of both the web and diversity programs to construct an open space for intercultural dialogue stems from the same root: the belief that simple contact with others will lead to significant cultural interactions.[8] This is a seductive theory to be sure. However, while contact is a productive first step, meaningful intercultural learning requires more. It demands thoughtful and deliberate approaches that are sensitive to a variety of learning styles as well as those that incentivize students to collaborate with those outside their normal circle. I have found that using strategically structured blogging assignments as a complement to, and at times, a substitute for, in-class discussion has the potential to prompt not only contact with others, but the application of these experiences towards a more sophisticated and culturally-informed understanding of the curriculum itself.

Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue: Exploring Women and Leadership

The following is a description of a web writing project that I have attempted to streamline over the teaching of several separate “Introduction to Gender and International Relations” classes taught in Berlin, Germany. These courses were always attended by students from multiple European countries, several North American exchange students, a significant number from the Middle East, and a few from elsewhere. This is a class that counts towards a diversity requirement for undergraduates and, for most, it is their very first exposure to gender studies. While the blogging assignment has certainly evolved since my first attempt, I still consider the specific structure of the assignment to be a work in progress.

I set up a restricted-access WordPress site to facilitate the course. The site is dedicated to two separate on-going web writing projects that progress throughout the semester, the first of which aims to create an “ethnography” of female leaders worldwide. First, I asked students to think about an influential woman in their own country or personal experience and to write a very short blog post about her. For example, an Indian student wrote about Sampat Pal Devi, the founder of a woman’s activist organization in Northern India that trains women in self-defense and puts pressure on local police departments to more seriously address rape. Second, I asked students to review a handful of their peers’ posts and to leave one to three questions in the comments section. Over the course of the next few weeks, the original posters were instructed to choose a few of the questions to respond to. I then assigned each student one of the women being discussed in the blog (apart from their own original contribution) and asked them to do a bit more digging and post content from the public web about her (if available), along with questions or comments on that article.

Following this exercise, we took a break from structured blogging (although students were encouraged to continue posting) and focused instead on in-depth class discussions and lectures on particularly theoretical or complex ideas. The examples and questions on the blog were continually brought into the face-to-face conversation or the lecture in an attempt to bridge the gap between the abstract ideas found in the required readings and the students’ own lives. Educators often attempt to draw theory out of the clouds through the use of vivid examples, but this exercise utilized illustrations drawn directly from student’s own work, narrowing that gap even further. We discussed why, for example, the majority of the Western students chose to blog about a female politician, while many of the non-Western students wrote about women in more varied capacities.  this discussion was related to a reading on cultural and gendered definitions of leadership.[9]

I attempted to draw cultural comparisons between the ever-evolving research on the blog during class discussions. We compared the description of Sampat Pal Devi from the student-generated blog post with the media portrayals from the public web. The Indian student who wrote the original post pressed the Western students to explain why the American media portrays the Gulabi Gang, the organization Devi founded, as “vigilantes.” In response, an American student pointed out that the American media was not always kind in its portrayal of Code Pink, a somewhat similar organization in the United States that challenges the priorities of authority figures. A conversation began about whether women are more peaceful than men. Various examples from nearly everyone’s personal experiences were offered to either support this hypothesis or refute it. Although it was not on the original syllabus, I canceled the assignment for the following week and opted for a new reading that tackled the issue of women as peacekeepers and whether this is naturally or socially constructed.

Students were assigned yet another woman and this time they were asked to provide a lengthier piece of original research to be appended to the original post and the article from the public web, and the original posters were asked to review the research and make comments. This peer review system reinforces, once again, that students are not merely passive recipients of information but can also take on the role of the instructor and guide the research process. In my experience, students seem genuinely pleased to have a second opinion about their work from someone other than the professor.

Throughout this process, I attempted to allow the online discussions to unfold organically without much intervention unless necessary. If I felt that the blog, in general, or a certain line of discussion was getting off-track somehow, I endeavored to redirect it in class rather than through the blog. Admittedly, I did not even attempt to read every comment and every response. A particularly active group of students can easily produce hundreds of comments in a short period of time. I did not purposely read all the comments in order to facilitate a sense of ownership and accountability by the students for their peers and to contrast the authoritative style of in-class discussions and lectures, which are largely guided by the instructor.

The Evidence of Intercultural Learning

No consensus has been reached as to what specifically constitutes “intercultural competence.”[10] However, I find compelling evidence of intercultural competence in the students’ final research papers. Before introducing the blog assignment, students would consistently write about either a person or event that the student had some sort of preexisting knowledge of, or they would ask me for a topic. After the blog assignment, students began writing their final papers on one of the women introduced by other students on the blog rather than their own original post. Because the women being researched were often local (and sometimes without even so much as a Wikipedia page), students had to rely on their peers as secondary sources, and these students directed their colleagues to local newspapers or websites to further their projects. I encouraged students to use their peer’s comments from the blog as a resource to improve their papers and even cite them when appropriate.

Some of the international students later reported to me that they were completely taken aback by the fact that someone might find a local leader in their community worth researching. It seemed to improve their intellectual confidence, their sense of self-worth, and I also speculate that it might have helped them process culture shock. I believe this to be the case due to subtle changes in international students’ behavior in class as well as the evolving nature of their writing, which can be easily traced using WordPress. Research suggests that international students, non-native English speakers, women and other traditionally under-represented groups can be hesitant about participating in face-to-face discussions due to individualist or combative argumentation styles, language ability, learning culture and general social adjustment factors.[11] Once their peers took a genuine interest in their lives and cultures, I noticed some of the previously hesitant students tentatively participating in face-to-face discussions on a more consistent basis. I also found that the more vocal students began to listen more in class, and I also noticed that as the blog took shape, the quality of everyone’s written and oral contributions improved. Therefore, the blog was not just a way to accommodate students who are less inclined to speak in class; it seemed to elevate everyone’s intellectual development.

Because this is a project that is almost entirely peer-facilitated, students are learning from each other and using their colleagues’ experiences as the source of serious academic research. As Christopher Hager describes in this volume, students can begin to see themselves and their experiences as valuable sources of research and thereby creators of knowledge. Finally, some students developed an attachment throughout the semester with some of the women on the blog, and they were honestly interested in learning more about them. They requested that, with the author’s permission, the final research papers be published on the blog so that the entire class could read them. When was the last time you had undergraduates requesting to read each other’s final research projects?

Public Versus Semi-Private Web Writing

While the web has blurred the boundaries between the public and the private, web writing need not be public in order to count as such. Due to concerns by German universities (and my own) about student privacy in regards to public blogging, links to or even screenshots of the project I discuss in this chapter are not available for public consumption. In fact, all of the blogs were permanently deleted two months following the conclusion of the course. Many of the contributors to this volume see the public aspect of web writing as one of the most compelling reasons for its adoption.  With the exception of Jack Dougherty’s chapter, few consider the potential legal and ethical consequences. Certain courses may benefit greatly from public engagement on the web. But as I have suggested, the web can be a rather hostile environment. Feminists have done a particularly good job at documenting the use of extreme sexist, racist, and abusive language on Twitter and elsewhere and how those attacks haunt victims in their real lives.[12] As someone who has been on the receiving end of such language on the web, I am not prepared to subject my students to the potential trauma that cyber-balkanization poses as they grapple with complex issues that are often directly relevant to their own lives and identities. In this sense, web writing is not always as reflective and accountable as we might hope. Furthermore, we should not underestimate the conceivable consequences of a blog post written by a young undergraduate that, without the benefit of context, might appear insensitive, ignorant, or even offensive. We know that companies are now Googling potential hires and even requesting access to their Facebook page. Therefore, we should assume that any public writing will be used to evaluate a student’s credentials, a practice which could either help or severely hurt a student’s future career prospects.

Keeping a course’s web writing amongst the immediate participants allows students to “experiment” with public writing before throwing themselves into the multifarious and unpredictable world of the Internet.  Writing within the safe space of the course also gives them the opportunity to properly reflect on the nature of public writing before actually doing it. When students see how their peers respond to their writing, they are given the opportunity to consider how to communicate clearly in order to avoid being misunderstood, and they learn how to keep web discussions on topic and to be respectful. Part of our mission in molding more culturally competent students should also be producing more thoughtful digital citizens, but this requires guidance. To this end, I plan to incorporate Storify into future classes to demonstrate how a seemingly innocuous tweet can quickly go viral and how sexism and racism can fuel the epidemic.[13]

However, while I plan to continue to keep class blogs closed, the contributions to this volume have inspired me to think of creative ways to broaden my student’s audience in ways that do not risk their privacy or their integrity. I think the best way to accomplish this is to maintain a private course blog for safe reflection and peer review, and then filter that content into existing public infrastructures with clear guidelines. The result of my ethnography project is a loose but remarkably profound collection of under-researched women from all over the world. Considering that Wikipedia has a well-known “woman problem” among other biases,[14] I may follow Siobhan Senier, also in this volume, and encourage students to use their blogging assignment as a stepping stone towards contributing to the Wikipedia and improve upon the site’s breadth and global scope. Finally, I would like to utilize Global Voices Online in future courses. This community of international bloggers brings together young, voluntary writers who contribute unique stories with a particular focus on those parts of the world the professional media tends to ignore. Not only does the site provide a wealth of creative stories to inspire further inquiry by my students, they may also suggest topics from their own countries and perhaps even make contributions. In my view, Global Voices provides a model for how intercultural web writing should be done.[15]

Choosing the Right Platform

Issues of privacy and culture provoke the question, “What sort of web-based platform should we use to best accomplish our pedagogical goals?” If our goal is to employ intercultural exchange as an educational resource, the tool we use to achieve this end must be deliberately collaborative in nature, flexible in its architecture, and able to accommodate both horizontal and vertical content sharing.

It is for this reason that I use WordPress rather than an existing Learning Management System (LMS). While LMS platforms may be secure and private, they also tend to be rather rigid and primarily designed for administrative efficiency rather than student-generated activities.[16] In short, Learning Management Systems are a remnant of a Cartesian epistemology, while blogging sites such as WordPress represent the shift towards social learning. Many Learning Management Systems by now include interactive elements such as discussion boards, wikis, and even integration with social media, but I often feel as though these additions are after-thoughts rather than part of the system’s philosophical underpinnings. WordPress has proved to be extremely adaptable for any number of purposes due to its openness, simplicity, and endless options for customization. Most importantly for my purposes, WordPress is easy enough to learn for those students with no previous experience, and does not operate with any sort of preexisting workflow except that which the user defines. The former is important because it needs to be accessible to all students of varying degrees of digital literacy; the latter is important so as to inspire critical thinking rather than forcing students into a strict and predefined pattern. I also like WordPress because, with only minimal effort, it can be made to look professional and unique, which I find encourages students to participate because it is easier for them to imagine it as their space, rather than an institutional one.

This is not to suggest that WordPress is a flawless platform or that there is no room for an LMS in the modern classroom. In fact, a platform that blends the best of both worlds might be the most productive. There are now WordPress/LMS plugins and some universities are beginning to utilize the metrics and automation features of an LMS and feed that information into course-specific and student-owned blogs.[17] But as a tool to harness cultural diversity in the classroom, most Learning Management Systems are too steeped in institutional culture rather than student culture to be suitable.

Some Conclusions and Cautions

In summary, the best promise to inspire meaningful intercultural dialogue in the classroom is an expansive repertoire of teaching methods; one of which should include writing on the web. Fusing traditional pedagogy with web-based methods has the potential to accommodate different learning backgrounds, develop better dialogue among diverse students, and cultivate more responsible users of technology.

We should approach web writing with the full knowledge that the web is not a value-free or powerless environment. Even the most well designed online forums can be just as intimidating as face-to-face conversation, and the voices of traditionally under-represented groups can easily dissolve into consensus as defined by all the usual power structures from the real-world. As web writers, we must resist the naive and indeed Western perception of technology as the “great leveler.” I see web writing as a medium that can prompt intercultural dialogue, but that dialogue must extend from the digital to the physical classroom in order to be effective. Thus, as students write more on the web and bring those insights into the “real” world, it is essential that we constantly interrogate our relationship to the digital and make our students not only culturally sensitive individuals, but sensitive and critical users of technology as well.

About the author: Holly Oberle is the author of College Abroad, a guide for American students who wish to fully enroll in university outside the United States. She also is a Ph.D. candidate at the Free University in Berlin, a teaching fellow at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, and has lived and studied in Hungary, Israel, and Spain.

How to cite:

Holly Oberle, “Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/oberle.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[18]


  1. Institute of International Education, "International Student Enrollment Trends, 1949/50-2011/12," Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, http://www.iie.org/opendoors.
  2. The increasing racial diversity will mostly come from students of Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific-Islander decent, while white and black enrollment is expected to decrease.  Eric Hoover, "Wave of Diverse College Applicants Will Rise Rapidly," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Wave-of-Diverse-College/136603/.
  3. On the Internet as a "global village," see Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Random House, 1996); as it relates to international education, see Richard Pearce, "Developing Cultural Identity in an International School Environment," in International Education: Principles and Practices, eds. Mary Hayden and Jeff Thompson (London: Kogan Page, 1998), 60-83. For an early assessment of how these two mediums can work together to foster tolerance, see Ringo Ma, "Computer-Mediated Conversations as a New Dimension of Intercultural Communication between East Asian and North American College Students," in Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Susan C. Herring (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1996), 173-186.
  4. John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, "Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0," Educause Review 43, no. 1 (2008), 16-32, http://open.umich.edu/oertoolkit/references/mindsonfire.pdf.
  5. Cynthia L. Selfe, "Lest we Think the Revolution is Revolution: Images of Technology and the Nature of Change." in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies, eds. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1999), 292-322.
  6. Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson, "Global Village Or Cyber-Balkans? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities," Management Science 51, no. 6 (2005), 851-868, http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.1050.0363.
  7. Rona Tamiko Halualani et al., "Who's Interacting? And What are They Talking about?—Intercultural Contact and Interaction Among Multicultural University Students," International Journal of Intercultural Relations 28, no. 5 (2004), 353-372, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2004.08.004; CindyAnn R. Rose-Redwood and Reuben S. Rose-Redwood, "Self-Segregation Or Global Mixing?: Social Interactions and the International Student Experience," Journal of College Student Development 54, no. 4 (2013), 413-429, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/csd.2013.0062.
  8. This is known as the "contact hypothesis" and remains influential among sociologists and psychologists. Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Cambridge: Addison-Wesley, 1958).
  9. I realize that dividing the world into Western and non-Western borders on Orientalism. For the purpose of brevity, I ask the reader's forgiveness with this glib terminology.
  10. Patricia M. King, Rosemary J. Perez and Woo-jeong Shim, "How College Students Experience Intercultural Learning: Key Features and Approaches." Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 6, no. 2 (2013), 69-83, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0033243.
  11. Maureen Snow Andrade, "International Students in English-Speaking Universities Adjustment Factors," Journal of Research in International Education 5, no. 2 (2006), 131-154, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1475240906065589.
  12. See for example Jill Filipovic, "Blogging while Female: How Internet Misogyny Parallels Real-World Harassment," Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 19 (2007), 295-303.
  13. For one example from Storify, https://storify.com, see Zen Vuong, “Suey Park’s ‘Hashtag Activism’ Brings Racism Out of the Woodwork,” Storify, April 5, 2014, http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/media/20140404/suey-parks-hashtag-activism-brings-racism-out-of-the-woodwork.
  14. Stine Eckert and Linda Steiner, "(Re)Triggering Backlash: Responses to News about Wikipedia’s Gender Gap," Journal of Communication Inquiry 37, no. 4 (October 01, 2013), 284-303, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0196859913505618.
  15. Global Voices Online, http://globalvoicesonline.org.
  16. I am not alone in this observation. See Lanny Arvan, "Dis-Integrating the LMS," EDUCAUSE Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2009); Lisa Lane, "Insidious Pedagogy," First Monday 14, no. 10 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2530/2303.
  17. For specific examples, see John Mott, "Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network," Educause Review (2010), http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/envisioning-post-lms-era-open-learning-network.
  18. Oberle, "Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/oberle-2013/.

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