Getting a Sense for Culture: Bridging the Distance in Remote Learning

by Rachel Friedman

During the time of COVID, one of the things I have missed the most is travel. For the past several summers prior to 2020, I had spent time in Arabic-speaking environments for scholarly engagement, research, and study, and to enrich my perspective through being in places that felt very different from ones I have called home in North America. COVID has made the time away from the Arabic-speaking world stretch longer and longer, and my days there have felt farther and farther away.

There were moments that seemed to briefly shorten that distance, though. Talking to friends and colleagues in Morocco via video call, I was transported fleetingly to the texture of life there: in the background, I’d sometimes hear the call to prayer or the calls of street vendors outside. Cooking couscous with tfaya at home or catching a whiff of strong minty tea: those specific and familiar scents seemed to transcend time and space in a way that trying to conjure up memories alone did not.

It struck me that these experiences—ones that engaged the senses and almost made the distance disappear for a moment—were the type I wanted my students to have too. Much of my teaching is in the field of Arabic language, and one of my central pedagogical beliefs is that language and culture ought to be taught together because they are inextricably bound up in one another—language is the carrier of culture, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has phrased it (1986). Therefore, my teaching decisions emanate in part from the desire to infuse the teaching and learning of Arabic language with teaching and learning about the diverse cultures of Arabic-speaking communities. This happens not only in class sessions but also through assignments in which students learn about the cultural practices, products, and perspectives (to use the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ alliterative terminology) of the Arabic-speaking world more independently, through their own self-guided exploration (Cutshall 2012). This exploration deepens learners’ engagement with Arabic-speaking cultures. Additionally, research has shown that exploration using the target language outside the classroom increases students’ language skills, self-efficacy, motivation, and understanding of the social contexts of language use (Godwin-Jones 2019).

To build these skills, learners in my Arabic courses complete several cultural exploration activities and write about their experiences in a series of portfolio entries. Before COVID, students often took in-person forays into local Middle Eastern grocery stores and restaurants as well as other spaces of our city’s vibrant Arab-Canadian community to attend public events, festivals, concerts, and film screenings. For example, a learner at the beginner level of language study might have visited a grocery store specializing in products from the Arabic-speaking world during which they intentionally observed smells, sights, and sounds, took note of some products that were new to them (perhaps also reading these products’ labels in Arabic), and later researched those products to learn about their history, usage, and cultural significance. The cultural portfolio assignment asked students to reflect on their experiences and write about what they observed and learned, make connections to course material, and discuss how the experience expanded or changed their perspective on cultures of the Arabic-speaking world. A theme that surfaced frequently in students’ writing was the excitement that arose from gaining a richer and more multidimensional perspective and being able to connect course material to their lived encounters.

How could I adapt the cultural portfolio assignment to make it a rich and meaningful experience during COVID distance learning? What activities, done remotely, could bring our course material alive and provide opportunities to understand Arabic as it is used in its cultural contexts? Recognizing the moments when I myself felt the rich texture of Arabic-speaking cultures drawn close to me, despite being in my home in Calgary, I considered what types of activities and experiences would encourage engaging multiple senses and provide opportunities for multidimensional connections. I developed a list of suggested activities, while leaving the option for students to select alternatives that would also fulfill the assignment’s purpose: the experience would need to involve some Arabic language, some experiential learning (broadly construed), and some research (also broadly construed). In undertaking the cultural portfolio project during COVID, students have done a variety of activities based in virtual spaces that have enriched their engagement with Arabic-speaking cultures. Some that have worked best are:

In addition to these activities, students viewed content as diverse as movies, theatrical performances, makeup tutorials, and house tours; they listened to interviews, poetry, and sermons; and they browsed the largely Arabic-language websites of grocery stores, apartment rental agencies, and artists. Follow-up research took them in many, many different directions.

The relatively open exploration in the cultural portfolio project balanced the structured class sessions and other assignments in the Arabic language courses I taught. Even though online, these direct—and self-directed—activities often increased learners’ curiosity, leading them to continue exploring and discovering the diversity of the Arabic-speaking world in ways that go beyond the most prominent and well-known cultural products and practices and that resulted in renewed excitement and motivation to learn about Arabic language and cultures. In undertaking such explorations, students develop an increasingly nuanced, complex, and multifaceted understanding of this region, its communities, and its people. The reflective aspect of the cultural portfolio entries was also important: it asked students to pause and think about the significance of an experience, which allowed them to deepen their learning, and it invited students to share personal connections to the material. In a different context, Emily Gravett has suggested supporting reflection on and discussion of such personal connections to course material as a way of fostering students’ motivation (2018).

One of the keys to a meaningful and rewarding experience was students’ open-hearted willingness to engage actively. Another key was allowing each learner to engage with an activity in ways that were meaningful and accessible given the student’s current level of comprehension and knowledge. A skill that my Arabic courses aim to develop in learners is the ability to focus on what is within their range of comprehension without getting too caught up in what is harder to understand at a given time. In other words, I encourage students to focus on what they can comprehend (when reading, listening, and watching), use their knowledge and skills to make educated guesses where possible, and hone their capacity to feel more comfortable with not understanding everything they see or hear during an activity. The reason for this approach is to cultivate in learners competent and confident engagement with Arabic language and cultures, whatever their skill level is at a given moment in their learning.

In adapting the cultural portfolio project for remote learning, I thought about issues of accessibility. I designed the guidelines with the aim of ensuring that students could complete the assignment with the same tools they used for our remote class sessions and assignments and that the assignment design provide multiple pathways for them to do so. (Nonetheless, I am aware that electronic devices and internet access were not always readily and easily available to all students.) Ensuring a relative level of accessibility in this way meant that students could generally engage with the cultural practices, products, and perspectives of the Arabic-speaking world through their screens. They could also make choices about the modes of engagement that were most motivating and appealing to them.

More broadly, this assignment takes advantage of a wide variety of resources available online as starting points for broadening, deepening, and nuancing students’ understanding of culture. It could be adapted for many different pedagogical contexts beyond the language-and-culture classroom. Autonomous exploration, pairing research with active learning and reflection, and flexible design that allows students to approach the assignment in a way that motivates them—these are all components of the portfolio that could be valuable in a range of other disciplines and courses. Indeed, thinking creatively about resources available through the screen has opened up a robust and vibrant way of allowing for relatively direct access to cultural learning, for COVID times and beyond.

Works Cited

Cutshall, Sandy. 2012. "More than a Decade of Standards: Integrating ‘Cultures’ in Your Language Instruction." The Language Educator 32 (April 2012).

Godwin-Jones, Robert. 2019. “Riding the Digital Wilds: Learner Autonomy and Informal Language Learning.” Language Learning & Technology 23, no. 1 (February): 8-25.

Gravett, Emily. 2018. “Lost in the Great Divide: Motivation in Religious Studies Classrooms.” Teaching Theology & Religion 21, no. 1 (January): 21-32.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. 1986. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rachel Friedman has been teaching in the Arabic Language & Muslim Cultures Program at the University of Calgary since 2017. Previously, she earned her PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interests include Arabic language pedagogy, classical Arabic literature and Islamic thought, and participating in interdisciplinary collaborations.