July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Cultures in Contrast
Myra Shulman (1998)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xviii + 230
ISBN 0-472-08485-2 (paper)
US $17.95; UK £10.50
ISBN 0-472-08503-4 (paper)
US $9.95; UK £6.50
“Cultures in Contrast is designed for intermediate or advanced foreign students who are studying English as a second or foreign language.” So reads the first line of the Preface (p. ix). On the lexical level, no punches have been pulled. We are certainly considering a very high level of “intermediate” here. And while the readings and activities in the book are admirably suited to studies of America, they are so challenging as to be equally worthy of native American speakers of English!
“Cultures in Contrast focuses on improving competence in the area of cross-cultural communication . . .” (To the Student, p. xv). One may question whether the author’s goal is to assist students to communicate effectively between cultures, or to enable students to discuss the conflicts between cultures. Obviously, the latter is a much more difficult proposition, but it seems to be a major activity in the book. The case studies focus on issues of crisis as a means of developing discussions. Perhaps teachers, or the students themselves, are expected to identify points in common between cultures? The Instructor’s Manual offers no guidance on this point.
Thirteen chapters include rich topic areas for discussions, such as “Social Adjustment: Culture Shock” and “Group Learning: Unethical Behavior,” as well as chapters on interpersonal conflict, drug abuse, sexual harassment, plagiarism, racism and prejudice, and arranged marriage. The book is filled with classroom and out-of-class material; there is plenty to explore even for those with 90 contact hours and a penchant for homework!
Shulman offers a short list of key terminology at the front of the textbook–a helpful idea to get students thinking about key concepts in the field of cross-culturalism before diving into substantive issues. There is also a glossary near the front of each chapter, specific to the language of that chapter’s theme. Nevertheless, students will be reaching for their dictionaries. Often. [-1-]
The materials are tackled with progressive approaches to learning. In “To the Teacher” (Instructor’s Manual), the author points out that “the text is structured according to the theory of collaborative learning, encouraging honest interactions on these thought-provoking topics as a method to increase proficiency in English and competence in cross-cultural communication” (p. 1). “Guidelines for Collaborative Learning” and “Successful Group Work” (Instructor’s Manual, pp. 5-9) offer useful starting points for the teacher and the first class session respectively. The author also points out the strong benefit of using films in conjunction with each chapter, and offers a Film Analysis Form (Appendix D) as well as a Reading Report Form (Appendix E) to assist students with the suggested requirement of out-of-class film viewings and readings. Each chapter lists a dozen or so suggested films and another dozen magazine articles.
Film stills (a single photographic image from a movie) are used as illustrations throughout each chapter. They provide an interesting reinforcement for the chapter’s theme, and would seem to encourage student interest in Shulman’s recommended out-of-class film viewing component of the course.
There is a strong focus on ethics throughout, an orientation that makes great sense when considering one of the most critical components for foreign students in America is an awareness of local concepts of “right and wrong,” both in studies and in life. It is a consideration ripe for discussion in both oral and written forms.
The case studies are wonderful. They are written in a narrative that is direct and accessible to students without being simplistic or clinical–as if your best friend were storytelling. The length of each ranges from approximately 400 to 1200 words. Students will find the case studies fascinating and appealing, even though the vocabulary can be considerably beyond what most courses would present.
Each chapter begins with a “Personal Response” question, which invites the student to respond spontaneously to the topic of the chapter, and is followed by a series of “Exploration” questions as a pre-reading orientation to the case study. These yes/no questions can be highly personal, but are intended to help students become more aware of their own feelings in the topic area. The glossary follows. Unfortunately, the definitions can be as complex as the words they attempt to define.
Following the case study is a series of “Discussion” questions to help in recognizing key issues and preparing a “Case Study Report” (which is designed as a pair-work or small group activity). Chapter 1 provides a comprehensive format for students in developing a case study report, and Appendix B (pp. 219-220) offers a model report for chapter 1. [-2-]
A “Vocabulary” essay (fill in the blanks) is the next challenge for students. These range from 400 to 700 words in length, and are again written in a style which students will enjoy, although not only the target words are challenging! Trimester, regulate, endangered, conception, fetus, viable, and family planning clinic were non-target words used in one of these essays (pp. 88-89), and not included in the glossary. Following this task, students are invited to write a few paragraphs presenting their own opinions.
A few samples of student writing are available in the Instructor’s Manual. Half of these are from later chapters, however, so may not be of great value to either students or teacher in the critical early weeks.
“Activities” offer a range of expansion assignments, from letter writing (to characters in the essays) to public surveys to library research to debates and role plays. “Oral Presentation” asks students to develop a presentation on the chapter theme. Only after all these do we reach the section titled “Chapter Readings.” These are clippings from public media, such as magazine and newspaper articles, with comprehension questions following the readings. Students might enjoy these readings more if they saw the original article in the teacher’s hands, just to verify that they are indeed authentic materials. The readings offer slightly different perspectives on the issue at hand.
Each chapter closes with a “Strategy Session” where students are faced with a hypothetical dilemma and must select one of the strategies offered, or develop their own, to respond to their situation. There are no right or wrong answers; the focus is on the students’ justification.
“Background Reading for Each Chapter” (Instructor’s Manual, pp. 50-54) will be an invaluable asset to teachers leading this course for the first time. In fact, this section is worth the price of the Instructor’s Manual even for those who might be using other coursebooks!
Shulman has provided teachers with a wonderful collection of materials for use in a “Comparative Cultures” classroom for advanced learners. I could well imagine enlisting a few native English speaking students to come into the classroom from time to time for additional sharing activities. But I am left with the sinking feeling that those students who need this information the most–students in their first months in America–would be unable to handle many of the readings and the speaking and writing aspects of the course.
Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, South Korea
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