Sunday, September 11, 2016

The secret handshake, one reason for campus orientation programs, and one reason orientation fails.

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

Assumed knowledge in cultures

I have been fortunate enough to enter into many different cultures in which I was not native. One of the first pieces I wrote as a young professional was for The Campus Ecologist.  I quoted some material from our local English language newspaper in Budapest about the upcoming November 7 holiday in that city.

"Opening Hours All foodstores, markethalls and markets will be open until 7 pm on Friday. On Saturday, stores in Budapest will keep the usual public hours. Tobacconists, pastry and flower shops will keep Sunday hours, catering establishments the usual Saturday hours. All other stores and department stores will be closed.

On Sunday tobacconists, pastry and flower shops, catering places, foodstores and markets, will keep Sunday hours. All other stores will remain closed. Milk, bread, and rolls will be on sale at designated catering points on November 7 and 8."

As you can see there was missing basic information.  That information was assumed to be general knowledge for members of that culture.  Of course everyone knows tobacconists' Sunday hours. Hungary was a mono-culture when I wrote that piece in 1988 and the Hungarian people were unused to outsiders.  I currently (2016) live in Roi Et Thailand, on a world map we are between the N and D of Thailand, in the northeast.  This is an economically disadvantaged and largely rural area and the people are not used to outsiders.  Dr. Will and Dr. Leslie make up half of the European looking international faculty on our campus, out of 500 faculty members.  There is a lot of assumed knowledge that we keep finding out about.

We are getting better at entering new cultures after lots of practice.

Welcoming or unwelcoming cultures

Social class, as I have written before, can be seen as a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. Cultures have unwritten rules, from one perspective unwritten rules are what defines a subculture, a collection of unwritten rules about food, music, behavior, and the myriad behaviors of people, including tobacconists' Sunday hours. The emphasis is on shared knowledge, assumptions, values and ideology.  Cultural natives learned this at home and by being immersed in the culture.  These rules define the normal life.

As the world is woven closer together across national and regional boundaries cross-culture contact is more common.  We, the universal human we, begin to understand that people come from cultures different than ours, and some of us begin to help them learn our cultural ways.  There is also a group who seeks to keep culture private and for members only.

Social class and the secret handshake. 

Travel guides for tourists typically list some of the cultural norms.  In my part of the world greetings and touch are a little different than in other parts of the world, so the guides help explain the Wai and rules of touch (basically don't).  Cultural assumptions apply to Buddha images and behavior in temples, and we provide guides to help tourists learn respect for the Buddha.

In Thailand's tourist areas, where there is an expectation of positive cross-cultrual contact, there is a lot of help learning the secret handshakes, or in this case the rules of the Wai, in Thai culture.

Welcoming and unwelcoming campuses

Every social class subculture has a collection of secrets, cultural assumptions like tobacconists' Sunday hours. Not every member of a culture is pleased to share these secrets with outsiders.

Knowledge about the new cultures is critical when people move across cultures.  And thus, we have campus orientation for new students moving into the campus culture where we teach you the official version of campus culture.  We also have the enculturation of students happening during their first few weeks on campus when they learn the student carried cultural norms of behavior, like drinking, drugs, and sex.

Most official orientation programs focus on campus traditions, enculturating students to the campus culture.  Not enough orientation focuses on introducing people to the culture of college and the norms of the academy, like the syllabus, like office hours, like how to study effectively, career paths, and the like.

Membership in the upper-middle-class, or the ruling class, is not easy to come by unless you were born into it.  There are guardians at the gates of the Upper-Middle Class (UMC) campuses favor a certain privileged and monied background: standardized tests, high tuition, high grades, experiential learning and volunteer work, year abroad experiences, prestige variety of English, fashion sense, social capital, cultural capital, and knowledge of tobacconists' hours.

And yes, there really is a handshake.  I have taught the handshake to many people.

Which are you: welcoming or unwelcoming?

Based on personal experience and bias I would guess that one of the many reasons that students from the lower economic strata in the US are not successful in college is that so many people, faculty, students, staff, and administrators, are not welcoming.  Too few of us help cultural immigrants learn the secret handshake.

There are, of course, individual and social consequences to this unwelcoming attitude.

tl;dr campus has a culture, college has a culture, how do we teach outsiders about this culture? Are you welcoming to cultural/college strangers or unwelcoming?

I want to acknowledge Kristin Cothran for keeping this idea of the secret handshake alive and in my heart.


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