It is Friday afternoon, five minutes to three. Lecturer Maaike Aans is in a lecture room on the third floor of the Mandeville Building. Her rucksack is lying on the floor next to her desk, and a PowerPoint presentation is being projected onto the whiteboard behind her. Of the fifty students who should be attending the lecture, only three are seated on the colourful seats in the small lecture room today.
Name of lecture: Cultural Influences on Communication (Friday 3pm in T3-31)
Lecturer: Maaike Aans (ESHCC)
Subject: Theories on intercultural communication, demonstrated by means of videos and memes.
Attendees: A mix of students, ranging from history students to business administration students, most of whom are attending from their couch at home. Since the course is part of a minor, it attracts students taking all sorts of degree programmes.
Why you should take the course: The seminar has a great deal of variety and discusses relatable cultural and social phenomena. Student Nadia: “A lot of the theoretical knowledge can be seen in things you see and experience in daily life.”
Student Coco van der Vlugt tries to come up with a reason as to why the other students aren’t here. “Maybe it’s because we’re having some nice weather today,” she suggests. Attendance is not mandatory for this lecture. It is being live-streamed, so students can watch the lecture remotely, or watch it later on Canvas. However, Coco herself, a history student, is ‘very glad’ to be able to attend the seminar on campus. “Zoom seminars aren’t my cup of tea. I find it very hard to focus on them.”
Ethnocentrism and essentialism
In clear and well-articulated English, Aans starts presenting her lecture, explaining concepts such as ‘stereotype’, ‘ethnocentrism’ and ‘essentialism’. “If you’re being ethnocentric, you use your own culture as the standard to be aspired to. Everything that deviates from your own culture is considered ‘poor’ or ‘lower quality’,” she explains. Ethnocentric people emphasise the positive aspects of their own culture and the negative aspects of other cultures.
In order to give her students a better understanding of the concepts, Aans shows a video in which a white man talks to a woman who looks Asian. They are both American, but the woman is subjected to questions about her ethnic background and how well she speaks English. “Can you identify ethnocentrism and essentialism in their interaction?” the lecturer then asks. Students try to answer the question, both in the lecture room and in the group chat. The lecturer responds in a respectful manner when a student gives an answer that is not entirely correct. “I understand what you mean, but I’d say that this man is ascribing a different culture to the woman on the basis of her looks. That is an example of essentialism.”
The PowerPoint presentation switches quickly from one slide to the next. The lecturer switches effortlessly between the students in the lecture room and the students who are attending the seminar remotely. Whenever she asks questions to the students in the lecture room, she makes a point of asking the students attending remotely to join in the conversation in the group chat. When a student in the lecture room then asks a question, she repeats the question to make sure the students attending remotely don’t have any difficulty following the conversation.
Nadia Klomp, a third-year International Business Administration student, types away on her laptop during the lecture. “Did you take notes of everything?” she asks her fellow student Coco during the break. Coco shakes her head and laughs. “The lecture moves along really fast sometimes,” says Coco. “There are so many concepts, so much stuff to discuss. But it’s OK. As long as you prepare properly, you’ll be able to follow the whole thing quite well.”
Even though the majority of students taking the course are attending the lecture remotely, there is no lack of interaction in this class, particularly when the discussion turns to semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs, their underlying meanings and how they function in society.
Ferdinand de Saussure was one of the founders of semiotics. He said that a sign has two components: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the outward form, while the signified is the associated mental image. The lecturer presents an image of a dog. “Look, when I say the word ‘dog’, the signifier is three letters: D-O-G. But the signified is the mental image we have of a sweet and loyal pet.”
The next example: an image of two footballers crossing their arms at their wrists and spreading their fingers. The students in the room try to interpret the sign. Are they using their hands to form butterflies? A student attending the lecture remotely gives the right answer in the group chat: their hands symbolise the Albanian eagle. “That’s right. These are the Swiss footballers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. They made this gesture to celebrate their goal against Serbia,” the lecturer explains. Xhaka and Shaqiri have Kosovan-Albanian roots and this pro-Albanian gesture was considered provocative by Serbians. It refers to the relationship between Albania and Serbia.
The next image is the cover of a French magazine showing a black boy performing a salute. Nothing special, you might think, but a French student attending the lecture remotely guesses what the image is about. It’s propaganda for French imperialism and refers to the colonies’ loyalty to France. Aans grins. “I expected you to be able to answer this question,” she tells the student. “Good job!”
Videos and memes
The 90-minute lecture is over before we know it. Videos, memes and images are used to make abstract concepts more tangible. “The lecturer brilliantly uses different types of media that are relatable to our generation. She gives a lot of examples taken from daily life, which works really well,” student Nadia says, complimenting the lecturer.
Student Akiri Yoshino loves the seminar as well. She is in Year 4 of her Arts & Culture degree. “I no longer need to attend any lectures, but I signed up for this one because the title sounded interesting.” She does not regret that decision. “This is one of the best lectures I’ve attended at EUR.”
Each month, editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema attend a lecture at EUR. Together they describe and illustrate how the class is being taught, what happens inside the lecture hall and how the students feel about the lecture.
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