Last Friday, our group went on an excursion to an area called Jarabacoa, where we spent the day at a beautiful resort with an obstacle course, a pool, various athletic facilities, a rock wall and gorgeous views of the mountainous Cibao region. There we held our one-month check-in meeting with our staff to address the experiences that have shaped our lives in the Dominican Republic thus far. Among the many items on the agenda were various charlas, or small discussions, on academics, public transportation, host families and piropos (cat-calls that women experience daily). For each theme, we were required to perform a skit, and then participate in a debriefing session afterwards to discuss our thoughts in further detail.
I acted in the skit on academics, in which our group portrayed a typical day with our wildly enthusiastic Spanish professor who loves to give high-fives and alligator applauses (not sure how else to describe them). After the laughter had subsided, the conversation took a mildly negative turn as we expressed our frustrations about a class that many viewed as disorganized, random, and without a tangible topic or focus. We had concerns about grading, testing, and reading materials, and about how the language gap was affecting all of the above. At first, we sought support from our directors to address the situation administratively, perhaps through a conversation with our professor that could result in a class more formatted to our needs. We soon realized, however, that a better tactic might be to change our own behaviors as students. Our facilitators and some of our peers reminded us that the education style in much of Latin America is very different from that of the United States, and that there is a much larger focus on self-teaching and individual research. In many parts of the world, true learning is not dependent on the extent to which one follows a syllabus or a study guide, but on one’s ability to ask questions, to initiate a dialogue, and to formulate opinions on a topic of interest. In this setting, the professor is less a supplier of expertise and more a source of myriad ideas and concepts for the student to apply to his/her own studies.
Once the group began to realize that what we were experiencing was a sort of ‘clash of cultures,’ or more specifically, a clash of institutional education styles, we began problem-solving to find solutions to our discomforts in class. We decided that we would ask more questions to try to steer the dialogue towards specific themes and ignite debate, that we would ask for clarification on assignments, and that we would even rearrange the classroom into a semi-circle formation to make the setting more conducive to discussion. Where at first we were protesting having to take the class at all, by the end of the charla we had found our own formula for the situation and were ready to take an active role in our own learning process. One might say that we took up the issue as Americans and put it to rest like Dominicans, but perhaps a mix of the two styles will help us achieve our academic goals to the fullest.