– Miguel Olivas-Luján
Of the many ways universities internationalize, teaching abroad might be one of the most surprisingly challenging, yet also most gratifying (though not necessarily in a monetary sense). In 2017-2018, during my sabbatical, I enjoyed working abroad on each of the three legs of the proverbial academic stool: service, research, and teaching. Let me share with you a few memories of the challenges and rewards of international teaching.
I had three intense teaching periods, two in Germany and the last in Poland. In October 2017, I taught a Diversity in Management course at Technische Hochschule Deggendorf (Deggendorf Institute of Technology [DIT], in Bavaria, Germany), then two International Management courses again at DIT in March-April 2018. These are courses I have taught before and areas I publish research in. This background made it easy for me to identify sources and support materials, use instructional activities with which I am familiar, and thus reduce my preparation time.
In May, I taught at Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej (UMCS), a comprehensive university in Lublin, Poland. The courses I taught there at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels were on subjects that I knew well because of my doctoral-level research, but I had not taught before. In other words, class preparation at UMCS was not insignificant. I am used to being able to find a balance between my scholarship and research; unfortunately, external funding that my colleagues identified demanded a heavy teaching load. If I could do it again, I probably would teach one-half of what I did, so I could do more research with local colleagues.
I had to adjust my delivery to an audience of non-native English speakers at each location; this is something I had not experienced since I started teaching at Clarion. Because the program in Germany is taught in English, it attracts students from many countries from all inhabited continents. According to my informal poll, students in my classrooms had passports from Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Cyprus, France, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Spain, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela, in addition to Germany and Poland. In Poland, I had students mostly from Central Europe, but others hailed from Ukraine and Russia. There were a few Western Europeans in my classrooms. English fluency was greater for the doctoral and masters’ students, but weaker for the undergraduates.
There were a few challenges
Expecting all of these students to have a similar level of English fluency would have been a big mistake, but most had a functional level. A few of them had little trouble expressing themselves in English, but others clearly struggled to put their thoughts into words. I had to more closely monitor my students’ understanding of lectures through their nonverbal signals (e.g., stares, nodding, facial expressions) and ask more questions than I am used to; sometimes I had to suggest words to help them express their ideas. I often had to “over-pronounce,” and even remind myself that many of them learned English from non-American sources with a different vocabulary. For example, British “turnover” is “revenue” in American English, and US “turnover” is “redundancy” on their side of the Atlantic. Sharing such differences in vocabulary was an unexpected part of the class, but one that prepares these students for future international assignments. Asking them to write three lessons learned at the end of the session was a helpful way to check, after class, how much they had understood the session.
Paraphrasing one of my colleagues, I learned that “students in Germany are not willing to spend money on books.” Students in most German institutions of higher learning seem unaccustomed to paying more than a few dozen euros for printing handouts made available through library reserves. Instead of relying on a textbook that all students would have, I had to find a suitable textbook available through one of their library subscriptions; I was very fortunate to do so a couple of days before I started classes! In fact, I was lucky that this textbook had an online version available to multiple students at the same time – though no more than a handful. I did have to encourage students to work on their assignments as early as they could, so that they were adequately prepared for our sessions in my flipped classroom.
At Clarion, we get used to teaching a familiar and regular schedule. Compressing what I normally teach in 15 weeks into five weeks was not easy, especially when students have semester-long courses running simultaneously. I did not have a predictable MWF or TuTh schedule, but had to meet with students at times that had no discernible pattern: a few hours on Wednesday afternoon, then all morning Saturday, and so on. I could have taught long sessions after hours or on Saturdays and even Sundays, but I declined Sundays, both to stay sane and to enjoy the surroundings.
At Clarion and in other institutions on this side of the Atlantic, I had used proprietary learning management systems like Blackboard and D2L. In this trip I encountered Moodle, an open source (i.e., low-cost, no-frills) alternative. Using Moodle reminded me how easy it is to get used to bells and whistles. Moodle required me to occasionally include html code (the web’s formatting language) if I wanted to make sure that pages would look specific ways. This was not a huge adjustment, but it helped me remember life without premium technology and appreciate what I have at Clarion.
At DIT, the grading system is on a 1- through 5-scale, with 1 being the equivalent of an American A+. This system did take a little bit of getting used to. Most of the time, I used a points system to give students an idea of how each of the assignments would affect their final grade, but at the end of the term, I had to change those points into a percentage that would then be converted to their final grade.
The institutional flexibility needed to bring in international adjunct faculty is impressive. I am very grateful to my colleagues who found affordable housing for my family close to campus. One of them even lent me a couple of bicycles to make the commute in Deggendorf smoother.
In isolation, each of these adjustments is rather insignificant. But taken together, within a short period of time, while trying to include family experiences and meet professional deadlines in the research and service fronts, is more difficult than meets the eye! But I also stated that this was a rewarding experience.
Rewarding? How so?
Meeting these students from diverse latitudes, who were willing to take classes in a second or third language and leave their comfort zones to prepare themselves for a better future, was a unique, inspiring experience that is not easy to replicate. In addition to advancing my professional development, these activities gave my family and me an opportunity to interact with people whose worldviews are very different from ours. When we now read about the Syrian refugees “overtaking” Europe, we have faces and acquaintances that earned our respect by adjusting to different languages; we also experienced first-hand the deference that people give to their American visitors, even when they are astounded by our national “leaders.”
My children have now experienced that not all Germans (or all Poles or all Spaniards, etc.) think or act alike, which gives me hope that they will be better able to deal with international –and national—coworkers, customers, suppliers, etc. We saw landmarks and historical places that would have been too expensive and difficult to see if I had not taken this sabbatical. Together, we created powerful memories from shared experiences.
I hope this inspires my colleagues and friends the way that other colleagues’ sabbatical experiences have inspired me. Despite the challenges, I definitely feel ready to do it again!
Miguel R. Olivas-Luján is a Professor in the Management & Marketing department at Clarion. A Past Chair for the MED (Management Education and Development) division of the Academy of Management (AOM), his research has appeared in journals and scholarly books on international HRM, information technology, diversity, and related fields. He serves as Senior Editor for Emerald’s Advanced Series in Management as well as on several editorial boards. In recent years, he has also taught and collaborated with colleagues in universities in Argentina, Colombia, Germany, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Mexico, and Poland.