2009 Winner: Márcia Rego

Translating the Culture Shock: Beyond Intercultural (Mis)Understanding

The Writing 101 (20) classroom at Duke University is a unique and privileged setting for first-year students to become initiated into the life of the mind. It offers them an intimate environment, fostered by the small class size, and a disciplinary framework in which they can pursue intellectual interests and experiment with the written word. My own interest in and pedagogical approach to academic writing are inextricably linked to my background in cultural anthropology. As a discipline that promotes the understanding of social dynamics through the translation of cultural idioms into written texts, it owes particular attention to matters of style, rhetoric and (re)presentation. My goals as a teacher of Writing 101 (20), then, are twofold: to promote students’ discovery of alternative ways to read social reality, and to help them acquire a language through which to translate it into the genre of academic writing.

This course, in particular, explores the trope of “translation” on various levels. Initially inspired by the many colorful stories told by my globe-trotting students, the course pushes the limits of linguistic and anthropological theories of communication and cultural adaptation, as students apply these in their analyses of fictional depictions and real-world manifestations of cross-cultural clash and dialogue. In the process of grappling with the applicability of conceptual constructs, or “big ideas,” they are also asked to attend to actual words on the page – to consider structure and clarity of argument, to negotiate word choice and reader expectation, to ponder ways in which cultural assumptions get surfaced in their prose.

In the initial series of five short assignments, students are asked to navigate theoretical conundrums such as conflicting definitions of culture, the relationship between language and thought, and the translatability of societal values. At the same time, they are gaining practice in contextualizing description, identifying points of tension in intellectual conversations, articulating and supporting situated claims of their own. In their first major project, students bring theories of “culture shock” to bear on works of fiction of their choice – these have ranged from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, to the Walt Disney animation of The Little Mermaid. For their final writing project, students are asked to formulate their own research questions, engage with a set of scholarly texts, and develop a “translation” of a cultural encounter or conflict of interest to them. Past research projects have focused on issues such as Bilingual Education, Religious Syncretism, Interracial Relations on Duke’s Campus, “Business Process Outsourcing,” and Cross-Cultural Variation on “Personal Space.”