No! Don’t turn away! This isn’t about H1N1! Using an inoculation in your teaching is about placing well chosen words early in a class (or even a conference) to anticipate criticism, reduce resistance, and encourage learning.
I’ll give you an example. I do a lot of work on campus with different groups to help people realize that their norms and expectations surrounding communication patterns are not universal. But having a discussion about cultural differences in communication frequently invites the comment that I’m “stereotyping,” which erects resistance and shuts down learning for some. I know this, I expect this, and I plan for this. I inoculate. My inoculation consists of the following. First, I define the concept of cultural norm using the following image.
This image illustrates how in any given population (I use the examples of Japan and Canada), a population will be distributed across a spectrum. The largest clusters of individuals will represent a society’s cultural norm. The society will then have its outliers, who might approach the cultural norm of another society in their values.
The spectrum I use here is the dimension of individualism and collectivism. In their most basic terms, individualistic cultures tend to stress the importance of individuals over the importance of the group, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to value the importance of the group over those of the individual (Hofstede, 1980). The diagram indicates that Canada is more individualistic than Japan. However, some cultures would be further along the individualistic spectrum than Canadians and other cultures would be further along the collectivistic spectrum than the Japanese.
The next step in my inoculation is to distinguish between speaking in generalizations and speaking in stereotypes. When we use a generalization to describe a culture, we refer to a tendency that most people in a given group might have to believe certain things, behave in certain ways, and hold certain values. However, if we apply a generalization to all members of a culture, then the statement becomes a stereotype (Bennett, 1998). For example, we could say that Canadians tend to value multiculturalism. For the most part, this would be true. An example of a stereotype would be: all Canadians like hockey. All Canadians do not like hockey; some despise it and consider it to be a very violent sport.
The distinction between generalizations and stereotypes needs to be drawn in order to enter into any dialogue about cultural differences in communication norms. While norms do exist, all societies have people whose behaviour, beliefs, and values do not reflect those of their larger society. Unless I draw such a distinction, I will have lost members of my audience before I begin.
To think about how to employ inoculations in your classes, consider the points where you encounter the most resistance, and consider why you encounter resistance. Are you challenging the long-standing beliefs of your students? Is there some reason they simply would not want to believe what you are saying? Is it threatening to them at some level? Would it require too large a paradigm shift? Does it involve reconceptualizing something? If so, before you present your target lesson, what can you do to address these issues?
Before closing, I need to stress: classroom inoculations frequently work wonders, …but now and then, students still get the ‘flu.’
Bennett, M.J. (1988). Intercultural communication: A current perspective. In M.J. Bennett (Ed.,) Basic concepts of intercultural communication. Yarmouth, Main: Intercultural Press.