Teaching Interculturally with Irene Theodoropoulou

Welcome to Episode 72 of the Think UDL podcast: Teaching Interculturally with Irene Theodoropoulou. This interview is about 25 years in the making, though I didn’t know it at the time I met Spyros Kissas in Athens, Greece, in 1995. In 1997 I married into his Greek family for us to become cousins. And then he married the incomparable Sofia Fournaridou and we became fast friends. Recently, Sofia introduced me to her cousin Irene Theodoropoulou, and I can’t thank her enough because I am absolutely floored by what Irene is doing to make her very diverse linguistics classes at two universities in Doha, Qatar, inclusive and inviting for her vast array of students! Irene Theodoropoulou is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Qatar University and a Visiting Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Qatar. This conversation is filled with ancient wisdom for modern problems and illustrates practical ways to apply UDL principles in culturally diverse classrooms. We talk about language, linguistics, varying format and content (and paying attention to both), happiness and creativity, and how to leverage learner diversity and variability to create rich and rewarding educational experiences for both students and instructors. It is such a fun conversation, too, and although you can’t see me, you may hear how much I love talking about the ancient wisdom of the Greeks (because you know that subject always comes up when I have the chance to talk with a Greek). So fry up some Haloumi cheese, break out your pitas and Tzatziki, and settle in for a practical yet still philosophical discussion about intercultural teaching and UDL!

Resources

Contact Irene Theodoropoulou on Facebook at Irene Theodoropoulou

Or Twitter @IreneGreekQatar or LinkedIn at Irene Theodoropoulou

Find out more about Qatar University and Qatar Foundation  and Georgetown University in Qatar

Lillian mentions Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work TED talk and Irene mentions Laurie Santos’s course The Science of Well Being from Yale, offered for free by Coursera

Lillian mentions the Reflective Judgement model from King and Kitchener (paid journal article) again, too! Or you can learn about the Reflective Judgement Model in this free slide share!
Irene mentions her hobby of singing in the Qatar Concert Choir. Here are two examples of the joy of singing brought by this group lately. The first is by composer Dana Al-Fardan, a very important Qatari musician, created in the context of the Qatar-USA Cultural Year 2021 entitled “Rising.” The second is a fun rendition during Covid times of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” retold as “The Lion’s Home Tonight.”

Transcript

Lillian Nave  00:00

Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it, and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 72 of the Think UDL podcast, Teaching Interculturally with Irene Theodoropoulou. This interview is about 25 years in the making, though I didn’t know it at the time I met Spyros Kissas in Athens, Greece in 1995. In 1997, I married into his Greek family for us to become cousins. And then he married the incomparable Sofia Fournaridou, and we became fast friends. Recently, Sofia introduced me to her cousin, Irene Theodoropoulou. And I can’t thank her enough because I have absolutely floored by what Irene is doing to make her very diverse linguistics classes at two universities in Doha, Qatar, inclusive and inviting for her vast array of students. Irene Theodoropoulou is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Qatar University, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Qatar. This conversation is filled with ancient wisdom for modern problems, and illustrates practical ways to apply UDL principles in culturally diverse classrooms. We talk about language, linguistics, varying format and content– and paying attention to both, happiness and creativity, and how to leverage learner diversity and variability to create rich and rewarding educational experiences for both students and instructors. It is such a fun conversation, too, and although you can’t see me, you may hear how much I love talking about the ancient wisdom of the Greeks. Because you know that subject always comes up when I have the chance to talk with a Greek. So fry up some halloumi cheese, breakout your pitas and tzatziki and settle in for a practical yet still philosophical discussion about intercultural teaching, and UDL. Thank you, Irene, for joining me today on the Think UDL podcast to talk about how you incorporate so many different cultural differences, and you do UDL practices in your in your classes today. Thank you so much for your time.

Irene Theodoropoulou  03:10

The pleasure is all mine, Lillian, and thank you so much for giving me this great opportunity to share my experience with other like-minded scholars and teachers from all over the world. And I must say, actually, that you’re doing a great job by publicizing all this wonderful material, making it available to the academic community, I think that all of us actually can only benefit from such an initiative. So thanks very much indeed for having me.

Lillian Nave  03:40

Thank you so much. I’m so glad that our mutual cousin, I’ll have to thank Sofia Fournaridou, who introduced me to you and had a great conversation just talking to you about what you’re doing. So it is such a joy to me, this is the thing that I’m most excited about in my job to in the last several years is being able to talk to incredible scholars like you, and talk to people about how we teach. So thank you very much. And so I need to ask you the first question I asked all my, all my interviewees and that is what makes you a different kind of learner? 

Irene Theodoropoulou  04:21

Well, that’s a very interesting question. And it’s notoriously difficult actually, for people to answer it, especially people who tend to be a little bit more self-reflective than others. I would say that the driving force that makes me become a learner to start with (I don’t know if I’m a different learner), what keeps me going, if you will, in this fascinating journey, is the fact that I’m always open to new types of knowledge, new ideas and new ways of thinking about how the world is and how we can improve, some problematic aspects in our life. So I guess my motto as a Greek person is /γi’rasko a’i διδasko’meni/, which comes from the original version /γi’rasko a’i διδa’skomenos/, which comes from the Athenian lawmaker Solon back in the sixth century BC. /διδasko’meni// is the feminine form, and the meaning, roughly speaking, is that “the more you grow, the more you learn.” So ‘as I grow older, I always learn’; that’s the literal meaning. And actually, this is something that has been with me since my childhood. I have been also very blessed in terms of accumulating experiences, from different educational backgrounds, different educational settings that I have been exposed to, in Greece, where I did my undergraduate studies, and then when I went to the UK, and then eventually, when I ended up here in Qatar. So I have been exposed actually, to so many different people, so many different cultures, so many different ways of thinking that, if you will, it’s a matter of survival, after a while to be able to learn and understand how these different people think and behave. So apart from survival, it has also been a personal intellectual journey, if you will. I’m always a person who enjoys reading about new cultures, who enjoys traveling a lot. I mean, I consider traveling as one of the most vital sources for learning as well. And also, I believe that we can learn through our participation in different experiences, different practices with other people as well. So I think that, contrary to perhaps other colleagues of mine, who just stay at the university, and then they say when we leave the university, that’s it, we’re not going to do any more learning. And I tend to be this type of person, actually, who enjoys learning after the university. So whenever I’m given opportunities, I always try to hang out either with other colleagues of mine, or sometimes either with former students of mine. And you know, sometimes we participate in common practices, such as going out for dinner, for example, or visiting a museum or visiting Souq Waqif, which is the traditional bazaar that we have here in Doha. And I’m always actually interested in asking questions and being surrounded by people who are very knowledgeable, and they share with me some glimpses of their wisdom, if you will. So yeah, I guess in a nutshell, open mindedness, intellectual curiosity, zest for life, I guess these are the main driving forces behind my efforts to learn as much as possible.

Lillian Nave  08:10

Oh, absolutely. Thank you so much. And on a podcast, you can’t see our faces, but I have the biggest smile on my face. Because everything you said resonated with me, I love learning from so many different people, and places and travel has taught me so much it changed my life, I changed really careers when I was going to one kind of graduate school, and went to Greece, and it changed my life. And then decided to go into art history rather than a religion of, you know, post doc, postgraduate degree. And thought, Well, I’m kind of studying religion just in a different way through through art, and how different conceptions of God are created. But it has opened my world, new ways of seeing, and I can definitely see how all of those experiences have helped in your teaching because I’ve got a lot of questions about how you teach all the your various different students that you have. So I’m just overjoyed to to learn from the experience that you’ve had, especially in three very different I’d say educational systems, from Greece to the UK to now teaching in Qatar. So So tell us tell me and and our listeners, about the students that you serve, and that kind of educational environment that you’re in in Doha, Qatar, at Qatar University, and I know you also serve as a Visiting Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Qatar. And so can you tell me about the students that you serve and the institutions where you teach and how you you design your courses for such a wide variety of students? 

Irene Theodoropoulou

Well, let me tell you something very, very briefly first. That takes up lots of my time, as you may imagine, I mean, it’s notoriously difficult task to design and to execute, if you will, teaching for such a wide range of students. But of course, on the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to be able to work with so many gifted and diverse students. Okay, so as you pointed out, I have been teaching actually at Qatar University for the past 11 years now, Qatar University is the national University of Qatar. And it is also a state University. The peculiarity of Qatar University is that it has gender segregation. So this is actually a system that we’re not familiar with, in the West in general. So we have a male campus and a female campus. At the very beginning, of course, it comes relatively as a shock, actually, to Westerners who come in that university. But then after a while, I think that you get to appreciate, you know, the peculiarities of working in such an environment. So this is one one peculiarity. The other peculiarity has to do with the types of students we have. So at Qatar University, the vast majority of our students are native Qataris. So they are local students. And then we also have some non-Qataris who are usually of Arab origin. We have a number of primarily Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian, and I would say some Iraqi students as well. And then we also have, of course, students from other parts of the Arab world as well. And lately, we have started having relatively high numbers of students from India and Pakistan. But I would say that the vast majority of our students actually are Muslims, which creates some sort of homogeneity, if you will, when it comes to the student population. For the past 11 years, I have been teaching primarily women, I have taught men actually for only two semesters. But primarily, I have been teaching women at Qatar University. 

Now this is in stark contrast with what is happening at Georgetown University in Qatar. Georgetown University in Qatar is one of the universities that belongs to Qatar Foundation. This is the umbrella term actually for an institution, which is a fascinating initiative. It is an educational institution that consists of universities, primarily American universities, branches of American universities to be more accurate, but it also encompasses some research institutions, some schools as well, some cultural institutions, like museums, and so on and so forth. I would say it is the epitome actually of how education and culture go hand in hand. Qatar Foundation, contrary to Qatar University, and its universities are mixed, which basically means that in a classroom, actually, you have both girls and boys or boys and girls. And at Georgetown University in Qatar, in particular, we also have the privilege of having a very, very wide range of different nationalities and different religions, different ethnic backgrounds as well. So this semester, as you mentioned, I’m a Visiting Associate Professor there, and I have the opportunity actually to teach critical reading and writing to a class of 17 people, which is, without exaggeration, the most diverse class I have ever taught in my life. So we have 17 students, and we have 13 nationalities that are represented there. We have boys and girls, we have people who come from different faiths as well, different nationalities. So as you may imagine, the dynamics in such a class are completely different. And so that was the description of the different students, you know, It’s quite a range!

14:35

Exactly, so far. Of course, these differences and this range essentially should translate into different ways of designing my courses and doing teaching as well. So what I have been trying to do over the years and I will say that this is actually a common denominator, so this applies to all my classes regardless of the backgrounds of students. In all my classes, I have always tried actually to be very culture-oriented and culture sensitive. So instead of, you know, trying to impose Western ways of thinking, and Western ways of viewing the world, I always try to make sure that, you know, I design a curriculum that takes into consideration different cultural aspects, different ways of talking, different ways of writing as well, different genres. And I always try to make sure that I give the floor to my students as well. So, whenever I teach, for example, my courses, I always design a draft of the syllabus, which I share with my students on the first day, but then I always encourage them actually to suggest any changes, to suggest any additions; if they want to see, for example, topics that have not been included in the first draft, and so on, and so forth. So this is one thing. And the other thing, of course, has to do with how I teach throughout the semester. Even though, at the very beginning of the semester, we agree on some topics that we’re going to discuss, this discussion of topics, I always tried for it to be as much dialogical as possible. So instead of, making use of my role as a lecturer, I prefer to be a moderator. So what we usually try to do is that at the very beginning of each class, I try to give them some prompts, which are relevant to the topic or the topics or the themes that we’re going to discuss. And then basically, we try to have conversation in class. So students are always encouraged to share their experiences and their knowledge with respect to that particular topic that, you know, we discuss. What they have come to realize is that there are actually some significant differences between my students at Qatar University and the ones at Georgetown. The basic difference has to do with how these different types of students respond to this idea of having a dialogical class. Without wishing to overgeneralize, I would say that my students at Qatar University for the most part, because of course, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, actually, they are not accustomed to this style of interaction or dialogue. Okay, so at the very beginning, at least, many of them actually tend to be very shy, sometimes they are very reluctant to share their experience with the rest of the class and with me, as well as their instructor, because sometimes they are afraid that what they might say might not be appealing to me. They have grown up, and they have been socialized in an educational context where the teacher is the cornerstone, if you will, of the learning process. So basically, they are expecting almost everything to come from their teacher. And this is exactly one of the challenges, actually I have to, or I had in the past to deal with. Now things have improved because once you start and then students know you, then usually they share with their friends, some information about the teacher. And so the next generations that come to your classes are usually a little bit better informed, so they know what to expect. They know that Dr. Irene, for example, will start asking these weird questions about their cultures, and so on and so forth. But it is still actually a challenge that, you know, I have to deal with every beginning of the semester, if you will. This is completely the opposite with Georgetown. So my students at Georgetown, regardless of their background, I remember and I was really impressed by that, that from day one, actually, they started shooting me with questions.

Lillian Nave  19:17

They were making requests, you know, in terms of adding new material to the syllabus. With respect to specific topics, they were always asking for more readings, not necessarily academic readings, but also, you know, more culture-related readings, and so on and so forth. So this is actually a difference that I can’t help but notice. Having said that, of course, a number of students at Qatar University also tend to be very engaged. So when they come to class, they’re always willing to share their experiences, but the rest of the class, some of them actually go this far as to actually prepare themselves for each of the class, or each of the classes, and they come actually with some examples that they anticipate I might be asking them about. So, you know, a very interesting example here is whenever we talk about idioms. I mean, this is actually one of the one of our favorite topics. And the reason for that is because almost all my courses, like sociolinguistics, language and society, discourse analysis, they always rely actually on very socio-cultural linguistic material. So usually we discuss a concept like, for example, the concept of metaphor. We look at some examples from English, some examples from my native language as well, which is Greek. And then, you know, I open the floor actually, to our students. So some of them actually, they are really highly engaged, and they come already prepared. So they have thought of examples of idioms or amthal as they are called in Arabic. And you know, they are ready to share them with the rest of the class. So this is actually something really touching, if you will, because usually, the students are not in the mood of doing their homework, if you will, right before class. So some of them actually usually ask their parents as well, or even the grandparents, to give them examples of, you know, really highly culturally specific idioms. And then they come and they share all of these with the rest of their classmates and with me as well. And it’s always, by the way, very interesting to observe some cultural similarities that exist between Arabic and Greek. So this is actually one of again, my favorite moments. And I think that the students love these moments as well, when we come to realize actually that Arabic and Greek have so much in common. Let me give you again, a very specific example that, you know, I came across very recently, we were talking about wishes in general, right? Okay. Like Greeks, Arabs also have a wish for almost everything, which also includes actually, when you get a haircut, so when you get a haircut, this is something actually very mundane. It’s not anything, like a big deal or something. But in the Greek culture, for example, it is customary when you get a haircut, sometimes members of your family or your closest friends to do like the this: so to tap your freshly cut hair, if you will.  Okay. 

Irene Theodoropoulou  22:47

Right. And then we also say may /me’γia/, sometimes //me’γia to ‘kourema/, which literally means ‘may you be healthy’, right? Okay, we use the word ‘i’γia’ in our wishes, by the way, for almost everything. So if you get a new car, for example, if you get a new haircut, if you get some new clothes, whatever, 

Lillian Nave  23:10

Yeah.

Irene Theodoropoulou  23:10

We tend to overuse this wish. But I was really surprised actually to find out that some Arabs actually do that as well. So they do the so called “fapa” That’s the Greek term that we use, you know, when you tap someone on the back of their neck once they have had the new haircut. So some Arabs actually tend to do “fapa” as well. I was really surprised, actually. And I was impressed by that similarity. So you know, we’ve never we have these moments actually, where, you know, there is a very interesting cultural encounter. I think that, you know, this is what brings us closer, if you will. And I think that at the same time, all of us, the students and also me as an instructor get more motivated. So these moments, these encounters actually usually whet our appetite for delving more into the cultural peculiarities of our countries. So these are, you know, very nice moments actually, in the learning process.

Lillian Nave  24:10

You know, you’re already telling me so many things that you’re doing that, to me relate to Universal Design for Learning, but you’re empowering students by giving them the floor and bringing their own cultural idioms in that case, and saying that they have something very valuable to share, that you’re not the sage on the stage, the lecturer, the creator of knowledge, that they’re also creators of knowledge that they’re resources and that they’re valued, and have something of worth to bring to teach. Now they’re teaching the other students as well they’ve taught you something. And that takes a lot of humility and a different cultural framework, then what some of your students are used to and what some professors are used to. We, I think often when we start out our careers, we think we have to be the arbiter of all knowledge and be in charge of, you know, dispensing that that knowledge. But inviting students to bring their whole selves, their cultural backgrounds, and sharing that with the rest of the class is really empowering. And as you’ve already pointed out, really engaging for your students for them to want to learn more. 

Exactly, exactly. So I absolutely agree with you Lillian, that this is a matter of, as you said, humility, I see actually the whole learning process in general as an act of humility on behalf of everybody involved in the sense that, you know, I know, one thing that I don’t know anything (this is the translation of the Socratic Paradox /en ‘iδa ‘oti ou’δen ‘iδa’) so the more we learn, actually, the more we come to appreciate that we don’t know anything. Whatever we know, is just a drop in the ocean, if you will. So humility is one thing, but at the same time, I would also like to add that the reason actually why I tend to take this type of approach to learning also has to do with functionality. Qatar is a very peculiar country on top of everything else, exactly, because the vast majority of its population consists of non-Qatari citizens. And I would say that the vast majority of these people don’t even speak Arabic. So I always encourage, actually, my students who will be, you know, the future leaders of Qatar and of their countries as well, to try and embrace this socio-cultural linguistic variation that they have. I mean, for them, I think it’s also a matter of, you know, creating the circumstances of a harmonious and productive coexistence amongst all of these different, you know, social segments that make up the population of Qatar. So, if you have this sort of plan, or if you have this sort of mission to make your country much more engaging, much more accepting towards different cultures, I think that you can start actually, by building this sort of modus operandi, if you will, already from students’ undergraduate years. So, you know, I always keep in mind that these students actually will take over responsible positions in Qatar. So, I would like to have my conscience clear that at least in terms of my contribution to their learning, I tried actually, to push them towards this way of thinking and of operating, right, because I genuinely believe that the only way actually to create such a multicultural environment where there is mutual respect, and accessibility, and so on, and so forth, you need to cultivate this skill already from your undergraduate years. So I think that when they are encouraged, actually to share with the rest of their classmates things about their culture, most probably, this is what they will be doing in their professional lives as well. And in this way, hopefully, they will make their culture much more appealing to other people. So they will become much more inviting to other people. I think that this is very important, actually. And this is something that we sadly miss in many parts of the world, right? You know, more often than not, unfortunately, we just coexist with other people without necessarily having an honest and fruitful conversation with them. So I think that if if you planned, if you will, this type of seeds to your students, hopefully, you know, when they become members of the professional life, when they get responsible positions, they will try to apply, you know, all of these behaviors, all of these practices, and in this way, hopefully, they will contribute to a better society and a better world. 

Lillian Nave

Yes. Oh, absolutely. And I’m seeing one of the things that is making this so effective for your students is you’re spending a lot of time explaining the nature of words and how powerful it is that your students are bringing in, like those examples and that they’re participating in. And when I think about this through a Universal Design for Learning lens, I’m thinking about how much you are explaining language and symbols and what’s important like these small building blocks, for you’re very explicit in and letting your students understand how important these small things are. But that leads really to this larger empowerment and being able to be successful in the course, and in in their studies, and we often will skip over that. I know I have, like I haven’t started sometimes at the basics, if somebody is just getting into Intercultural Studies or just going into art history, and I’m throwing out terms that I haven’t explained, well, then, and students haven’t been able to really fully participate or grasp it, then we’ve really missed that empowering, building block of setting our students up for success. And I see that a lot. And even in some of the trainings that I do about Universal Design for Learning, I use the idea of idioms. Because if we think of like one of the things I ask, I ask Americans, and then I’ll ask an international audience, if they understand what an idiom that’s particularly American, like putting your John Hancock on something. And for Americans, um, maybe, maybe the new generation doesn’t get it. But if my generation we would know, that means put your signature on something, as John Hancock had a very dominant signature on some of our founding documents of America. So one would know, well, some would know, let’s say that idiom, but it’s completely lost on somebody coming from outside the culture. And so giving that time to really explain the basics of what we’re talking about, is really, really important. And you’re doing it in such an empowering and inclusive way that we often I feel like we often forget how important that part of the education is that we need to be teaching even some of those early smallest steps in a way that’s engaging and inviting, rather than a rote communication or a, you know, lecture and answer kind of thing. But to really get students in an engaged on the ground level, is such an empowering thing. So I, I’m super impressed. And of course, I love language, every time you’re talking about and bringing in Greek philosophers, I’m so excited. This is so good. Thank you very much. 

Irene 

We always try to do the best we can, right? All of us are involved in these things. But again, if you will, yeah, my point of departure is Greek philosophy and the Greek way of thinking exactly because I can’t help it.

Irene Theodoropoulou  32:32

It’s how I have grown up. But having said that, again, I’m always open to new ways of conceiving the world, new lenses that we can use in order to see the world. And I’m always fascinated by this. And as we said, I mean, starting with some really small words is very important. Exactly, because it helps  you frame this question but then at the same time, exactly, because students feel that their language or their dialect merits our attention and our time, they are always encouraged to offer more information. And it’s unbelievable, actually, how much you know, how much richness if you will, there is in the dialects as well. So you know, all of us actually tend to use if you will, standard language. So Standard English, when they were they, you know, attend courses in Arabic, for example, they tend to use Fusha Arabic, which is Standard Modern Arabic. But I think that the beauty of Arabic language lies primarily in its dialects. I mean, the expressivity that can be found in language is to be found primarily in their dialects in their amiyat (= dialects), so I always encourage them actually to share very mundane expressions, but expressions that matter to them a lot. So again, let me give you a very mundane example, which speaks volumes about their culture. For the past couple of days, actually, it has been relatively cloudy here in Qatar, which is relatively rare, actually. But it happens. And they have  an idiom actually that they say not only in Qatar, but also in the Gulf, which is /ali’aum ‘jam lan’dini/. That’s an Arabic idiom in the dialects that are used in the Gulf. So the literal meaning of this is that “Today we have the weather of London.”

Lillian Nave  33:38

 [Laughs]

Irene Theodoropoulou  33:43

So it is very interesting actually, that they tend to associate, you know, clouds or rain as well with London. And again, it speaks volumes with respect to how much they appreciate London, right? So how much they liked London, and the joy of going there every now and then. So, stuff like that or the way they greet each other. In terms of greetings, I was really impressed actually by the different registers as we say they have. So, they have more formal greetings, more informal greetings. The most formal greeting is  Assalamu alaykum “May peace be with you,” this is very you know very formal very standard and very Islamic. Apart from this, they also have different degrees of formality depending on you know, the the type of relationship they have with other people so they can say ahlan wa sahlan, for example, they can say marhaba but they can also say my favorite one, which is hala wallah

Lillian Nave  35:15

Hala wallah?

Irene Theodoropoulou  35:48

Exactly, it cannot be translated exactly into English. But this is a very informal type of greeting, which at the same time, also, depending on the context, implies also some sort of flirting as well. So I was really impressed, actually, by these expressive details that their dialects have; so how exactly the things that we discuss are, and then we try to reflect on their uses, and why people use these particular expressions and not others, with whom do they use these expressions? I think that this is actually a great window for people to understand a different culture. And again, yeah, one thing really, whenever they asked me to share some relevant information about my Greek language, I’m more than happy to do so. Right. So there is a genuine exchange of socio-cultural language materials, if you will,

Lillian Nave  36:48

Right? Oh, my goodness, that really makes me think of, you know, the wealth and difference of so many greetings that we have here. And and when you told me that last greeting, that could be some area of flirting, it made me think of now a, a 20-year-old expression that is coming back into focus, because now I see my students 20 or 25 years younger than I am watching the American sitcom “Friends,” which he said in New York, and so there’s a difference in “How are you doing?”, which is a general greeting and Joey Tribbiani’s “How YOU doing?” An all time classic. Classic. From America, to Greece to Qatar. There is a common thread there. It is realized differently, linguistically speaking. Yes. Oh, my goodness, oh, this is so fun. And so you’ve talked, actually, you’ve covered so many of like, kind of my different parts of questions. But one of the things in our preliminary conversation about a month ago I asked you about was really interesting to me is about how you make a difference, or you differentiate between format and content in in your classes. So in order to be culturally diverse in how you teach. So in what ways can you tell me, again, that you vary both the format and the content, so you’re teaching in a variety of cultural ways that meets the needs of your students? 

Irene

Well, again, we always try to do the best we can. And I as I told you, I always try to shape the format and the content of my classes depending on the different types of students I have. So again, on day one, I always come with a draft, if you will, of the syllabus. But then I always ask questions to my students in order to make sure that everybody is happy, different perspectives are represented, and so on and so forth. So in terms of formats, I mean, I can talk about the assessment activities, actually, which are a very important dimension of the format. I always try to make sure that I have, you know, a balance of different assessment activities. So usually I have some research-related activities as well where students are asked to go out there to do ethnography, they observe how people behave in their own culture, or maybe in another culture that they have a genuine interest in. And then they are asked actually to write some sort of a research report or even a research paper. This is applicable to 300 and 400 level courses. Apart from research components, I also try to make sure that I give them some quizzes as well because I know that the vast majority of students are accustomed to this way of being tested as well. And of course, very importantly, I always try to make sure that they have different activities that involve their participation in class. These can be classroom discussions, or you know, it can also include their preparation of a short academic paper that they usually ask them to read. And then they are asked to report on this paper to their classmates. And then they’re always also encouraged to moderate a discussion with their colleagues about that particular paper. So these are actually just some of the assessment activities that I do, always in collaboration, and in agreement, of course, with my students. So in a nutshell, I always try actually to make sure that we have a combination of more active and more passive types of assessment activities, right? The active assessment activities are the ones that usually ask students to go out there to collect data or to do some readings, to prepare classroom presentations, and so on, so forth. The more passive assessment activities include, they’re just having to answer specific questions, open-ended questions, multiple choice ones, and so on, and so forth. So these are some things with respect to the format. And of course, with respect to the content, again, on day one, I come with a list actually of topics that we cover, like, for example, in language and society, right? Usually, the the initial list has topics like politics, media, linguistic landscapes, which is how language is used in public spaces, right? Yeah, in the context of language in society, we also talk very briefly about language and gender as well. So these are the main topics. And then I usually ask them if they want us to talk about something else. And over the past couple of semesters, I have come to realize that there is a growing demand for talking about language and religion, which I find interesting. So yes, whenever I say actually, that there is such a strong interest, of course, I make sure to include this topic as well. And given that language and religion is not exactly my specialization, I always try to do some readings myself as well, in order to familiarize myself with this very interesting area. So I mean, this is just an example of how, as an instructor, I always try to cater, if you will, for their needs and their special interests, as well. 

Lillian

Yeah. And I wanted to make clear to some others, who might criticize and say, but are you changing your curriculum? Are you changing your goals? Are you, you know, are you changing your standards? But all of that is still within exactly the goals you want to accomplish, you’re just adding perhaps other content to round out or bring more nuance or help students to understand that, you know, by topics that they’ve chosen, they’re not choosing the whole class or changing everything, you’re, you’re just adding some things that are still within the context and the objectives of your class. 

Irene

Exactly, exactly. I mean, that’s an excellent point. The idea is that at the very beginning, actually, we have some set program learning outcomes, which need to be aligned with the course objectives, and also with the student learning outcomes. I mean, especially Qatar University takes this alignment very, very seriously. And this is something I have to respect, right? In the context of the institution I work for. But then the idea is that as we said, the context that the or the content or not, the context here usually remains the same, but the content is the one that can change relatively easily in the sense of, you know, it can include actually more topics, whose discussion should always be in alignment with the course objectives. So for example, making your students better critical thinkers. I think that if we include a discussion of language and religion, it’s not that we won’t be able to meet that course objective. On the contrary, I think that right exactly, because at least for my students at Qatar University religion matters a lot. I think that we incorporate the discussion of such a topic in this particular course, hopefully, students actually will become much more engaged much more motivated to participate in this sort of activities and discussions and therefore chances are that they, you know, they will become better critical thinkers. Right, so this flexibility is always in alignment with the general context of the program learning outcomes and course objectives in student learning outcomes as well. Yes. One of the things you mentioned early on in our conversation was about the difference in your students in how students, I believe, especially in Qatar University, I come from a background where they are more passive, that they expect you to be lecturing. 

Lillian

And you kind of shake that up a little bit. You want students to participate more. And I was wondering if are there things that some students or that students in general general need to unlearn that may come from a cultural background before they can learn other ways of learning? Or how do you deal with something like that? 

Irene

Yeah, I mean, again, that’s a great question. It’s a very tricky issue overall. I don’t know, I mean, personally, I don’t believe so much in this idea of unlearning. But I think it is too pushy, actually. and difficult to to achieve. So this is not something that I would, you know, try to encourage my students to do, if you will, maybe re-learn some things, I mean, maybe okay, that might be a little bit more or add to their, their creative ways of learning. Yeah, this is a more euphemistic way of putting it. But I guess, yeah, I mean, one of the things that they could try and really learn is how to deal with knowledge in general, again, what they have come to realize is that they believe very much in the idea of authenticity. So whatever comes for example, from religion, you know, this is authoritative. And of course, I totally respect that. I mean, again, one of the the aspects actually, that are very important, not only in my courses, but also in terms of how I self-reflect about, you know, who I am as a teacher, is that I believe, very much in respect, right? So, if this is how people, you know, perceive life, or if this is how they, you know, deal with knowledge, then okay, you know, I’m not going to touch that. I mean, I will take this as a given. But when it comes, for example, to types of knowledge that come from all their people, right, just because they are all, you know, whatever they say is true. That’s it, you know, there’s no question about that. This is where I, again, I start, or we start having a chat with them about this. And of course, I’m not trying to impose on them the idea that you should always challenge whatever comes from the older generations. Yeah, exactly, right. Because again, I understand that this is very deeply rooted in some cultures. By the way, this is also deeply rooted in the Islamic culture, but it is something which is extremely rooted in the Confucian culture. So people in China, for example, or in Japan, and Korea also think like that, right? Yeah. So the idea is that, you know, we try to have a chat, actually, with my students, especially the Arabs, because, you know, these are the vast majority of students at the university. And then I try actually, through asking some questions, which I think will be beneficial to them, I try to make them think of alternatives to these ideas, especially if these ideas, objectively speaking as we can say, are completely outdated. Right? Yeah. So the example comes from, you know, a case where women are not supposed to drive I mean, of course, yeah, this is, you know, a very outdated thought nowadays. Even in Saudi Arabia women have have been given some sort of, you know, right, if you will, to drive, by the way, they cannot drive all over Saudi Arabia, they can drive only in designated areas. I didn’t realize that until relatively recently, as well. So yeah, we always try to pick up on these ideas, and then we try to have an honest discussion. Obviously, again, I’m not expecting all students to be persuaded that, you know, this cannot hold and, you know, we need to change our way of thinking and so on and so forth. Because again, I respect the culture and I understand that these things are deeply rooted. But I always encourage them actually to adopt a much more flexible way of thinking and to start thinking, if you will, on a more rationality-based way. I mean, of course, it is open to different interpretations, right? I mean, the concept of rationality in the West may be different from other parts of the world. But I always try actually to encourage them to look at things from a logic perspective, if you will. So that might be one of my attempts, I guess, subconsciously to try and, you know, encourage them to unlearn. Again, I don’t agree with this verb ideologically speaking, it’s just that I always try to, you know, encourage them to see things from a different perspective. And it’s, it’s a difficult question where all because on top of everything else, of course, everybody has their own way of dealing with things. So and this comes from their different experiences. So we have, for example, lots of students who might be Muslim who might come from relatively conservative families, but still they have been exposed to popular culture, they have traveled as well, they have friends, actually, who belong to different faiths, or to different nationalities. And as a result of this, these students actually have a slightly different way of thinking about things compared to other colleagues of theirs. So the idea is that as an instructor, actually, you will have to make sure that you first of all, you acknowledge, and you realize that there is variation in terms of thinking, and then I think that you should try to do the best you can in order to give students the opportunity to explore the worlds on the basis of their own critical thinking skills and their own perspectives. So in a nutshell, I guess, what I’m trying to say here is that I try to individualize my courses as much as possible. So instead of dealing with all students as if they were one and the same, I always try to, you know, to encourage them to find their own voice and to be very explicit about, you know, sharing their voice with other people. 

Lillian

Yeah, so you recognize and value learner variability. And yes, and your behaviors in the classroom. Explain that to your students. And that’s what that’s what I love about even our the first time I talked to you, that those values and assumptions about learners being different, having different cultural backgrounds, different values, and then wanting and knowing that the students should be able to express those and bring their full selves to the classroom is going to make a better experience for everybody, including us, right as the professors, yeah, instructors in the class. And you also made me think of that idea about the authority of knowledge and on often looking to an authority figure, whether it be parents, or a religious figure, or a textbook or a holy book, right. All of those are places where we might look for the authority of knowledge. And it makes me think of reflective judgment model by King and Kitchener. And I will add that to our resources, but the idea about going to an authority figure, whether it’s your mom, a teacher, a professor, a holy book, a religious text, is that knowledge exists, and we just have to uncover it, we have to find the right resource, we have to get to it. And I find too, that my first year students coming into college, that’s mostly how they see the world. And part of the relearning or adding to the ways we learn, I think in the college setting is to ask about what are other ways of understanding the world? So that idea about knowledge existing and having to find it is called a pre reflective thought like, okay, it exists, you don’t have to really think too hard you you know the answer, because you can find it in a book. And the next level of that is quasi reflective where we start to piece together that there are multiple answers. Maybe there’s not one answer, what the answer is in the in one book is different than what the answer is in another so if we look at religious texts, right, the Quran or the the Pentateuch, the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible there, there’s going to be different answers right to these questions. So there there might be different ways to get that knowledge. And so maybe there’s multiple answers, and then you have to determine where you know what that answer is for yourself. And then finally, the reflective judgment model or the last phase or area is when you become the arbiter where you’re able to create that knowledge by saying, Look, I’ve read it in this authority, I’ve read it over here, I’ve experienced this part of my life. And I can tell you that this is, you know, my answer to this question. And I feel like that’s a lot of what my job is, is to take those students along that progression, but respectfully, so right? We, yeah, they come with a lot of, of, well meaning and deeply rooted. And in quite honestly, the answer may be the same after they go through that process. Maybe that’s the exact same answer that they came in with. But now they have a lot of reasons to back it up. Exactly. It’s like testing your hypothesis, actually, that there’s now to be correct, or that turns out to be true. 

Irene

Exactly. And I really like what you said about this quasi-reflective model, right? Because this is exactly what I have been trying actually to encourage my students to do so especially in courses like discourse analysis, where we analyze different texts, I always try to encourage them to come up with their own interpretations of different types of discourse. And I always actually try to tell them that, listen, there is no right or wrong, right? It’s up to you, how you perceive things, it has to do with your experiences, it has to do with your values as well, it has to do with your priorities. So all of these things are things that you should try to include in your analysis instead of trying to push them away. Because you know, you might believe that the teacher is looking for just one perfect and correct answer. And I guess, again, this is something that many of my students at Qatar University are not familiar with. And sometimes, you know, they it comes as a shock to them, actually, when I give them their papers back, and then I tell them: ‘listen, there is no right or wrong here, right? So you get graded, not on the basis of the content itself. But you were graded on the basis of how well you were able to back up your thesis statement, for instance.” Yes, so this is very important. And I think that this is a very fruitful exercise that all of us can do, we can try and test actually our understanding and our way of interpreting things. And then, you know, slowly, we can end up with how we see the world with this one reflection that you said, right now, or, you know, our personal voice, if you will. I mean, of course, this is really difficult to do, right? I mean, it’s sometimes a lifelong journey, if you will, but it’s for a worthy cause, if you will. Yes, it has to do with trying to discover and to understand yourself at the end of the day, by being exposed to all of these different types of texts and ideas. So I guess, yeah, the bottom line here is that learning and this is what I have been trying to tell my students, learning is like a journey, you know. It’s like Odysseus actually, who was trying to get back to Ithaca. I guess that’s a common trope, but still, it’s, it’s one of the powerful ones, right? So of course, throughout your journey, you will be facing challenges sometimes you want to be in the mood of, you know, engaging with all sorts of different people, different texts, but what matters at the end of the day is the fact that you know, you have a goal you want to reach somewhere, right? And I always encourage them to try and find their wished for destination, while they are in their undergraduate years, because this will, you know, help them set up their course, you know, for the remaining of their lives. So, in this way, hopefully, they will have something to you know, to work on, if you will, they will have some sort of fixed goal which of course can change as well, but I think it’s always a good idea actually to have a destination in mind; otherwise, you know, your ship actually will start navigating without any course, it will start going to very dangerous areas, and you know, you will lose your motivation as the captain of that ship, right? Whereas if you have something relatively fixed, you know, this is a driving force for you, it gives you a reason, actually to, to try to be more persistent, to be more open, to be enthusiastic about life, if you will, you know, yeah, at the end of the day, you know, learning also is very psychology-oriented, right? I mean, 

Irene Theodoropoulou  59:56

of course you learn things in order to be able to make use of that knowledge in all sorts of different ways you know, to survive to get a job, blah, blah, blah, right. But it is also very important for us to learn more and to be happy with what we learn, because this will help us become more satisfied and reduce perhaps some issues that we might have with ourselves as well. And as a result of this to become much more positive and much better people and much more useful people for the people around us. So, I think that this is actually one of the ways through which we can make sure that we create a relatively harmonious society. I mean, I have actually a great interest in this idea of harmonious society, I have been influenced a lot actually, by some readings I have been doing on Japanese culture. So in Japanese culture, one of the core concepts is the concept of “wa”, which means social harmony. And of course, I am aware that the Japanese society, like all societies in the world, has its own problems, its own challenges. I mean, nobody says it’s a perfect society. But I think that concepts like this actually can turn out to be really beneficial for our part of the world, where there is, you know, so much fuss, if you will, right? And sometimes for the wrong reasons. I mean, you know, we keep debating with each other, we keep reproducing negativity all the time. And sometimes there is no reason for that, you know, we just do it, because of the force of habit. So that, you know, trying to incorporate a little bit of social harmony in our communities, you know, in our classrooms, in our institutions, in our neighborhoods, can turn out to be actually something really positive. And I guess, after my exposure to that concept, from the Japanese culture, I have tried actually to, to incorporate this into, to try to make it happen in my teaching, and also in my learning as well. So I think all of these actually are strongly correlated. And, you know, if you try to make sure that you are happy as an instructor, and then you create the circumstances of happiness amongst your students, chances are that you will be able to create something really nice, something fruitful, and something that, you know, people will enjoy being part of.

Lillian Nave  1:02:29

Yes, I must say I start off my classes are talking about a happiness advantage, that when we think about, we get in the right headspace, really, about learning and we’re more creative, if we do some things that increase our happiness, there was a little bit about, that there’s some TED talks or books about happiness. So we do a tiny little unit on, you know, things that can can increase our happiness advantage, as Sean Achor likes to call it and I can put a link to his TED Talk, which is a lot of fun. But but creating that thankfulness and, and random acts of kindness, those things increase our creativity, our, our, our spunk, our ability to learn and be open to new ideas. And it does it changes things. 

Irene

Exactly, absolutely. Absolutely. During the pandemic, by the way, I had the opportunity to attend, you might have heard of this. It’s a very popular core course offered by Laurie Santos at Yale University. 

Lillian

Yes, very popular about happiness. 

Irene

Exactly. And I also encourage my students actually to, to attend it. And the ones actually who did, they were very happy. Some of them, I think, emailed Laurie, and they thanked her. Exactly, because for some students actually changed their lives completely. Students had things that they would not even, they couldn’t even imagine, you know, that could be happening, right. So I think that experience, especially after the pandemic actually has been a major shock for all of us. So I think one of the good things is that it has made us more reflective, right? So I think that happiness actually is something very vital, you know, for success, for internal balance. It is something actually that gradually we can start incorporating into our teaching and learning as well. It’s for a good cause. 

Lillian

Yes, I agree, it helps it helps in that learning. I do it when we have our synchronous. I teach online right now. And at the very beginning, our icebreaker, I’ve asked students to bring in something good there, you know, right in the chat, something that is good that’s happened to them something nice they’ve done for somebody else, just as we’re gathering there and bringing our headspace into a positive one, right? That it’s  engaging them in a very low cost, you know, doesn’t have to do do too much. It’s not about the the subject matter that we’re talking about that day, but just bringing in positivity, that that elevates our mood just a little bit, and makes a connection with the other members of the class. So we can start out and I wanted to mention one other thing that you said about the destination, like have plotting a course, Oysseus, making it back to Ithaca. And having that destination, we want to keep that destination, whatever that is maybe as a metaphor for our course what where we want to get to, but all the things that you’ve been talking about today that I love so much, and that I see as universal design for learning is providing many, many routes to that destination. So just like a GPS, Apple Maps, Google Maps, you plan, you say I need to get to this address, and it’ll show you three different routes, you can decide to do the scenic route that takes a lot longer, you can go on the big highways and the direct path, but it might not be so pretty. Or you can go you know where you’re you know, stopping by a gas station or a restaurant, you know, or something like that. So there are multiple routes. And that’s what I see you providing for your students are lots of opportunities, multiple routes to get to that same destination. And for me, that’s what Universal Design for Learning offers is options for our students where they’re bringing their full selves. They bring their cultural background, they’re sharing who they are, when possible, and you’re making it part of the curriculum in your linguistics courses. And that provides this engagement, it provides explanations and makes just such an incredible learning experience. That for me, it’s inspiring, it’s inspiring just to talk to you about the things you do. 

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:07:05

Likewise. 

Lillian Nave  1:07:06

Yeah, the way you empower your students. So all right, we’re making a long episode here. So I have one final question I do want to ask you, which is advice. If you were to give advice to others who wish to create a culturally inclusive classroom for diverse students? What advice do you have for them? 

Irene

I would tell them that the first thing they can do is to get to know their students, this is very important. So again, you know, on day one of the semester, when you don’t know your students, you can come up with, you know, the topics that you’re familiar with, or the topics that you want to discuss with your students throughout the semester. Well, it’s always a good idea to have an honest conversation with the students, that is to say, and then see what their needs are, what their personal tastes are with respect to, as we said, not only the content, but also the format itself. I think this is a very democratic way of dealing with knowledge. And I have come to realize that people appreciate that, even students in Qatar, and I’m telling you this because Qatar is an absolute monarchical state. So basically, people are familiar with the system, the institution of monarchy, not so much with democracy, but still I have come to realize actually, that even people who believe in absolute monarchical states, they appreciate this democratization of knowledge. So this is one thing, the first thing get to know with your students, be open-minded as well. Right? When I say be open minded, I mean, in general, you know, you are a human being as well as a teacher, right? You get exposed to, you know, new ideas inside and outside of the lecture hall, right? Try to incorporate something that you have heard on the news, for example, something that you have watched, something that you have, or a place that you have visited, you know, a painting that you have seen, try to incorporate this actually into your teaching, as well as students actually appreciate this a lot when we are, you know, down to earth, human beings, you know, when every now and then actually we throw away our hat of teacher and we just, you know, become ourselves, you know. 

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:09:29

Humans! Exactly. Right. So they appreciate that a lot actually, when you share with them a story about, you know, just this random guy that you met on the street, and, you know, they told you something that, you know, gave you a or gave you goosebumps, for example, or made you think alternatively about a topic for which you had the fixed idea, right, something like that. So I think that you know, this open mindedness and the ability to incorporate instances of this openmindedness in your teaching is also something very important. And the final thing is try to be happy. I mean, I know that, you know, it’s  easier said than done, right? Because again, all of us have our moments if you will, and we go through a lot of pressure, and so on and so forth. But again, it goes back to our discussion of positive psychology and happiness and all of these things. I think that when students see a happy person in front of them, automatically, they try to, you know, to get their own share of this happiness as well. And automatically, again, you create a very positive atmosphere in the class, which you need, actually, throughout the semester. So yeah, try to to bring this positive atmosphere as much as possible, you don’t need to pretend. Of course, I mean, I understand that, you know, teaching is like acting if you come and think about it, right? Yeah. But I think that happiness in particular, is something that we cannot fake, we cannot act, I mean, even if we are the best actors or actresses. if we have no other people, I mean, this will show right in our teaching, it will show on our facial expressions, I think that we need to work actually on our positivity and our happiness. And of course, each person has their own way of dealing with this, personally, what I have come to realize is that it is very important for us as instructors to have hobbies. And I promise, I will finish with this! In academia, we always get very preoccupied with our teaching, our research, our admin duties. And as a result of this, I find that the vast majority of academics actually live in a bubble, you know, they, their whole, professional life, at least rotates around the idea of university. So when they get home, they do grading they, you know, 

Lillian Nave  1:09:29

Humans!  it permeates everything, 

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:11:59

It permeates everything. Exactly, exactly. Now, I’m not saying that, you know, we cannot escape that. I’m not saying that, you know, this is something that we can just get rid of automatically. No, I mean, it’s part of our professional life, right? So we need to do these things as well. All what I’m saying, though, is that we, we should try and find the hobby, right? I mean, this can be really exhilarating. Personally, my hobby is singing. So for the past couple of years, I have tried actually to make sure that I reserve some valuable time to participate in the rehearsals with the Qatar Concert Choir. Right? Okay, so we rehearse actually two hours every Monday. And of course, if we have an upcoming concert, then our rehearsals actually become a little bit more intensive. But I think that, you know, through this whole, this hobby has helped me a lot overall, right? In the sense that, you know, I can relax, I can unwind. At the same time, I can also learn about cultures because our repertoire includes not only western classical music, but also Arabic songs as well. So subconsciously, I use these types of songs as well as, you know, a resource for, you know, my learning and understanding more about, you know, the Arabic cultures. So I think that if you have a hobby, actually, this helps you a lot, rediscover yourself, and, again, pave the way for becoming a more positive and more internally balanced person, if you will. So usually a person like this, when they enter into the classroom, chances are that they will be relatively happy. I’m not saying that, you know, we will always be joyous and happy. You know, we’re doing it actually, for ourselves, right? 

Lillian Nave  1:13:59

Maybe self care, 

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:14:01

self care. It might sound a little bit egotistical, but you can think about it, we need to do that. Actually,

Lillian Nave  1:14:09

we do. Right? You need to put on the oxygen mask for yourself before you give it to, in this case your students. Right, exactly. You have to make sure we are we are we’re not just giving out the whole time. And all of our time is spent on grading and administrative duties and teaching that we also take care of ourselves. I totally agree. And when I am stressed, I bake so I love baking cookies, and trying everything. Yes, I love it and then I have to give it away but because if I ate it all that would not be very good for my self care. But I must say that is just one of the things I pour myself into and love doing. 

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:14:47

And it’s an act of kindness as well. Yes.

Lillian Nave  1:14:50

Yes is good. It brings up my happiness when I give my baked goods away. I love it. Exactly. Yeah. So well thank you. We’ve come to the end of of our time but I could talk to you for days and now I really do want to come over and visit in Qatar another one of my hobbies is travel in my head at least

Irene Theodoropoulou  1:15:11

You’re more than welcome, Lillian, and of course the people who are listening to this podcast as well; guys, you are more than welcome to come to Qatar, and you’re more than welcome to come to Greece as well! And yeah, of course if you are interested in getting to know me, please feel free to send me an email; I would be more than happy to meet you. 

Lillian Nave  1:15:31

Great, we’ll have your email on our resources and all the things we’ve talked about. I’ll add to our episode page and thank you so much, Irene for talking to me and discussing this has just been an inspirational day for me morning for me late afternoon for you over in Qatar, so thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much. Again, keep it up. Yeah, thank you. You can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think udl.org website. The think UDL podcast is made possible by college star. The star stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aides based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the collegestar.org website. Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple atcha. The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Follwell and Jose Cochez. Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and I am your host, Lillian Nave. Thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.