It is interesting that American students will sometimes advise each other to read the newspapers so they will not be considered “dumb Americans.” I agree that they should read newspapers but if they mean any international news stories about war and international affairs I believe they are missing the point. The idea is to follow the news media in the country (even in translation if possible). With this approach they learn not only what is going on but what issues are important to that society and to the demographic of that newspaper or radio or TV program. Take the big front page UK news story of several months ago that a government minister and his ex wife were found guilty of lying, the wife having taken her husband’s speeding points to save him embarrassment. The sentence was the last step in the desire for revenge by the ex wife. It’s an interesting story of political and personal secrets, lies and betrayal but that is not the main reason for its prominence. The nature of the British political system routinely puts this kind of story front and center because every prominent young government minister is a potential leader of the party and possibly Prime Minister. Thus the British are able to closely track the careers of rising stars among MPs which makes for a culture of interest in who’s up and who’s down. This is unlike the American system where Presidential candidates appears to be almost strangers to the broader public until the campaign gets going. This is the kind of insight that should be the point of a study abroad experience. So how do we get students reading newspapers?
Personally, I use Twitter. On the first day of my class on Understanding Britain I gave my students a card with three twitter accounts based on their relevance to news or issues in the news. They included various media, politicians, parliaments, an NGO on faith issues, a criminal barristers chambers and finally the Royal Family. Students without a twitter account and not wishing to open one were asked to bring in a news article instead. At the beginning of each class every student was called upon to discuss a tweet from one of their assigned accounts. The rule was that they had to recite the tweet and then explain it. If the tweet referred to something they did not understand they had to research it and finally they were asked to explain why this tweet was interesting to them. This last requirement was important in that it helped them reflect on their own culture and background. Reciting the tweets at the beginning of class made them alert before the lecture and some classes were devoted entirely to discussion.
The approach worked well in part because the students enjoyed twitter and were limited to their choices of people or organizations to follow. Through the tweets the students were collectively exposed to wide ranging societal issues but also marveled at interesting cultural details. A tweet about two murdered police women revealed to the class that the British police did not routinely carry guns – a much discussed issue in British policing at the time. Following the Prime Minister or the opposition leader or politicians in Scotland gave them insights into the political system. One student frequently chose to report on tweets from Faith Matters and learned a great deal about the concerns of ethnic and religious minorities. For those choosing to read tweets from newspapers I made it clear that every category of news is valid in cultural exploration. As a result the class learned something of the British and European sports world from a keen sportsman in the class.
The one caveat is that in using this approach the lecturer needs to have a wide command of social issues and a depth of general knowledge about the society. It means more to the students and helps to bridge the discussion if the person leading the class can place even mundane stories into a social or historical context. I also brought my own stories to class for discussion days to make the point that despite my lengthy residence in the UK I too am still learning about the culture and enjoy doing so.
I know that many study abroad directors find social media a distraction for the students and of course it can be. If they are constantly “visiting” family and friends on skype and facebook they tend to tune out the culture. However, a new society can also be daunting and intimidating without a filter. The advantage of using twitter to lead them to the news is that they are exposed to something new but within that can choose their interesting topic. This puts them partly in charge of their learning. And students do need to take more responsibility for what they learn abroad. At the same time they need a guide to help them put the news into the cultural context so it is not simply dismissed as a current event. On the final day when I asked the students what they had learned from the course. One student said that “before when I read the newspaper I would think ‘that’s interesting’ or ‘that’s terrible’ and move on. “Now I understand what’s behind the story.”