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Pacific University professor seeks to engage students in cultural exchanges without leaving campus

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Students in Brent Johnsons literature class at Pacific University had a chance to sit in on live web chats with pupils in England spring semester.In our fast-paced high-tech world of instantaneous answers from Google and instant communication from anywhere on earth, Pacific University literature professor Brent Johnson had a vision.

He wanted his students to use high-tech means to slow down, have real and meaningful conversations with fellow students and come to realize that there are still many important differences between cultures — even in cultures as seemingly similar as America and England.

Johnson won a fellowship from the Berglund Center for Internet Studies at Pacific to study how the Internet affects and impacts individuals and communities.

Johnson’s idea, which came to fruition spring semester, was a class in which students read modern literature and had the opportunity to discuss the books with a group of students “across the pond.”

A series of five “web chats” with students from York St. John University in York, England, helped both groups of students accomplish this. Students at both schools were also able to discuss and exchange ideas via online discussion forums.

The dozen or so students at Pacific were a diverse group in themselves. “I was surprised by how much diversity there was (in the class),” Johnson said, particularly evident in the students’ urban and rural upbringings.

On the other side of the camera during the web chats were 10 British students beginning their studies in an English literature program.

During a late spring web chat on “Atonement” by British author Ian McEwan, conversation about social status and structure revealed a few basic differences among the students. In America, one student observed, social status is mobile based on always seeking to buy a bigger, better home. In England, social status is based more on your childhood home that in many cases, may have been in the same family for centuries.

Johnson said a previous web chat about “Into the Wild” by American Jon Krakauer revealed other differences that were eye-opening to him and his students. In the book, Krakauer’s character — based on the real-life journey of California native Christopher McCandless — ventures into the Alaskan wilderness to test his mettle against nature.

The American students described the young man as “strong, courageous, free,” while the British students thought him “naive, arrogant.”

“Brits don’t have wild places, a sense of going out into these deep places,” Johnson said.

Overall, Johnson said, the biggest challenges in designing the course were technology-based. “I’m not a tech junkie by any means,” he said. After the first few chat sessions, both Johnson and his counterpart in England, Kaley Kramer, had the technology they needed in place.

Johnson said he hopes to continue to offer the class, or at least the format, as a way for students to engage in a cultural exchange by traveling only as far as their college classroom.

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