Undertaking research projects and writing essays about foreign places and different cultures is made easier every time technology improves. Airplanes, telephones, and fax machines, to name just a few important inventions, have made conducting research in places formerly inaccessible to many undergraduate students much more feasible.
For instance, I can download a PDF of a photocopy of a government report stored in an archive in Rwanda or go to the World Bank’s databank and download all of a country’s economic figures from the past 40 years. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to write my thesis on capital flight in Africa. My friend even joked that soon I’ll be “CNN’s expert on African politics.” The only problem is that I’ve never actually stepped foot on the African continent.
I wouldn’t classify myself as a proponent of cultural relativism, but it is difficult to write about other cultures and societies without attempting to empathize with the individuals that comprise them. An interpretation of a foreign event that seems perfectly reasonable to a Western reader may elicit a different response from someone with a different cultural background. Moreover, the archived information that undergraduates have access to is oftentimes quite biased, especially if it deals with non-Western cultures.
The other great barrier that usually arises when writing about other cultures is the language barrier. This barrier prevents the researcher from having access to all the evidence and, oftentimes, the most important pieces. The language barrier is a greater problem now more so than in the past because scholars are trying to link together the regional histories of the past into global histories. Instead of writing about Brazilian farming in the 1800s, newer research would likely focus on Brazilian trade, which means sources could be in Portuguese, English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Arabic, and a number of African languages. To write a paper that does this topic justice, outside help would be needed. But where would one get it?
Peer review is the go-to answer for this problem, and many professors encourage it between classmates. But what if your Asian history class only has American students in it? The writing center is another resource that is helpful for those writing research papers, but its tutors can’t revise cultural differences in opinions and ignorant statements. So what is one to do? The solution lies in the root of the problem: technology.
Even though there may not be a Russian student in your Soviet politics class, there will likely be one in your department or a related department. So my suggestion is that departments set up Dropbox links on their sites and allow students to place their papers in them if they feel they need help understanding the cultures they are writing about. Google Docs or e-mail lists could also work, but Dropbox is less invasive and annoying in my opinion; who wants to get spammed with a barrage of peer-review requests?
According to history professor Michael Jarvis, “When international students read their Western peers’ papers, they can enrich their cultural sensitivity and understanding. Western students can do likewise and also help with the difficult vagaries of written English and American culture.”
While I agree that reciprocity is great, an incentive structure may be needed to encourage students to do this. Maybe bonus points or an award after enough satisfactory peer reviews would help.
In this day and age, undergraduates may start to feel as if they are experts on topics simply because they have access to a vast wealth of sources that were formerly available to only serious researchers. Some will forget to empathize and others may not have access to many original sources, either due to archival bias or language barriers. By setting up departmental Dropbox accounts, UR could help its students avoid making ignorant statements in their papers, which benefits everybody.
Ondo is a member of
the class of 2014.