Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

What can we do to assist overseas lecturers to function effectively and efficiently in an Australian teaching environment as soon as possible?

Ruza Ostrogonac-Seserko
School of Engineering
The University of Western Australia
Changing one's educational environment is not only stressful for foreign students: it is a big cultural shock for lecturers as well. The problem is even more complicated if they have no significant international experience which is the case for most of the lecturers from Eastern European countries. These countries have remarkable universities, and very good lecturers, but, because of the political situation it is very rare to have had the opportunity to work at western universities. In the changing times of teaching and learning in Australian universities, we may expect more and more lecturers to come from that part of the world. When they start to lecture in higher education in Australia they encounter significant cross-cultural communication problems.

What are the problems of lecturers coming from nonwestern countries, and how are universities in Western Australia prepared to help them to adapt to new work environment and to assist them to perform their duties successfully as quickly as possible?


Introduction

Teaching across cultures is becoming increasingly common in Australian universities. The transition from one country, or even continent, to another causes many cross-cultural communication problems and difficulties. Feelings of frustration, stress and disorientation are some of those encountered. Sometimes those coming from abroad receive very little support upon arrival. All of us think that it is someone else's responsibility. The overriding issue for universities is how to induct foreign lecturers into the world of Australian higher education while meeting a wide range of needs such as cross-cultural communication problems, differences in educational system, language barriers...

Cross-cultural communication problems

When someone from one culture interacts with someone from another culture, each party in this relationship brings his or her own codes and frames of reference based on cultural, social and individual perception of the world. The challenge is to generate a new environment for a successful and effective relationship (Bolton). The success of the transition process depends on previous intercultural experience, familiarity with the new environment, the level of the command of language, flexibility and willingness to adapt, respectfulness and interaction towards other cultures, and many other components.

Personal experience

I was a lecturer of Descriptive Geometry (Engineering Graphics) at Engineering and Mechanical Faculties in Yugoslavia. I did not have a remarkable international career. It was very difficult to travel to international conferences or to visit foreign universities. We had domestic conferences and journals to follow the progress in our field.

I came to Australia in July 1995 with my family because of the political situation in Yugoslavia. After waiting for three years for visas we came to Australia and are now permanent residents of this country. Before coming I tried to read as much as possible about this part of the world which is exactly on the opposite side of the globe. In my country, we have only general information about "the most remote continent". I have been learning English all my life and I believed that I was an advanced English speaker. I passed the English language test which was part of the requirements for getting a visa. Now, I would say that I was just at high intermediate level.

The first six months were spent solving family matters (buying a house, finding proper schools for the children, trying to learn the Australian way of life: driving on the left side of the road, getting used to streets full of heavy traffic but without people on them, learning how to cope with the sun.... I missed my friends, relatives, my students.... I missed old architecture. We were confused at every step because everything was automated: banks, libraries, shops, parking places.... I expected some difficulties in my new environment but differences were bigger than I had expected.

My real problem started when I tried to look for a job. My unit, Descriptive Geometry, did not exist in any Australian School of Engineering. I was told that with the appearance of computer technology Descriptive Geometry had been abolished from most Australian schools of engineering. It was very confusing because Descriptive Geometry is the basic science for every kind of engineering drawing, even computer graphics. The computer is just a tool. It was also explained to me that Australian engineers are not designers but rather managers and they do not need to know how to draw, another big surprise for me. Somebody still has to design bridges, stadiums, opera houses and so on, all not at TAFE level.

After a "long wandering" I found out that the basics of my unit still exist but they are incorporated into other units. The closest modules were Freehand Drawing and AutoCAD. After visiting the head of The Civil Engineering Department at UWA with my Resume, I started to work part time, giving students AutoCAD courses for all years . Finally, I found myself in the classroom with students. It was absolutely beautiful to work with them. I did not have a single unpleasant case. Students all over the world are the same: full of energy, full of enthusiasm. Working part-time I did not mix too much with the other staff. Most of my time was spent preparing tutorials for students and learning English.

After a few months, the head of the Department told me that there would be a vacant position on the Engineering Graphics unit, lecturer level B. The position involves mainly teaching and only partly research. Unfortunately, one candidate had a very remarkable background with significant Australian experience so I had to prepare a seminar. I was astonished because in my previous country we do not have resumes, interviews and seminars for getting a job. Only applications were required, and I did not have anybody to help me. My seminar was based on research in Descriptive Geometry which was not very attractive for the committee. The presentation of my opponent was on a much higher level, as was his English. He did not have a PhD so neither of us got a position. It was a very unpleasant experience and I lost my self-confidence but not the wish to fight. I felt that I had to forget all my previous experience, background and teaching theory and start from the beginning. I stayed in the same position, giving AutoCAD courses till the end of the year and at the beginning of the new teaching year I was offered a one year contract as a lecturer level A, in which I still work.

One day, I got a phone call from the Centre for Staff Development and an invitation to attend the Foundation of University's Teaching and Learning Course for newly appointed lecturers. After that day, all my problems have started to be solved. There I learned about the Australian way of teaching, attended many interesting seminars, met many important people, got information about research and learned other things which interest me. Today, I have a clear picture in front of me how I need to organize my lectures and tutorials. I have also found that research in education is a very interesting area. It will help me to combine my previous experience with new technologies I have met here and to understand better my international students and new lecturers in my department.

The problems I have encountered can be split into the following areas:

The organization of higher education in Yugoslavia

Higher education in Yugoslavia is fully funded by the State. It is free for students but they have to go through a rigorous selection process via entrance examinations which every faculty prepares individually.

Lecturers have to teach students everything they are expected to know. The curriculum is the same for all of them and usually overloaded. Students cannot choose units. They may try to pass exams as many times as they like. It is a very competitive system and students are expected to be excellent in every area. In my previous Faculty only about 10% finished their studies in time (nine semesters plus half a year for a final project). Usually they are twenty five or twenty six when they graduate. The reasons why they are so much older then Australian students are That primary school starts at age seven and males must spend one year in the army.

Teachers are perceived as authoritative and students complain very rarely through official channels. All lecturers must have a PhD and can give lectures only in the area in which they wrote their thesis. Tutors must have a Masters degree. After graduation (usually after six or seven years on the university), students are like "walking encyclopedias" but not very independent and not very much involved in research. Once they have started their careers they very quickly become successful professionals working all over the world. It is a very exhausting system for both lecturers and students.

Alien teaching technology in a new country

The whole system in Yugoslavia is very independent and quite closed like most systems in Europe, because of their very strong tradition. It is almost impossible to make any changes. There is not too much talk about "How students feel, can they follow the units, can anything be improved?....."? We, were not even involved in research in the educational field. That was the task for those who graduated in Education.

The Australian way of teaching seemed to me quite strange. After twenty years of lecturing I had to attend the Foundations Course to learn how to teach in the Australian way; I had to learn that the educational system is an economic enterprise and students are treated as clients who need to be satisfied in all their needs and expectations. Otherwise they may complain through the large number of legal rules on human rights, sexual harassment, racial discrimination.

Language barrier

In my country pupils start to learn foreign languages in their third year of primary school (usually English, German, French, sometimes Russian, Italian and Spanish). It is in our culture that people speak a number of languages. I personally speak my own language, English, and Hungarian, and use German. But to be able to start to use a foreign language as your first language, especially at an academic level, takes a few years after being in an English speaking country. There is also the culturally specific way in which the English language is used in Australia and this takes time to learn. At UWA there is organized support for students having problems in language in Student Support Center but only one course on Advanced Speaking Skills for lecturers if there is need for that.

The way of life of the university

In my country there are no university campuses. Different faculties are scattered throughout a town, sometimes around several places. They all live quite independent lives. Only the Head of Faculty and a few people from administration have direct contact with the University administration. Every Faculty has its own administration. They start work at seven o'clock in the morning (as well as lectures) and finish at three in the afternoon.

The socio-cultural system

Most companies start work at 6 o'clock in the morning (factories, design offices....); shops, banks... at 7am and close at 7pm; Faculties and schools and start at 7am, a second shift for primary and secondary school at 1pm. Lunch, the main meal, is about 3pm. People have the whole afternoon for a very rich private life. After finishing home duties, in the evening houres, people go on the streets to walk up and down to meet their friends, to socialize. We drive on the right side of the road, do not use cars so much because distances are much shorter, the population density is much higher and streets are full of people almost 24 hours per day. It was quite difficult for me to get used to having five days a week for one's professional life and only two days for the family. I have always felt short of time. Streets have seemed to me so empty and traffic so heavy.

Research

Research was a significant part of our duties, but was not so competitive as here. We had many of our own national journals in which we could publish. It was desirable, but not necessary, to publish in foreign journals. Once I found myself in an Australian university I had two problems: 1) where to publish and 2) in which field to do research. Descriptive Geometry, in which I did most of my research work, has not been very popular here in Australia so I had to find a new area. Since I have attended the Foundations Course I have realized that research in Education will be the most suitable for me. It will help me to learn more about this system and to combine it with the best experiences from my previous country.

Existing transition support programmes in Western Australian universities

At five Western Australian universities there is currently nothing specially prepared for overseas lecturers. At every one of them there is a kind of Orientation Program for newly appointed staff which is held twoo or three times per year and lasts from a half-day to three days. The aim of the programs is to introduce the campus, and to help staff settle comfortable into their new job. All send invitations personally.

Four universities have further information for new lecturers and continuing staff about Australian teaching philosophy in higher education which is introduced on different courses lasting from 20 to 31 hours (Table 1).

Table 1: Existing transition support programs at Western Australian universities

University of Western Australia Staff Orientation Program
* half-day
* personal invitation
Foundations of Teaching and Learning
* Workshop: 2.5 days
* Follow-Up Program - seven 2hrs sessions during semester * Advertised

Curtin University of Technology Induction Program
* three days
Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education
* Series of 12 sessions every semester
Mentoring Program

Murdoch University Orientation Day
* half-day, once a year
* Personal invitation
Tertiary Teaching Course
* 3 days +
* seven 3hrs sessions during the semester
* advertised
Mentoring Program

Edith Cowan University Academic Orientation Day
* one day
* personal invitation
Teaching and Learning at University
* two days* personal invitation
Session Staff Workshop * three 2hrs sessions
* advertised

Notre Dame University Orientation Program
* half-day, three times per year
* personal invitation

Conclusion

My case is not unique. Many books and articles write about cross-cultural problems of lecturers from other cultures. But still most universities do not address this issue significantly. Students are much better covered. I could not even get information from Human Resources about the percentage of overseas lecturers at UWA. In Civil Engineering Department there are 12.5 lecturers (one of them is half time) and only 2.5 are born and educated in Australia. In Mechanical Engineering Department there are 19 lecturers and 7 are from Australia. My suggestions to lecturers and universities to make the transition more successfully are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

At the very beginning it is important that all messages are sent personally because new staff may have no e-mail, and the great amount of new information on the Internet is very confusing. Much of the information I have needed was advertised somewhere but I did not know where to look for it.

Recommendation

My process of transition was sometimes very painful but worthwhile. It was a big professional challenge. I learned tremendously and all lecturers who deal with international students have to go through a similar experience.

The main point of this paper is to suggest universities to increase their support for lecturers from other cultures in order to help them in their contribution to the advancement to the quality of education in Australia and to reach more students.

References

Loke, K. K. & Howell F. (1996). Reaching more studentsv. Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University, Nathan, Brisbane.

Bolton, J. (1993). Life-world games: The theoretical foundation of training courses in intercultural communication. European Journal of Education, 28(3), 339-348.

Willcoxson, L. (1995). Interstate transitions: The often neglected experience. Australian Journal of Experimental Learning, 34, 36-39.

Kealey, D. (1990). Cross-Cultural Effectiveness. Canadian International Development, Quebec.

Furnham, A. & Bochner, S. (1986). Culture Shock. Routledge, London.

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions. Addison-Wesley Publishing, Massachusetts.

Please cite as: Ostrogonac-Seserko, R. (1998). What can we do to assist overseas lecturers to function effectively and efficiently in an Australian teaching environment as soon as possible? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 242-247. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/ostrogonac.html


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