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Face to Face: Videoconference initiative exposes cultural stereotypes

Lebanese and American students discuss discrimination and the need for better cross-cultural understanding during the first Intercultural Dialogue Session between LAU and Florida’s Nova Southeastern University.

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Students proposed potential means of countering detrimental prejudices. Suggestions included peace education, cross-cultural approaches to discriminatory propaganda, and active political engagement.

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LAU students took part in a videoconference with peers at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Florida on February 12. The first Intercultural Dialogue Session deconstructed cultural stereotypes, fostering international understanding through face-to-face human contact.

Dr. Marwan Rowayheb, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the Department of Social Sciences at LAU Byblos, and NSU master’s student Christina Wyler hatched up the meeting during an event in Byblos last November. Galvanized by seminars on the vital role of dialogue in conflict resolution, the pair resolved to put theory into practice.

After settling technical logistics, social sciences faculty entrusted students with the bulk of organization. Wyler collaborated closely with Tania Bougebrayel, a master’s student in Byblos, to determine the form and content of the two-hour videoconference exchange.

Prior to the event, a Facebook group entitled “Intercultural Dialogue: Road to Peace” facilitated initial contact between students in Lebanon and the United States. Graduate and undergraduate participants hailed from a wide range of disciplines, from biology and business to social sciences.

“In order to have correct perception, we must have a direct encounter,” Wyler said at the opening of the videoconference. In the ensuing discussion, students leapfrogged theory and cursory accounts to delve deep into human experience. By sharing subjective insights, they personified issues dehumanized by media coverage and transcended divisive preconceptions.

Having chosen to address multicultural diversity in the Arab world, NSU speakers inquired about the role of second languages in Lebanon. One student suggested that the comparative lack of foreign language education in the United States curbs cross-cultural understanding. American participants also questioned the possibility of a productive pan-Arab identity.

LAU students assumed the interrogative role for the latter half of the discussion. Questions centered on Western perceptions of Arab culture, prompting a lively discussion about the media’s role in perpetuating unfavorable stereotypes. NSU students candidly addressed and criticized the misguided conflation of the Arab world with Islamic extremism and terrorism in American media discourse.

Students from both universities proposed potential means of countering detrimental prejudices. Suggestions included peace education, cross-cultural approaches to discriminatory propaganda, and active political engagement. One student said that engaging the political elite is crucial in implementing progressive change.

“Everyone was very open and enthusiastic,” says Rowayheb. “There was no tension, purely constructive dialogue.”

The LAU professor was pleased that students broached deep-rooted misperceptions, which he believes stem from insufficient cross-cultural interaction and narrow media portrayals. “This first session broke the ice and established trust between groups,” he says, hinting that future discussions could further probe sensitive issues.

Social Sciences chair and assistant professor of political science and international affairs Dr. Makram Ouaiss was enthralled by the conversation. “It was a positive experience that really got students to think about and understand the ‘other,’” he says, adding, “We hope to build on this and engage students in more activities that could help with their studies.”

Ouaiss anticipates three more Intercultural Dialogue Sessions this semester. In the meantime, participants in the U.S. and Lebanon are strengthening newfound friendships via Facebook.
 


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