Today I showed my students how to do laundry.
More precisely, I texted them tips on using the laundry room at our hotel during our South Korea study abroad program, as the instructions in the coin laundry room were mostly written in Korean.
Readers of this blog might recall my previous blog piece longing to lead this program again, written during the height of the pandemic and travel uncertainties around the world; I am happy to report that my students and I finally made it to Korea this summer for a short-term study abroad program!
After I sent the instructions to my students, it got me ruminating about the other peculiar (but understandable, considering the context of study abroad) things that I do or say while leading a study abroad program; many of these are things that, prior to leading study abroad programs, I could have never imagined were part of my primary vocational roles as a professor.
Going deeper, I would assert that many items on the list of “things I do or say while teaching abroad but not (as much) in the U.S” reflect how fluid or rigid my relationship boundaries are. I should also note here that when I speak positively about flexible and permeable boundaries, I am not referring to unethical crossing of relational boundaries, which of course is problematic regardless of culture.
In my field of cross-cultural psychology, one of the most recognizable diagrams in a scholarly piece is by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama1 (see here2 for figure; from p. 226). This figure illustrates two culturally different ways that relational boundaries might be conceptualized. Briefly, an independent self-construal views the self as having clear boundaries with other people around them; an interdependent self-construal is characterized by more permeable and overlapping boundaries with close others [There’s much more to be said about these figures and their implications, but for the purposes of this blog piece, the different representation of boundaries is what I would like to focus on].
When I reflect on how I relate to students while travelling in Korea, I realize that the permeable and overlapping boundaries depicted in the interdependent model of self tend to manifest much more frequently and intensely, compared to an independent view of self. Put differently, back in the U.S., my ways of relating to students are characterized by firmer boundaries compared to how I relate to the same students here in Korea.
For example, during my study abroad program, I might be more inclined to:
1) Encourage students to pursue individualized projects through spontaneous one-on-one conversations, and to follow up on the development of their initial ideas.
Study abroad students have especially novel ideas that bring together course content (e.g., cross-cultural psychology) with their personal interests (e.g., fashion), and I experience satisfaction in helping a student identify their ideas early on during the study abroad trip, and then continuing to dialogue with the student to develop and perhaps even implement those ideas. Through these intentional conversations, I am often humbled by the God-given intellectual gifts that my students possess. So, boundaries challenged, in terms of the type of conversations with students and also the parameters of course assignments.
2) Pray more frequently and earnestly for students during their time in Korea with me.
Perhaps, in part, out of my own anxieties about their well-being, I lift up daily, intentional prayers for safety, physical and emotional health, and impactful cross-cultural experiences for all the students on the trip. So, boundaries pushed, in terms of who I am including in my regular prayers, as well as the frequency of those prayers.
3) Check in with students individually and collectively, sometimes multiple times a day, about how they are doing.
It might be a quick text to the student who seemed a bit withdrawn, or an in-person encouragement expressed to a particularly enthusiastic student to keep up the good work. So, boundaries widened, in terms of me more freely and frequently expressing words of concern, respect, or affinity to students.
4) Provide more immediate answers to student questions, both electronically and in-person.
Sometimes these are “schoolwork” related questions, but other times these are questions that go beyond the course materials (e.g., “Where can I get this medication, Prof. Kim?”). But my responses are much quicker during study abroad; my “Give me 48 hours to reply to emails” policy does not apply. So, boundaries stretched, in terms of both topics discussed with students, but also my responsiveness to them.
5) Invite students to worship with me on the few Sundays we are here in Korea.
My version of North American Christianity tends to be more private, even on my Christian campus. I find that being able to invite students to various religious experiences in Korea opens up further conversations about culture and how that might intersect with certain faith practices. For instance, a student joined me for worship service at a megachurch in Seoul, and we were able to have meaningful conversations about the intersection of Korean culture with Christianity (e.g., praying out loud as a church community, and the influence of Buddhism on such practices), and messaging from the pulpit that included similarities to what the student was used to, as well as striking differences (e.g., openly stated desire for reunification of North and South Koreas). So, boundaries explored, in terms of more openness in inviting students to check out different styles of worship.
6) Open up my classroom to guest speakers.
I have several guests visit my classroom during the Korea study abroad, and these individuals range from a North Korean defector to alums of my university now living in Korea. To be flexible in welcoming guests into my classroom, I have to practice humility to acknowledge that others can speak more expertly and powerfully to certain topics. Moreover, I need boldness in reaching out to individuals that I might not know personally, intentionality in scheduling, and financial commitment to hosting some of them. So, boundaries opened up, in terms of being more willing to consider outside voices.
I have to admit, though, that these boundary modifications during study abroad are, in some sense, uncomfortable for me – both because of my socialization into U.S. academic culture that preaches the importance of drawing clear lines with students, as well as my own personality that tends to lean toward being guarded in interacting with students. At the same time, I have learned that precisely such efforts are what an effective, holistic pedagogical approach calls for during a faculty-led study abroad. When I choose to engage in some of these practices despite my own hesitations, I believe it is a way for me to “count others [my students] better than [myself]” (Philippians 2:3).
As I wrap up this blog piece, I wonder if the benefits of a more interdependent self-construal and consequent flexibility in boundaries can also serve to improve my teaching back home at my U.S. institution, in my “regular” teaching.
For instance, why can’t I connect individually with students more often? What is preventing me from allowing more flexibility on course assignments – letting students “run with things”? What are the reasons that I do not intentionally invite more guest speakers into my classrooms? Or, even more basic: Why don’t I worship with students more often?
I think an answer to all of these somewhat rhetorical queries is, I do not have the time. Or more often than I care to admit, I don’t want to make the time. But leading a short-term study abroad program has taught me that having time to do all of these wonderful things is closely tied to sacrificial posture; that is, am I willing to give my time to students, even without the favorable condition of travelling together in a different country? I hope and pray so. Indeed, during this study abroad program in Korea, one of my prayers is that although it might be more difficult given the frantic pace of an academic term back on my U.S. campus, I can still make intentional sacrifices – especially with my time – so that I am not over-reliant on a rigid and nonpermeable boundary in relating to my students. In doing so, I hope to live more deeply into my calling as a teacher in a Christian classroom: Doing “life together” with students, living out the reality of being part of one body in Christ (1st Corinthians 12:12-27), and demonstrating the deep, sacrificial love of Jesus in the flexibility in which I relate to my students.