Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students get my cultural references?

U.S. faculty member, CMU program overseas

When I taught in the U.S., I frequently used references from popular culture or literature to make my points. But when I began teaching outside the U.S., the same references fell completely flat. An allusion to Gilligan’s Island or Moby Dick, for example, would require extensive explanation, which cut into valuable lecture time. It wasn’t just references to TV shows or books that created problems, either. One day I was trying to illustrate the stages of computational design using the analogy of washing clothes. I looked out at my class and saw a sea of confused faces. I realized with a jolt that people don’t wash clothes the same way in this country as we do back in the States, so the analogy was creating more confusion than clarity. At the same time, my students here are fairly cosmopolitan and there are a lot of western cultural references they do get, so it’s not always easy to predict what will and won’t be familiar.

Ove­r time, I’ve learned to pay close attention to students’ body language and facial expressions to see if there’s recognition or confusion when I use an analogy or example. I’ve had to drop some of my favorite examples and illustrations, but there are others I’ve been able to keep. Fortunately, after a year here I’ve started to collect a new set. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of searching for local analogies and cultural references that make sense to my students.

Other strategies

  • Ask your students to provide examples from everyday life or popular culture to illustrate course concepts. Have them explain exactly how the example they’ve chosen maps on to the material they’ve been learning. This exercise helps students think more deeply about the course material, while allowing you to collect the most effective examples and illustrations to use in subsequent courses.
  • Ask colleagues and TAs from your students’ culture for culturally relevant examples to illustrate disciplinary ideas.
  • Pay close attention to media and popular culture in the country where you are teaching, and look for opportunities to relate the material you are teaching to current events.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.