Towards an anti-essentialist understanding of international education

Xiaowei Zhou, Richard Fay

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Internationalisation of higher education in the UK affects the educational experiences of students as well as those who teach them. Through our teaching of intercultural communication to culturally-diverse communities of Masters students in our respective universities, both of us are participants in this phenomenon. As intercultural researchers, we seek to better understand what this might mean for all those participating in it. In this paper, informed by our experiences of teaching internationalised classes (which include students from the Chinese-speaking world), we discuss HOW to develop this understanding. We could draw on our contrasting insider and outsider perspectives: specifically, Xiaowei is originally from P.R. China, has undertaken interculturally-focused postgraduate studies in the UK, and has recently begun teaching Chinese-speaking students in the UK; and Richard is from the UK and has limited experience of China but substantial experience of interacting with his Chinese-speaking students in the UK. Thus, using constructs such as ‘Asian’ or ‘Chinese students’, ‘Western lecturers’ and ‘UK higher education’, we might work towards a cross-cultural, comparative explanation of this phenomenon. However, as with so much everyday and academic discussion of cultural difference, this approach is framed by an essentialist understanding of cultural difference, one based on the deterministic relationship between large, national/regional constructs and human behaviour. We have come to doubt the explanatory power of such an approach as it tends to disregard the complexities of the student and teaching communities involved and of the university contexts in which these internationalised classes take place. Instead, we seek to better understand our educational world by using the alternative ‘small culture’ approach of Holliday (1999) which, we feel, better acknowledges and provides a framework for exploring these complexities. In the paper, we will first situate our university teaching, and then present the two exploratory frameworks we could use before focusing directly on three sites where essentialised thinking might be evident: a) our own culturality as academic staff; b) the culturality of the internationalised educational contexts in which we work; and c) the culturality of our international students, especially those from the Chinese-speaking world. We conclude by suggesting how a small culture approach might better address these three sites of complexity and enable us as practitioners to better understand the internationalised educational phenomenon, better understand our roles in it, and better understand our students and their needs.ReferenceHolliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied Linguistics, 20(2), 237-264.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2012
Event11th IALIC International Conference “Intercultural Dialogue: Current Challenges/Future Directions” - Durham University
Duration: 29 Nov 20122 Dec 2012


Conference11th IALIC International Conference “Intercultural Dialogue: Current Challenges/Future Directions”
CityDurham University


  • International education
  • Anti-essentialism


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