Foto Elmer Spaargaren, ©UG

Overcoming your biases

Clashing cultures in the classroom

The RUG’s classrooms are filled with students from all over the world. That can cause culture clashes: how do you talk about colonialism when you’re from a former colony? Or about the female body when you’re from conservative Bulgaria?
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Door Isha Lahiri

17 February om 11:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Isha Lahiri

February 17 at 11:08 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.

She was very, very uneasy, Maria Kirilova recalls. She was doing a first-year course in art history at the RUG and suddenly she was supposed to discuss the representation of the nude, female body during seminars. Maria choked and could hardly get a word out. ‘It was so awkward’, she says. ‘I wasn’t used to having those kinds of discussions at all, but now I was required to speak about it in class.’

Maria is from Bulgaria. ‘People are conservative there. They don’t like talking about these things’, she explains. The same goes for taking a stance on feminist issues. She’s just not used to it.

She’s now in her third year and has learned to deal with situations like these. ‘Discussing these topics in class has encouraged me to find a voice of my own’, she says. ‘I am really grateful for that.’


Maria is not the only student who has had to adapt after coming to Groningen. Every year, new students from all over the world join the diverse academic community. Few of them are accustomed to the way sensitive topics are discussed here. In other cases, cultural perspectives clash. 

Sagnik Bhattacharya, a third-year history student from India, recalls a debate on colonialism in his early modern history seminar which explored the reasons why Asia didn’t become a maritime power.  ‘One Dutch student argued that maritime expansion by Europeans was a result of the right mentality and the right attitude’, Sagnik says. 

A Dutch student had a bizarre argument for why Asia didn’t become a maritime power

He was shocked and disturbed. ‘That was just a bizarre argument, and even factually inaccurate. Early dynasties in India and China did consider maritime trade’, he explains. ‘It also hurt my cultural sentiments, because colonialism is a sensitive topic for me. My country was a British colony. Right attitude and colonialism? Like seriously?’ 

The debate took an interesting turn, Sagnik says. ‘People who initially agreed with the Dutch guy came over to our side and argued on our behalf. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one who realised that what he said was quite problematic.’

Emotional responses

Lee Flamand, an American studies lecturer, notices students often have an emotional response when it comes to discussions of identity. ‘I always urge my students to look for evidence and reflect on why they have a particular opinion in the first place’, he says. 

When concepts like white privilege are examined, people tend to take offense. ‘With time, they come to realise that such uneasy conversations are not meant to be personal attacks. Academic debates always need logical arguments’, Flamand says. ‘As a teacher, I am supposed to encourage critical thinking among students. The aim is to help them think of their own society without cultural biases.’ 

Arts professor Barend van Heusden, too, often witnesses a clash of perspectives during his first-year course on the history and theory of arts and media. This often comes up when he and his students discuss artworks against their social background. ‘One of my arguments involves viewing culture as a cognitive process. It makes such discussions sound more logical’, he says.

The concept of beauty is one topic that often comes up. What one person finds beautiful, another may not. ‘When I tell my students that our perception of beauty and the artefacts we create are the results of our interactions with life, it becomes more acceptable’, says Van Heusden. ‘They find it easier to understand cultural specificities.’

Communication skills

He also plays an important role in helping his students develop interpersonal and academic skills that often involve communication. ‘While discussing culture, we cannot avoid talking about sensitive social problems such as racism or irrational cultural beliefs’, says Van Heusden.

He wants to teach them to form their own opinion and as a result they’ll gradually learn how to deal with differences. ‘I try to make my classes interactive and hear what my students think of these discussions. I always tell them to come up with their own academic arguments. It’s important to hear them out’, he says.

The aim is to help students think of their own society without cultural biases

Cultural beliefs may also impact the way a student views the professor himself. Many students are from cultures that view professor and student relationships as a hierarchical power relation. ‘But in the Netherlands, we view the university as a thinking community’, Van Heusden explains.

He’s aware that not every student may feel the same. ‘Sometimes students hesitate to approach professors with problems. It’s important to help them through this and encourage them to ask questions.’

New perspectives

Jiao Yuan, a Chinese pre-master student at the Faculty of Economics and Business, felt a bit overwhelmed when she first started attending classes in Groningen. In her culture, it’s important to show reverence towards your elders and teachers. ‘Here, I was expected to speak up. My teacher and classmates looked at me with the hope that I’d make some contribution. But I was anxious. I fumbled often. I didn’t want to sound disrespectful’, she says. 

Jiao has learned to speak her mind now. She says that her classroom experiences have taught her to reflect on concepts like business ethics and marketing strategies in a global context. ‘This has broadened my perspective.’    

The group presentations she had to do helped her gain confidence. ‘My classmates are from different parts of the world. We often disagree on business policy models while doing projects. But this has taught me to be more receptive to new perspectives. I never thought I’d learn to look at the same thing from so many viewpoints.’


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