How to: Mentoring Students in/from Non-Western Cultures

May 9, 2022

by Larry Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer, Kairos University and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University 

This week we finish our series on the four invitations we as mentors receive as we work with Kairos students residing in non-Western cultures, as well as the growing number of Kairos students in North America who are originally from non-Western cultures.

Last week examined the third invitation regarding culturally appropriate assignments and assessments. This week, we are turning our attention to the fourth invitation: plagiarism and honor.

Invitation #4: Plagiarism and Honor

How one understands “plagiarism” is most likely tied to the cultural (and economic…and power) dynamics that are shaping one’s educational journey. As mentors within Kairos, we are invited to gain a broader understanding of plagiarism and, in some cases, how it is connected to honor. Welcoming this invitation can be especially challenging for Western-formed mentors working with non-Western students. There are two sub-issues related to this challenge: giving honor and, as we discussed last week, the question of “What is academic?”

Giving honor differs from one culture to another. In most Western cultures the idea of giving honor, academically speaking, means to not take someone else’s work or ideas and use them as your own. To do so is a great sin. As a result, especially in academic paper writing, much time is spent accurately quoting an author’s original words and correctly identifying the source of the quote in footnotes, end notes, a bibliography, etc. In non-Western cultures honor may be expressed differently, even in academic paper writing. Here the student may honor someone else’s work or ideas as their own precisely because, in so doing, they are bringing even greater honor to the original author.

We have already discovered in this series that the cultures in and from which non-Western students originate may often be “collectivist” cultures (see Invitation #2 of this series). As such, the group is valued more highly than the individual. This understanding of the group includes everyone in the group, both living and dead. Thus, regarding honor, this means that one way to give honor to the elders and ancestors is through repeating what they know. And there’s no need to attribute the source since the elders and ancestors, and what they’ve said, is a part of the group’s common knowledge. Bringing this collectivist understanding of honor to the academic setting means that, of course, one is going to repeat the words of an author in a book (the elder) in order to give honor. There’s no need to give any formal citation since it’s already a part of the common knowledge of the group (in this case the academy). For the non-Western student, honor is being given through the repetition which brings even greater honor to the author.

The question of “What is academic?” plays a role here as well. Many non-Western students, as part of collectivist cultures, have developed a wonderful skill when it comes to memory-based learning, an academic skill that is often highly valued in oral, or oral-preference, cultures; an academic skill often maligned in Western academic circles. As a result, the skills of citation and “original” thought, as understood in Western cultures, may often be of low value in collectivist cultures. In some cases, it may even be looked down upon to put the wisdom of elders in writing at all! When it is okay to quote an elder, doing so without citation is often the assumed practice. This inherited common knowledge is often considered more valuable than one’s individual learning. Thus, what we as people formed in Western academic contexts may view as plagiarism may, in fact, be an attempt to honor another (either because all opinions are collectively “owned” by the community or that no ideas are original).

So, what’s more academic, the painstakingly detailed work of individualistic cultures who avoid “plagiarism” at all costs or the communal memory of collectivist cultures who view sharing ideas as high honor? The Western academy, by and large, has defaulted to an academic view that values individualistic honor through careful citation, while non-Western students often default to an academic view that values group honor through careful repetition. Neither approach is wrong in and of itself; there are indeed values to each approach. The question is not “what is more academic?” (both are academic in culturally appropriate ways), but rather “What purpose is an assignment or assessment meant to serve?” If the student is planning to use an assignment in the context of preparing for a PhD program at a Western institution, then Western understandings of citation and plagiarism may need to be followed. If the student is planning to use an assignment as part of a church planting initiative in a collective culture, then Western approaches to citation may be detrimental to the work.

So How Do We Mentor?

What’s a mentor to do? We believe the answer to this question is reflected in our overall Kairos philosophy which places great emphasis on the student’s vocational location (both metaphorically and geographically). A few of our Kairos students will pursue a vocation in the Western or Western-dominated academy, and consequently we mentors will need these students to pay careful attention to the Western understanding of plagiarism and all the rules that go with it. Most of the non-Western Kairos students in Kairos, however, are pursuing vocations far outside of the Western academy. Perhaps for these students, the Western definitions of academic plagiarism need to be less concerning to us as mentors. As we saw earlier in this series, using alternatives to individualistic paper writing (like group video presentations) may make future concerns over plagiarism moot. When working with all students, Western or non-Western, it could be that our guiding principle should be “for what purpose are we engaging in a degree program and how do one’s culture and vocation come to bear on the practice of communication?” We may find that Western writing and citation are vital or that oral and communal communication are most important. Within Kairos, we affirm the fact that standards of excellence are contextually defined. This means that what constitutes an “academic master’s degree” will vary from culture to culture. This is a good thing. It is not “lowering the bar” or “watering down the education.” In fact, it is raising the expectations for students and mentors to become more aware of their cultures, of what God is doing in their context and vocation, and how best to join God in that work.

Larry Caldwell has had the privilege of working with non-Western students at the seminary level for the past 40 years. Early on in his academic career he quickly observed that most of his non-Western students were “plagiarizing” in their written papers. At that point, he had two choices. The first choice was to have his students conform to a Western understanding of the academic by training, or re-forming, them in “correct” academic paper writing. The second choice was to appreciate their collectivist cultural background and eliminate the need for footnotes and bibliography altogether. He chose the second option. As a result, he gained a deeper understanding of what his students were emphasizing through their writing, and a greater appreciation for their collectivist academic background; Larry has learned much from his student’s writing over the years. He continues this second choice with all of his Kairos students today. Of course, the possibility of alternative video assignments makes this much easier today than it was in the past!

In summary, as we reflect upon this series on mentoring students in and from non-Western contexts, the four invitations mentioned over the past weeks are but the tip of the iceberg. Though these invitations are some of the most important, there are others. As we who mentor become more cognitive of these and other invitations, we believe we will better meet the educational needs of all students as we journey with them through Kairos.

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