International Educators Should Not Be Disruptive

By Thomas V. Millington, Executive Director, Abroadia

You cannot be disruptive when your field is taking in water. Photo credit: Tyler Lastovich at Pexels.

Now that we are entering our ninth month of the Covid-19 pandemic I have been revisiting articles and statements published at the onset of the virus. Perspectives change over time and I was curious to see if mine or that of others evolved during an extremely challenging time. I re-examined John Hudzik’s “Higher education internationalists need to be disruptive” article because I liked the initial premise. He projected hope and growth, exuding a calmness and direction when uncertainty, anxiety and distress abounded.

Now, re-reading the article and having seen the decimation the pandemic has wreaked on the international education workforce, I have a slightly different take on Hudzik’s message. As he says, he predicted years ago the very challenges our profession is now discussing. The message is clear, but some of the expressions that pepper his argument raise some alarms at a time when our political and professional environments are politically charged.

Following years of research, in their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) write, “We have found that metaphors allow us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another. This suggests that understanding takes place in terms of entire domains of experience and not in terms of isolated concepts.” [1]Many metaphors are used in international education, “becoming a global citizen” being the most prominent. International education is composed of isolated concepts put together to form a trencadís mosaic. Each part contains its own domain of experience. For example, we have education abroad, international student services, TESOL/ESL, internationalizing the curriculum, faculty development, etc. What domains of experience are at play in Hudzik’s article? I would say we have the abstract side of international education as one domain of experience. International students, new pedagogies, methodologies, and definitions of “international experience”, as Hudzik correctly points out, are other domains. The pandemic and the state of our profession make up yet another, albeit untested, domain of experience. Missing from this article is any mention of another domain of experience; that of the unemployed international educator. Hudzik’s argument, although valid and I agree with its premise, resonates mostly with a certain domain of experience: the international educators whose positions are stable and have no concern about losing their jobs. Similarly, institutions of higher learning and providers that have had to make difficult economic decisions in response to Covid-19, are not in the same domain of experience that Hudzik is addressing.

Given the times we live in and the sometimes antagonistic and inflammatory power of language we must be careful in our word selection. Hudzik encourages “disruptive thinking” and calls on international education practitioners to “challenge the preferred internationalisation practices of an earlier age”. Alone these expressions are innocuous, but in the current domain of experience, they ask too much of international educators who are not in the position to disrupt or challenge anything. Many international educators are worried about losing their jobs, while many others have either been terminated or furloughed. The disruptions they have to face preclude them from inciting the type of “disruption” that Hudzik is promoting. As many colleges and universities consider budget cuts to survive the pandemic, any “disruptive” approaches adopted by international educators would place them in the immediate line of fire.

There are other ways of framing the new domain of experience that international education is entering. Dr. Anthony Ogden of the Gateway International Group has used “pivot piloting” in several presentations and Dr. Brian Whalen of Executive Director Designate at American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) has spoken of the “mobility of mind” and “poly-dimensional study abroad” (perhaps the concept that can best encompass the distinct domains of experience that make up international education). Resilience is another word that accurately describes the field. These are neutral and inclusive words that would not be interpreted as inflammatory rhetoric by the wary college and university officials we are trying to convince not to take drastic action against international education programming.

Whalen recently observed that we are living in an era of “the perpetually new” and under this view, Hudzik’s article, written only five months ago, appears antiquated and out of touch. What seemed enlightening and new a few months ago, is now no longer relevant. The field continues to scramble to deal with the severe impact of the pandemic and it will have to reassess its form and priorities over the next few years. There can be no effective evaluation or prognostication until well after a vaccine has been created and made available to the public.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press. 2003. P. 117.

Experienced international educator with 20 years of experience in the field. Tom has lived in Cuba for the last seven years and founded Abroadia in 2012.