Shifting the Kaleidoscope

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Educators’ Insights on Culture Shock, Identity and Pedagogy

by Jon L. Smythe (Author)
©2015 Textbook XII, 249 Pages
Series: Complicated Conversation, Volume 46


This book examines culture shock and reverse culture shock as valuable learning experiences for educators working in increasingly culturally diverse environments. Although these phenomena are often cast as illnesses to be avoided, this study suggests that both types of shock can help educators develop greater self-understanding and intercultural awareness and will benefit their pedagogical practices as well. For this study, four returned Peace Corps volunteer educators who have taught at various grade levels, both abroad and in the United States, share thought-provoking stories of how their experiences shifted their identities and their approaches to teaching. A Post-structural hermeneutic framework is used to analyze each story in two separate «readings» as a way of disrupting the flow of each text so that other possible meanings may emerge. The metaphor of the kaleidoscope develops from the study as a way to imagine a curriculum in motion – one in which new and often surprising patterns are created by shifting, juxtaposing and refocusing the multiple lenses within. Shifting the Kaleidoscope should appeal to those readers who are interested in curriculum studies, multicultural education, intercultural awareness, narrative inquiry, post-structuralism, international studies, the Peace Corps and/or teaching English abroad.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Insights Into Otherness
  • Study Overview
  • The Participants
  • Joe, Peace Corps Moldova 2006–2008
  • Harley, Peace Corps Kazakhstan 1999–2001
  • Ryder, Peace Corps Kenya 1987–1990
  • Hyacinth, Peace Corps Kenya 1984–1986
  • Looking Through a Post-Structural Hermeneutic Lens
  • Chapter 1: Back Stories
  • The Internationalization of Curriculum Studies
  • The Peace Corps and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Educators
  • Culture Shock
  • Reverse Culture Shock
  • Chapter 2: Toward a Pedagogy of Creativity and Caring
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Intercultural Experience as Vulnerability and Danger
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Vulnerability as Strength and Danger as Useful
  • Identity Shift I: Acceptance as Healing and a Lack of Resistance
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: Acceptance as Resistance and Not Healing
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Materialism and Not Playing the Game
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Postmaterialism and Playing the Game Differently
  • Identity Shift II: Taking on a New Identity and Caring as Self-Sacrifice
  • Re-reading Identity Shift II: Adding New Layers of Identity and Caring as Self-Gain
  • Pedagogy I: Rote Learning and the Need to Teach Creativity
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: Rote Learning as Meaningful Learning and Creativity as Cultural Reproduction
  • Interplay 1: A “Subject” in Motion
  • Chapter 3: Toward a Pedagogy of Non-Prejudice
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Philippines = Collectivism, America = Individualism
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Individualism (?), Collectivism (?)
  • Culture Shock II: Corruption in Kazakhstan as Survival and a Lack of Development
  • Re-reading Culture Shock II: Corruption in the U.S. as Hidden Amidst Development
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Clock Time Versus Event Time
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Intermixing Clock Time and Event Time Through the Use of Media
  • Pedagogy I: Identity Shock and Being Treated as an “Extra Foreigner” and “International Student”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: The (Potential) Benefits of Bi-Culturality
  • Pedagogy II: Cultural Adjustment as “Context” or “Consistency”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy II: Cultural Adjustment as an Ability to “Flex”
  • Interplay 2: Who Am I (Becoming)?
  • Chapter 4: Toward a Pedagogy of Social Justice
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Western Time as Linear/Control, Kenyan Time as Cyclic/Fatalistic
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Fatalism as Self-Management and Humility
  • Culture Shock II: Generosity as Measurable
  • Re-reading Culture Shock II: Generosity as Self-Interest and Impossible
  • Identity Shift I: Sexuality as Moral Hypocrisy and Social Control
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: Social Control (?) and the Problem With Labels
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Reality vs. Non-reality
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: Reality as Multiple
  • Pedagogy I: Teaching an Appreciation for “Dialect Diversity” as Social Justice
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: Questioning the Notions of Standard and Non-Standard Dialects
  • Interplay 3: Chez nous c’est ne pas comme chez vous!
  • Chapter 5: Toward a Pedagogy of Interconnectedness
  • Introduction
  • Culture Shock I: Male Privilege in Kenya
  • Re-reading Culture Shock I: Male Privilege in America
  • Identity Shift I: The Self as Cultural Product
  • Re-reading Identity Shift I: The Self as Cultural Process
  • Identity Shift II: “Interweaving” as Cultural Practice
  • Re-reading Identity Shift II: “Interweaving” as Gendered Practice
  • Reverse Culture Shock I: Sameness as Competition and the U.S. as Un/Real
  • Re-reading Reverse Culture Shock I: A Different Kind of Sameness and Reality as Floating
  • Pedagogy I: Teacher as “Ambassador” and “Bridge”
  • Re-reading Pedagogy I: The Ambassador as Distance and the Bridge as Separation
  • Interplay 4: And a Good Time Was Had by All
  • Chapter 6: Similarities, Contrasts, and Shades
  • Drawing Gender Lines
  • Resistance, Negotiation, and Shift
  • Making Time to Get Real
  • Metaphorically Speaking
  • Home Is Where the Hurt Is
  • Looking for Traces and Signs
  • Interplay 5: Returning Home to Fantasyland
  • Chapter 7: Envisioning a Kaleidoscopic Curriculum
  • Multiplicity
  • Movement
  • Juxtaposition
  • Ambiguity
  • Surprise
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


Although my name appears front and center on this book, many people behind the scenes helped to bring it to fruition. Foremost among these was Dr. Hongyu Wang, who acted as a light along the pathway. Through her gentle yet determined guidance as well as her unwavering support and belief in my stories, she has opened up innumerable possibilities for reimagining my research and my relationship with the world in general. Without her, this book would not be possible. For that I am both grateful and humbled. I also want to express my deep gratitude to my professors at Oklahoma State University: Dr. Kathryn Castle, Dr. Denise Blum, Dr. Ravi Sheorey, Dr. Pam Brown, Dr. Gretchen Schwartz, and Dr. Gene Halleck. Each of these professors’ teaching and insights have helped get me moving in the right direction, and their caring support of both me and my work has taught me the invaluable role of an educator in a student’s life. Special thanks also go to William F. Pinar for his support of this book. His critical and imaginative work continues to inspire new generations of educators and curriculum theorists. Thanks, too, to Chris Myers and all the staff at Peter Lang Publishing for helping bring this book to life.

I also want to thank the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who participated in this study for sharing their provocative and insightful stories. The stories ← xi | xii → I have included in this book, including my own, represent our individual views and not those of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

I am also greatly indebted to Eileen Kenney, who was instrumental in helping recruit participants for this study; to Charica Daugherty and fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Charlotte Germundson, for reading and commenting on my initial manuscript; to Pam Chew, whose intercultural experiences and insights have continually nourished my thinking; and to my close friends and colleagues at Tulsa Community College, who have supported me throughout the writing process. I especially need to acknowledge my “at-work wife” Lennette Lawless for making up songs with me on a daily basis; the other two-thirds of the “Soundpony trio,” Lindsay Fields and Chad Goodwin, for their comradery; Denise Baldwin, for encouraging me to complete my PhD; Sam Reeves for taking care of me and making me laugh; Amy Hawley for sharing my sense of irony; Traci Heck for her gentle leadership (and fondness for Johnny Depp); Dr. Jan Clayton for engaging me in stimulating conversations that often lasted after the close of business; Melody Simmons, Diana Allen, and Keilah Deatherage for their thought-provoking input and my immediate staff at TCC—Ruby Kimmons, Debbie Salmon, Jerri Clark, Minerva Castaneda, Amber Coburn, and John Brown for keeping our office running so smoothly.

I also need to thank a few folks outside of TCC whose friendship and guidance helped sustain me, specifically, Tim Van Meter for believing in me; Mattias Reiff for his generosity; John Ayers and Chad Stephens for their thoughtfulness; Roy Daniels for his artistry; Renny Berry for introducing me to Lorna Hansen Forbes; Richard Fox, who can build and fix anything; and Dr. Lawrence Lieberman for keeping all the working parts moving.

Additionally, I want to express my love and gratitude to my father, Austin, for being the best story-teller I know, and to my mom, Sharon, for wisely teaching me not to believe all my Dad’s stories. Their hard work and sacrifice have gotten me where I am today. I also wish to convey my love to my wonderful African son, Mal Harouna Bello. Without him, my Peace Corps experience would not have been as rich and fulfilling as it was.

Thank you all for sharing in my journey and for shouldering a piece of the burden. Simply put, WE did it! ← xii | 1 →


Insights Into Otherness

In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding….A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialog, which surmounts the closedness and onesidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures….Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched. (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 7)

“What words come to mind when you think about Africa?” I ask students at the various local schools and other institutions where I speak about my experiences in the Peace Corps. The answers are remarkably similar—“violence,” “AIDS,” “malaria,” “wild animals,” “poverty,” “corruption,” and “starvation.” Probing a bit further, I ask if Africa could be a place of health, love, happiness, and good-tasting food. The response: a resounding “No!” “Have you ever been to Africa?” I continue. “Uh, well, no.” When I ask students where they learn about Africa, they tell me TV programs such as “Animal Planet,” “Save the Children,” and the nightly news. They also tell me they learn about Africa through their teachers and their textbooks. When I ask why it might be important to experience a place directly for themselves, they light up: “Because it helps you learn more about a place when you go there yourself,” and because “other people can lie.” They also point out, though, ← 1 | 2 → that not everyone can go to Africa and that they have to rely on the media and their teachers for information about the world in general.

How closely the students’ mediated perceptions of Africa matched my own before I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer English teacher in 1996. When my acceptance letter came, I was informed I was to be sent to a country called Cameroon. Although I had taken Oklahoma and U.S. history, I had not taken one world history or geography course at any point during my high school or university education, and therefore I was left to guess exactly where Cameroon was located. To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a tropical island where they made brightly colored shirts. And then somehow I got the name confused and thought it had something to do with a cookie, which I realized later was a macaroon, not a Cameroon. To the Internet!

What I discovered on the Internet was that Cameroon is a country in Africa that has this lake that belched up a big gas bubble that smothered—actually smothered—thousands of people in the surrounding area. I could just picture myself up at the chalkboard, teaching the alphabet when there would be another gas bubble. Something like, “a, b, c, d…the gas…the gas…it’s choking me, arrrrrrrrgh!” Then I would see all this stuff on TV about Africa—tribal warring, corruption, poverty, Ebola virus, and white people getting killed by an angry mob. After seeing all these things, I wasn’t so sure that Africa was the right place for me to go. I certainly hadn’t requested to be sent to Africa on my Peace Corps application.

So when I called the Peace Corps people, I was naturally subdued. I asked, “What if I don’t want to go to Cameroon?” and followed with “I haven’t heard of anything good coming out of Africa lately.” To which the Peace Corps man politely replied, “If you don’t accept this position, you really won’t get another chance to go.” He pointed out that my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Advertising wasn’t exactly a Master’s in Teaching English. “Besides,” he said, “Cameroon is very safe and the Peace Corps wouldn’t send you there if it wasn’t.” I wondered how the Peace Corps people in Washington, D.C., would know if I got my head chopped off in the jungle and thrown in a ditch by a mob of angry Cameroonians—but I didn’t feel like arguing, so I hesitantly accepted. And now, with head still firmly intact, I am certainly glad that I did!

After working as an English teacher in a small, rural, largely Muslim, agricultural village in Cameroon, I realized that my carefully constructed image of Africa was only partially accurate. Was there poverty? Yes. Disease? Certainly. ← 2 | 3 → Corruption? Well, yeah. But those things didn’t offer a complete picture of my daily existence in Cameroon. There was also beauty, intelligence, humor, abundance, creativity, an awareness of global politics, an attunement to interpersonal and social relationships, and a spirit of hospitality I have not experienced anywhere else.

In turn, my experiences in Cameroon have opened my eyes to other ways of seeing and experiencing the United States. For instance, I have learned that many of the generalizations that position the U.S. as a country of freedom, justice, equality, and a world leader, for example, fail to express the ways in which it is not. Not to mention that even in the richest nation in the world (or one of the richest) there is also still poverty, disease, and corruption. It seems clear to me now that the labels that are applied to any country and any cultural group often serve purposes other than that of expressing a uniform reality. Moreover, these labels appear to be more indicative of the power relations between groups than anything else.

So, how do I explain to students that the words and labels used to build up one country and denigrate another work to mask the diversity and differences that lie beneath the labels applied to both countries? How do I urge them to break open these labels in order to see the multiplicity and the differences underneath? How do I inspire them to accept their own multiplicity and respect the multiplicity of those who are culturally different in ways that are both ethical and nonviolent? Or perhaps, given that teachers often act in place of lived experience, as some students suggest, how do I encourage other educators (and myself) to do these same things?

In thinking about the value of appreciating cultural differences as a curriculum practice, I return to Bakhtin’s (1986) opening quote for a moment. I appreciate Bakhtin’s suggestion that cultures and meanings gain greater depth, and are mutually enriched, through the engagement of cultural differences. Further, that it is the “outsideness” of the Other that creates the condition for deeper understanding of the self and one’s own culture. Moreover, that a certain sense of “unity” and “totality” is retained by both cultures so that personal and cultural enrichment does not come at the cost of completely abandoning one’s identity. From an educational perspective, Todd (2003) also argued that preserving rather than eliminating differences makes teaching and learning possible by creating new opportunities and new challenges for both educators and learners. She also believed that resisting the desire to eliminate personal and cultural differences creates a pathway for the development of ethical, non-violent relationships. Both ← 3 | 4 → authors pointed to the unique and interdependent relationship between the self and the Other for purposes of learning.

In my view, the need to recognize the important role that cultural and individual differences can play in the development of curriculum is necessary and urgent, as globalization, which may be described as the “intensification and rapidity of movement and migration of people, ideas, and economic and cultural capital across national boundaries” (Matus & McCarthy, 2003, p. 73), brings greater cultural diversity to otherwise homogenous environments. By several accounts, American high school and university classrooms are becoming increasingly culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse (Planty et al., 2009; Institute of International Education, 2012; Gorski, 2013, pp. xi–xii). For educators, working with increasingly culturally diverse student populations can be especially anxiety-provoking, as they are tasked with creating spaces within curricula that are open to the diverse thoughts and experiences of all students, even when those perspectives challenge their own personal and cultural expectations. This can lead to “various new kinds of identity crises” and “difficult questions…about how knowledge is produced, represented, and circulated” (Smith, 2003, p. 36).


XII, 249
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
Learning experience Narrative inquiry Multicultural education Intercultural awareness
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XII, 249 pp.

Biographical notes

Jon L. Smythe (Author)

Jon L. Smythe is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in a rural village in Cameroon. He received his PhD in curriculum studies and social foundations from Oklahoma State University and is currently an enrollment services director and adjunct instructor at Tulsa Community College.


Title: Shifting the Kaleidoscope
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