Debate, Diversity, and Adult Learners: The Experiences of Foreign Nationals in the U.S. State Department

Article excerpt

In Sardar and Davies's (2002) succinctly titled book, Why Do People Hate America?, they argue:

There are hardly any universals left in our postmodern times, but loathing for America is about as close as we can get to a universal sentiment: it [sic] is the one dynamic that unites fundamentalists and liberals, Arabs and Latin Americans, Asians and Europeans, and even the overshadowed Canadians with the rest of the world. (p. 195)

In the period after the September 11,2001, attacks and at the onset of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about anti-American sentiment became increasingly difficult for the Bush administration to ignore. As part of its response, the State Department was tasked with increasing local engagement with international populations. U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world were asked to host events, cultural exchanges, and public forums to build connections with communities that had become skeptical and hostile towards U.S. intentions. Providing the foundation for the bulk of this project would be the State Department's Foreign Service Nationals. Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) are a little known but integral part of the State Department's workforce, comprising 32% of all its employees (U.S. State Department, 2005). Foreign Service Nationals are typically non-U.S., locally hired employees at U.S. diplomatic and consular posts. As engagement initiatives require extensive knowledge of the local language, culture, infrastructure, and media, FSNs fulfill crucial roles in connecting U.S. messages with international audiences. They serve, in essence, a front line position in communicating the U.S. story abroad. In an era marked by distrust and anger towards the United States, that front line role also requires FSNs to have the ability to answer hard questions and respond to sharp criticism from international publics. As competitive debate provides an experiential opportunity for participants to develop argumentative strategies and argue in a way that enriches relationships, this research focuses on the positive outcomes created when debate-based presentation skills courses were provided to FSNs from 2004-2007. The results of these courses are intriguing in their relation to State Department goals, but they also prove to be instructive when looking at the possibility of debate-based teaching for adult learners and diverse populations.

POPULATION AND BACKGROUND

Foreign Service Nationals comprise the bulk of the 42,000 locally employed staff members working at more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. They are often categorized as the "glue" that holds U.S. embassies together (Bureau of Human Resources: Department of State, 2007). As the glue of the State Department, FSNs provide logistical bridges between the embassy and the host country as many U.S. officers lack the cultural and linguistic skills to function in the country in which they are posted (Asthana, 2006). U.S. Foreign Service Officers in the State Department are typically posted in a country for only two to three years and sometimes for as little as six months. In that time, Officers are expected to serve the foreign policy agenda Washington has towards the country in which they are serving. With the broad agenda of winning the hearts and minds of the world community, it is unrealistic to expect that Officers could build the relationships and connections necessary to accomplish this end in such a short period. Thus, much of the legwork, communication infrastructure, contacts, and culturally appropriate programming become the responsibility of the Foreign Service Nationals.

Given the context of world attitudes towards the United States and the renewed focus on engagement activities, the State Department made improving the presentation skills of Foreign Service Nationals a priority. As such, the Regional Program Office of the State Department issued a solicitation for a series of presentation skills courses to be delivered to FSNs throughout the world (U. …

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