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Spotlight Iowa City: UI professor brings Thai culture to the classroom

BY MICHELLE BORYCA | OCTOBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Khon Thai jai dee.

This phrase, meaning “Thai people are good-hearted” in English, sums up the way UI Associate Professor Scott McNabb feels about the southeastern Asian country and its people.

McNabb, now fluent in Thai, has traveled to the country 17 times. His initial interest began when he taught there for three years while serving in the Peace Corps, starting in 1968.

He had free rein to develop his own curriculum, and he became fascinated by the foreign culture.

Since starting at the UI 30 years ago as an education professor, he has continually revamped his teachings to reflect each of his visits to Thailand.

Today, his curriculum substitutes the traditional hard-cover textbook for an assortment of recent New York Times and Washington Post articles to get students thinking about current affairs.

“Find something that intrigues [the students], and then they’re off and running,” McNabb said.

His courses include Education in the Third World and Research in Cross-Cultural Settings. Personal videos from Thailand, speakers, and discussion of his experiences abroad are incorporated into his syllabus.

He has also traveled to rural schools in Cambodia, catching his journeys on tape. The footage shows school children learning, standing on dirt floors in rooms with no electricity.

“Getting a lot of issues in play is the key to good teaching so people have to think about things from a lot of different dimensions,” McNabb said.

He has made it a life mission to encourage students to look into foreign cultures.

“He’s a good motivator for students who might be on the fence about having an international experience,” said graduate research assistant Megan Johnson, who took his course.

A role model for students, McNabb stretches their minds in way they weren’t expecting, Johnson said.

His enthusiasm about his miniature Buddha statues, posters of ancient king Jayavarman VII, and collection of colorful sacks from tribal groups in Northern Thailand is his method of piquing his students’ curiosity.

Students walk away from McNabb’s classes learning more than just a better understanding of foreign countries and cultures.

“I always realize how little I know about huge sections of the world and how important it is for me to continue to learn more about these countries, cultures, and people, if for no other reason than so I might learn more about myself,” said DeeAnn Grove, a student in McNabb’s Education in the Third World course.

And this is McNabb’s ultimate goal for his students — giving them encouragement to spend some period of time abroad.

“[You] learn your role as an American that you can only learn from being in another country,” he said.


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