I just can't stay away (or, the anatomy of a class)

This week, I ended up subbing for someone else for an undergrad "Cross-cultural communication" class. Being a summer class, each of the two classes I took was 3 hour 40 minutes long, a long time to be in there with the same bunch of students. The topic of the week was "American Identity" and I didn't have much prepared (it was a very last-minute thing and the regular instructor didn't have time to give me the text book and nor was it in TUWSNBN's library) but the first class went quite well. It was good to see students making arguments along lines of various theories and so on so all I had to do was keep pushing them to get to the implications of what they were saying. We just sat around and chatted.

Yesterday though, it was a bit different. By mid-class, we were all knackered and, since it had been raining, most of us were cold and wet and ready to go home and sleep. I was trying to get across the view that there are different types of cultures (and not just ethnic, national, race) and that context mattered when talking of identity. We had also been talking about how categories are historically-formed and shift through time but that doesn't mean they are more or less "real". This was also framed under a debate on is culture/identity essential traits (or not) and what would it mean to talk of them as essentialised/relative.

So, I decided to try an (made up on the spot. I couldn't think of anything else right then) exercise.

I listed some words on the board and asked them what was their view of each. Here they are (along with what I wanted to talk about and my expectations):

British Muslim: one kid gave this great example of how he thinks of "kitchen workers working for Israeli restaurant owners" when he hears this term because his Mum and Dad (from "the Middle East") used to work in one. [I wanted to talk of fractals and categories and also about when one might identity oneself as a British Muslim, as opposed to something else]

Asian: smart, beef and broccolli, "any of the UCs" [I wanted to talk about how, in Australia or Britain, people from usually classified as "Asian" while in the USA, "Asians" seem to mean people from East and South-east Asia. So, about classification and how they encompass different things]

Footballer: David Beckham, head butt (ahhh...Zidane!), then questions of whether I meant soccer or football [I wanted to get at a similar response and talk of how asking questions might be a good way of cross-cultural communication in the practical sense since "football" meant American here in the USA, Rugby or Aussie Rules in Australia and soccer in most other places]

*All Blacks (with much laughter through the class): watermelon, loud, fried chicken

Geek: pocket protector, asthma, comic books, computers [This was to talk of how "culture" doesn't just mean talking of national/ethnic levels, as had been the case in their text books and in the film we'd seen earlier]**

I don't think I got to give the students many theoretical concepts they will remember but, hopefully, they'll question assumptions and think of implications of arguments they (and the instructor) are making in the rest of the classes.

* This was the response that floored me since I was expecting them to ask me what this was and then wanted to talk of how sports teams also had cultures in the sense of being social and having publicly-available meanings. I also wanted to discuss the Haka that the team performs before each match and how only someone with Maori blood is allowed to lead the Haka (and use that to refer back to issues of essential versus social identities and the implications thereof).

For quite a while, I was hugely surprised because while I could understand rugby players being loud, I didn't get the association with fruits and food at all. As the students kept laughing, I asked them why they had given me those terms and one girl explained that was the "all blacks stereotype". Even then, I didn't get it (yes, I'm really slow!) that they were talking of racial stereotypes. After we cleared it up, I think this incident got my points (and added the one about context for good measure because there they saw it in action) across quite well. As a learning experience for me, it'll be hard to beat.

** Ideas for how I could tweak this exercise in future or for other exercises, if I ever get to teach students about cross-cultural communication again, would be much appreciated.


At 7/14/2006 9:49 AM, Anonymous serena said...

sounds like an interesting class for a last minute job!

At 7/14/2006 3:23 PM, Blogger Priya said...

Last minute undertakings are not much fun--though the kids were marvellous!


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