Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Thesis Draft Excerpt: cultural give-and-take in the classroom

That email from my supervisor yesterday was indeed my thesis draft come back to me for revisions. So while I'm working on that, here is a flat-out copy/paste of a section of my thesis where I am talking about specific instances of cultural conflict that occurred in the classroom, as reported by Western instructors and Muslim students in the questionnaire short-answers or in the interviews. I found this little anecdote to be quite interesting.

            One anecdote shared during a student interview illustrates the cultural give-and-take that is going on in the classroom. Student S spoke at length about a classroom activity that at first alarmed him as being outside the proper bounds of his culture, but that he later learned to appreciate in his own way (his words have been edited slightly for clarity):
Last semester, when there were one or two weeks left, [my teacher] wanted to do some exciting experience. She told us she would write our names on papers, and we would choose the papers and give that person a gift [Secret Santa exchange]. This was the first time doing this for all of us in the class.
I chose a girl name. So I was like, “Oh my gosh! What should I do?” So I asked my friends, “What should I give to her?” They told me to give her flowers or something like that. But I thought maybe I wanted to give her a mug. But I said, “I don’t know anything about girls!”
I waited until the last day to prepare something. I woke up at ten, went to the supermarket, and bought some flowers and chocolates to give to the girl in class. It was a new experience. It was positive, in the end. It was my first time buying a gift for a girl!
[Interviewer Bridget]: What if you told your parents about that activity?
[Student S]: I did tell them. I said it was like a homework assignment. I told my mother I brought flowers to a girl and she said, “What???” But I explained to her that I don’t really know the girl and I brought it like a gift because I had to.
The experience of this Palestinian student illustrates a cultural conflict averted. The Western NES instructor’s idea for a Secret Santa activity was possibly ill-advised, seemingly flouting several aspects of Muslim culture and tradition, namely that it is associated with a Christian holiday, and it requires gift-giving between the sexes. However, students like S took the activity, made it a learning experience, and were all the happier for it.
It is possible that other students in the same class, or other students another time in another class, could be offended at such an activity, and a serious cultural conflict could arise. Student S himself appends at the end of his account that “it would be more awkward for a girl to give to a boy,” allowing for the possibility of his positive experience having been a very negative one for some of his classmates. Indeed, data collected from the instructors and students in this study show plenty of similar instances of cultural conflict that did not turn out so well. But Student S’s way of dealing with an unfamiliar cultural experience in class brings to mind the words of Instructor E when she explained that her students are

curious about the world. So they wouldn’t have thanked me if I had diluted the content. That wasn’t why they were there. They wouldn’t have thanked me if I didn’t match them up with other nationalities to do pair work, [etc.]. That was all part of what they signed up for. So you can be overly sensitive and actually end up not doing much good either!

That last quote from Instructor E is one of my favorite things that has come out of this research. Just FYI.


Liz Johnson said...

That really is fascinating. I'm trying to think of an example where an instructor from another country could come to a US university and make a similar assignment/task that would elicit the same uncomfortable "WHAT?!" response. I'm having trouble of thinking of something!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

So interesting. When I saw 'secret Santa' my reaction was momentary shock that an instructor over there would impose that on students. But in the end it made sense, and further prepared the students for when they don't live in their own country and must adapt to local custom.

Bridget said...

I can't think of something comparable, either. Maybe memorizing some kind of communist oath in Chinese? I don't know. :)

Bridget said...

Yeah, I would never have the guts to do something like that here. But good for her. Though I have my doubts as to whether it was mindfully done. I guess in the end it doesn't matter. She did it, and it turned out ok. For this one kid, at least.

Crys said...

Haha! Bridget I'm going with you in the fact that I think it probably wasn't. Oh boy! The only thing I can really think of is that friends of mine who were not Catholic but went to Catholic elementary school or high school were required to go to chapel everyday regardless of not being catholic....not quite the same, especially since you are the minority just being asked to do the same as the majority, but maybe you'd have that same awkward feeling.

Susanne said...

I loved this! I'm going to share it with my Syrian friend to see what his reaction is. Granted he isn't college age any more, but he is from that Muslim Arab culture. I'll see if he can think like he did as a college student in Damascus.

I think your comment to Liz about the Communist oath is a good one.


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