It has been quite a while since I posted to this site. Mostly, this is because I was in the process of moving from Los Angeles to the Caribbean island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. It has two names because this entire island, which would fit neatly within the borders of Los Angeles with plenty of elbow room, is divided into two countries: the French St. Martin, and the Dutch Sint Maarten. My husband and I have been here three weeks, leasing a furnished condo and waiting for our stuff to arrive, including our computers which we packed for shipping so that we could carry on our two cats (the dog had to travel as cargo). Because of uneven electrical current, the charger for my tablet was blown out, despite being plugged into a surge protector. Thus, my communication with the outside world was limited until I broke down and purchased another laptop late last week. Thank goodness it is so beautiful and “laid back” here, or I probably would have had a melt-down.
But this post is not about the island or the moving experience. Instead, I am writing because I am uncomfortable with commentary I observed on Facebook that involves Middle Eastern student behavior and a professor’s response.
The professor indicated that a student suggested that a few Arabic examples be provided. It was not clear from the post whether this was merely a suggestion or if the exchange took the form of a demand (or something in between). The professor’s response indicated that she is an American, the class was being taught at an American university, and that all examples would be American. The flurry of responses to this anecdote ranged from American indignation over the request to a suggestion that foreign students might be supported by American tax dollars. In between were comments regarding attitudes of Middle Eastern students to support for the professor’s position.
Normally, I would have read the interactions, possibly made an inane comment, and moved on. However, the subject and tone of the anecdote as well as several of the responses caught me off-guard, mostly because I glimpsed a new side to two people who participated in this exchange, both of whom are university professors who had been either a fellow student or my instructor. After re-reading the thread several times, I began to question what my response would have been under the same circumstances.
A little personal background first. My training and mind-set is special needs students. I taught at the K-12 level for over 13 years, mostly special education classes, and always at what might be included as part of the middle school level. Most of the classes were culturally and economically diverse, and each student had a unique cluster of academic and social weaknesses and strengths. Often, the best way to convey a teaching concept was to give an example from the student’s personal experience.
During the 10 years that I spent as a programmer of corporate financial systems and reports in the greater New York City area, I worked with individuals from all corners of the world. To be honest, in the corporate world, I often “classified” individuals’ behaviors in terms of the cultural group they represented, and only after getting to know the person did I “unclassify” into a unique group of one–the individual. I never do this with students, so it came as a surprise to me when I discovered I did this with adults. This led to a conscious modification to the way I deal with adults whose culture significantly differs from mine. Good thing, because I am once again in an environment in which it is I who is being classified (as I was when starting as an immigrant in an American school system at the age of 5). These experiences have helped shape my attitudes and opinions.
There is so much that many of us do not know, but as I read the thread of posts I marveled at the singular tone of the respondents. One response speculated that the student who asked the question was probably male based on his/her military experience in the Middle East. (As it turns out, the student was female.) Someone else expressed an opinion about the wealth of the student’s family and a subsequent expectation of faculty accommodation.
Yet another comment indicated that the US is probably footing the bill for foreign university students. When I first started teaching at the post-secondary level, I had no idea how international students pay for their education. I was lucky enough to be befriended by the head of international student recruitment, who educated me about this. International students must pay tuition up front and provide documentation indicating that they can support themselves financially to meet basic needs, such as food and housing. These students do not qualify for US education loans (neither federally subsidized nor private), and are not allowed to seek employment, except for a very small number of university student positions available solely to international students. These are very restrictive and, typically, provided for foreign students through endowments by non-university and non-government organizations. Monies earned from such positions would barely cover non-veterinary expenses for my two cats and small dog. US tax dollars do not support international students in any way.
Yadda yadda yadda. Lots of pro-America or cautiously anti-foreigner remarks in the thread.
But back to the original question: how would I have reacted within the scenario of a foreign student suggesting (or stating or demanding?) that a few examples be provided that addressed the student’s culture? The answer: I probably would have asked the student to provide me with an example of what s/he meant, especially since it is not clear whether the student was asking for a language change or a cultural example. Clearly, I would not be able to provide an example in Farsi without a translation from the student, and I lack enough background in the student’s culture so that I would need help in creating a meaningful example. Why would I do this? Because I believe in diversity and what all students–regardless of academic level–can learn about other cultures. Because I personally would learn something new, perhaps about a different world view or a business or cultural activity that is unique to another part of the world. Because–well, because I am always ready to broaden perspectives of my students and myself.
To me, education should not be restricted to teaching basic skills or strictly controlled (or recommended) class content. Education encompasses the whole person who must function effectively in an increasingly diverse world. For me, providing an example outside the norm is wholistically educational. Perhaps I am old-fashioned about my attitudes toward education… or perhaps my attitudes toward education are too liberal or progressive…