Shyam Sharma, Stony Brook University (SUNY)
When reading the increasingly rich scholarship on translingual, transnational, and transcultural issues in the teaching of writing, I can’t help thinking that these terms, too, will soon be replaced by newer ones—criticized as insufficient, rejected as counterproductive, avoided as too political or impractical. As scholars have started emphasizing (at conferences, calls for proposals, and publications), if our discourse about teaching translingual skills, promoting transcultural/cross-cultural communicative competence, and incorporating transnational/global issues into the curriculum remains too abstract for too long, I think that it will backfire. We must complement the necessary theory-building with concrete pedagogies, practical applications, and accessible language if we want to engage fellow writing teachers, members of other disciplines, and administrators in conversations about curriculum and higher education at large.
Fortunately, in the last few years, it also seems that when we return from conferences to classrooms, we have started testing, adapting, and developing more concrete strategies for teaching the above skills and knowledge. In this post, I would like to share a few activities, assignments, and teaching ideas that were inspired by professional conversations in our field. Taken from two specific courses I teach, one in the Writing Program and one in a different department, these are works in progress and I would appreciate your comments and feedback on them.
ACTIVITIES & ASSIGNMENTS FROM A SPECIAL-TOPIC FRESHMAN SEMINAR
The course where I have most explicitly taught the above skills/issues is “Global Citizenship,” which I developed for the department of Global Studies and Human Development at my university. This special-topic undergraduate seminar not only provides the curricular space I need but also requires/allows me to foreground transnational socio-political issues (which students research and write about), cross-cultural rhetoric and communication (which they draw on), and translingual skills (which they practically learn).
Class Activity: Image-Search for a “Universal” Idea— I use this activity in order to convey the significance of appreciating the complexity of language, embracing different societies’ and cultures’ perspectives on seemingly straightforward issues, understanding the specific context of any problem or discourse, cultivating empathy with those who may have different worldviews, and being an informed citizen of the world (as well as that of one’s particular nation). I start the activity by asking students to write down a word/concept that they think is “absolutely universal.” For demonstration, I use the word “beauty” and do a Google search, then click on the “image” tab on the result. Then I ask what students see on the screen in order to create a list of constitutive terms on the board: students point out women, young, skinny, wearing makeup, almost exclusively white … Students also go on to share their reactions like these: “somehow terribly sad to look at,” “wow, that’s what the internet thinks ‘beauty’ means!” and “I don’t think this is what beauty means everywhere in the world.” I don’t even need to wait to ask probing questions for sophisticated reactions from students. Often, the conversation becomes long, complicated, and even controversial (involving issues of racism, sexism and objectification of women’s bodies, homophobia, etc) before I ask students to go to the next step: “Now, add a word, such as a country/culture or some kind of qualifier, and see what images come up.” The last time students did this activity, a Taiwanese-American student pulled “a lot of snakes” from the internet by using the word “Taiwan” alongside “beauty”; I couldn’t stop him from starting to research the reasons because he said he had no clue about how beauty was associated with snakes in Taiwan. Another student who had combined the words “beauty” and “men” was prompted to share some very interesting responses, and so was her friend who had added “Africa.” This activity helps students to truly open up and have fun, while learning an important lesson about different cultures.
Assignment: Essay Based on a Seemingly Universal Idea— In the weeks following the above class activity, students write a short research essay on the “seemingly universal concept,” exploring how the concept they choose to research is contingent in or varies by cultures and contexts. The best part of this assignment is that most students do not conclude that their term is understood in a singular/particular way even within a particular culture or context—not to mention how un-universal the understanding/interpretation and application of the term can be when they consider different cultures and contexts.
Assignment: Multimodal Group Assignment on Communicative/Rhetorical Practices— The next assignment in this course is a collaborative multimodal presentation in which students interested in related issues form groups, research, write, and share their findings with the class. Focusing on an issue of language, writing, or rhetoric, they study communicative practices in different countries/cultures. Last year, students also presented their works at the university’s “Undergraduate Research and Creativity” (URECA) fair, which brings in a crowd of about 3000 visitors during the day. The topics of their presentations included “how cultures shape our expression of emotions,” “food as a means of expression in different countries,” “positive stereotypes about East Asian students on campus,” and “complexities of greeting in different cultures.” As it was also typical of all groups, the last project started from an attempt to find out what was generally the most common form of greeting in home cultures of the group’s members: India, Guatemala, and the US (Pennsylvania in this case). As they researched and discussed their own experiences of Namaste, verbal greeting, and shaking hands respectively, these students decided to discuss how complex the practices of those greetings were in actual contexts. The second generation Indian-American student who was in this group, for instance, shared the experience of getting extremely confused about whether to touch the feet of a relative whom he had gone to pick her up at the airport: he didn’t know what exactly the relation itself was, what educational and social backgrounds his relative came from, and whether she would care about the awkward looks they would get from people around if he touched her feet. He was sure that doing Namaste wouldn’t be enough, so he awkwardly bowed his head and put his hand across his chest, causing a communicative failure in effect. “Don’t tell me that everyone does Namaste in India,” concluded this student.
Assignment: Reading Response on Rhetorical Traditions— Focusing on “transcultural” knowledge and communication, students read texts on, research, and discuss in class their own experiences about living in “transnational” communities (or communities that constantly cross borders of language, culture, nationality, and identity). Based on readings about different rhetorical traditions, they write responses by comparing similar rhetorical themes and communicative practices in different cultures. Some of the rhetorical traditions/issues that students read and discuss/write about include the ancient Indian Nyaya Sutra tradition, the place of memory in Jewish culture, silence in Egyptian society, the use of classical texts in China, writing style in Japan, and repetition in Middle Eastern rhetorics.
The above activities and assignments have greatly helped my students to engage in what LuMing Mao calls the “reflective encounter,” or learning about rhetorical traditions beyond one’s local society/culture in order to reflect on the complexity of one’s own. Contrary to my initial concerns, students have done sophisticated research and are highly motivated to write and present their findings/ideas. Some domestic students have multicultural heritages, others are curious to learn, and international students are able to write about contexts and cultures they come from. All students anticipate navigating different professions, societies, and cultures in their lives. And they understand how such activities and assignments help them prepare for it.
—– part 2 of this blog can be read here ——