Multiculture in the classroom

One of the things I found most challenging about my teaching this term has been teaching the topic of identity as it relates to concepts of culture, race, gender, and class. This is because the materials, and the texts, as well as the suggested scheme of work, are all produced from a mono-cultural viewpoint, a viewpoint that is undoubtedly white and from the global North, while my students are all from a mix of cultures, both from the global South and the global North, and with a range of ethnic/racial identities.

One of the greatest challenges has been encouraging students to reflect on their own class-based and racialised identities. Several students expressed discomfort with the notion of class, notably those students from Arabic and Gulf states. The students told me that they were uncomfortable with the notion of class, as applied to themselves, although this discomfort did not seem to extend to theoretical discussions around Marxism and class divides in Britain. For those students, class as it related to their cultures seemed to be not just a sensitive subject, but a taboo one, a far greater taboo for some of them than discussing sexuality (which I had assumed would be the greatest taboo for them, given their religious and gendered background). This presented a challenge in terms of discussions of privilege, particularly in getting students to reflect upon their own privileges; from my viewpoint it is difficult to check one’s privilege when it comes to advantages of class when one is loath to discuss how class impacts one’s own life, but for students who see class as irrelevant or unrelated to their current situation, it is difficult to include class-based privilege as a factor. The problems here were undoubtedly hampered by my own lack of shared cultural understanding with the students; my experience living in Gaddafi’s Libya was that while social class was not acknowledged in terms of working, middle, and upper-class, education and income showed distinct class barriers which were acknowledged by my friends and acquaintances, frequently in terms of familial poverty and employment opportunity. Getting students to see the meanings behind the words was challenging when the mention of the word “class” itself acted as a switch, turning off their listening and critical thinking skills.

For other students race and racialised identities presented an issue. While my students were largely comfortable discussing nationalities and cultural differences (and discussions of norms and values were fruitful and entertaining), the topic of racialised identities was presented from a viewpoint in which POC are largely underprivileged due to systemic racism in the UK and America; much of the sociological work my students were able to engage with came from this standpoint, although I tried to demonstrate how POC in the UK have strong positive identities as well. For my students the acquisition of a racialised identity, frequently one which affected their own previously privileged experiences, was understandably a complicated and uncomfortable subject. My own discomfort, initially with my position as a white woman teaching about race (along with which I was aware that for many of my students this would be their first introduction to the topic of race from a sociological viewpoint), was also in that I had naïvely not really considered that my students from African states had not previously experienced themselves as Black in the same way as students who had lived in the UK for longer periods may well have; their experience of racialised identity was one in where they have not previously identified as Black, not as part of a minority group made up of multiple national, regional, and tribal identities. While some of the stronger students were able (and willing) to reflect on this a little, it presented a challenge to myself and them, particularly as I did not wish them to see their identities negatively. For other students, they had also not considered themselves as possessing racialised identities, and had not considered that a racialised identity could be imposed upon them (which on reflection was something I myself engaged in) by the ways in which other people saw them could impact how they saw themselves.

This term is teaching has undoubtedly presented challenges in terms of pedagogical practice, and in terms of simple practicalities, but has also thrown out issues that I did not expect. I hope that I can use my reflections on this going forward, but I would also be interested to hear from any others who had experience of teaching sociology not just to multicultural groups but to international students.

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