Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

1/15/2005

I might even put it in the cover letter.

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:08 pm.

The poor sap teaching the second semester precalculus class is one of the new permanent faculty who obviously didn’t know what he was getting into when he was offered that sucker assignment, because if he did, he’d have passed it on to some temp like me, and snagged the differential equations class or something for himself. But he didn’t, so he gets to teach the students who actually made it out of the first semester class, including the ones who didn’t get the grades they required because their teacher last term like TOTALLY SUCKED but who know they can do better this term if only they’re given a chance with a teacher who doesn’t totally suck and make them do shit like add up fractions when HELLO, this isn’t a course on fractions, it’s a course on PRECALCULUS.

But I digress: a mere six hours into teaching the second semester precaclulus class, Poor Sap had apparently already had an “incident” with one of the students (this was relayed to me by the department head, who is an older British man who uses words like “an incident” to describe everything from spilled milk to nuclear holocausts); this student had apparently taken up a great deal of class time asking question after question, each pertaining to material she should have mastered by grade 7. The other students were visibly impatient with her, and after some time Poor Sap cut her short, explaining that this was all prerequisite material, and that she was welcome to go to the tutorial centre for help or see him during his office hours, but that he was not going to spend any more class time on these questions. At this, the girl picked up her books and stomped out of class, proclaiming that this was completely ridiculous and that she wasn’t paying tuition to not have her questions answered.

I’m a very visual thinker, and by this point in the story I had formulated a clear mental image of this scene, and without even consciously thinking about it, I had this one particular former student of mine playing the role of the indignant student. “This student,” I asked Department Head, “Was her name [spoiled brat I taught last term]?”

“Poor Sap didn’t say,” replied Department Head, “But I can ask.”

Two days later, I got the verdict, delivered to me in reverent tones by Department Head: Yes, asamatteroffact, it was Spoiled Brat from last term.

And that right there, that’s going to be my answer to that ubiquitous interview question, “What are your greatest strengths as a teacher?”

“I really get to know my students,” I’ll say. “As INDIVIDUALS.”

Multiculturalism in the classroom and beyond

File under: Those Who Can't, XX Marks the Spot, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:40 pm.

Last week, Jenny D of Dr. Cookie asked a classroom of teachers-in-training what multiculturalism was, and what was so great about it:

This week, one of the apprentices began to talk about how important it was to consider mutliculturalism. This graduate student who wants to instruct the course went on at some length about how we needed to really hammer home to the undergrads that multiculturalism was it, was the thing, was the most important thing.

“Could someone tell me what exactly is multiculturalism in education?” I asked. There is silence. Everyone stares at me. “I don’t know exactly what it is. I hear the word all the time, and it seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.”

This is reminiscent of the many times I asked my sensitive male colleagues why we should try to increase the number of women studying math. In both cases, it seems that it’s been so long since anyone was really called upon to defend either view, that they’ve forgotten how to justify their belief.

Jenny D writes at length about the various things that could be meant by the term “multicultural”; they range from a condescending lowering of standards for disadvantaged minorities to an enlightened sensitivity to the different experiences that students bring to the classroom. I posted a comment there:

Multiculturalism is often presented as a movement to respect the different behaviours and rituals of different cultures. What’s often lost in the mix is the simple fact that not only do different cultures embody different behaviours and rituals - they also embody different values, which can conflict with one another. It’s impossible to respect all of them at once, and anyone teaching in a multicultural classroom will inevitably have to pick and choose. To pretend otherwise is to reduce different cultures to sets of rituals (”This person eats hummus! This one fasts during daylight hours for a month!”) devoid of actual deep belief, and really, how respectful is that?

This seems like a no-brainer, to me, given that different cultures have gone to war with one another over their differences, but apparently it’s not.

A few months ago, Jen and I attended an exhibit on race and culture at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, and we both left underwhelmed. The exhibit was typical of displays aimed at educating visitors whose fascination with dioramas and shiny objects exceeds their attention spans: big posters and 3D models each accompanied by a paragraph or so of text reducing various rituals to their constituent actions, followed by impassioned calls for respect. As always, different religions’ December holidays got to piggyback on Christmas’ popularity: one hallway contained a shoebox-inspired model of a living room containing a tree and stockings, right beside another in which Mom was serving latkes while a menorah burned in the background. “Jews celebrate Chanukah,” we were informed, “an eight-day commemoration of the miracle in which one day’s supply of oil burned for eight days.” Well, that changes everything; I take back all that stuff I thought about them controlling the media and causing 9/11.

Stripped of their history and values, cultural rituals are invariably transmitted as alien and bland. But this is exactly the flavour of multiculturalism that is celebrated in schools in which children sing Chanukah and Christmas songs in December plays. The story of Chanukah is a religious triumph over Syrian oppression. God helped the Jews, sticking it to the rulers of Syria in the process. God made a value judgement. God didn’t respect everyone’s culture equally at the time, and it’s impossible to tell the story of Chanukah in a way that does.

Jenny D also tells a story about an English teacher who had to make a quick value judgement when presented with a cultural dilemma:

A HS English teacher in NYC had asked his students to write a brief composition. The next day, the students brought the writing to class, and the teacher told them he wanted several to read their work.

He called first on a girl, a Muslim girl wearing a hajab. She refused to read, and told the teacher she couldn’t recite until a boy had gone first, according to her religion.

What should the teacher do?

The answer is interesting:

The teacher decided that the girl was free, in a public school, to adhere to any religious values as long as they didn’t conflict with the civic values of a democratic society. When they conflicted with civic values, then in the school, civic values were tantamount.

And there’s the rub: for the teacher to respect the girl’s wishes, he wouldn’t have just had to be sensitive to her values. He would have had to go against his own. It’s not like the girl believed A about Topic X, while the teacher believed nothing about Topic X. The girl believed A, and the teacher believed Not A. A decision had to be made, and someone’s values would be dismissed.

And in this case, if the teacher had adhered to the girl’s wish that she speak only after a boy had spoken, the teacher would have, on some level, had to convey to some male student that his speaking had a privileged position over the girl’s. I don’t blame him for not wanting to send that message. (This is different from the absurd French ban on hijabs in public schools, which girls can wear without requiring any change in behaviour on the parts of their classmates.)

Interesting stuff going on. I try my utmost to be sensitive to the many different backgrounds that my students come from. At the same time, I recognize that they may hold values that are at odds with one another and with me, and my priority isn’t to make sure that for four hours a week, they have a forum to practice those values; my priority is to make sure that all of them learn the material I am teaching.