Editor's Note, by Chris Gerben

Plasma Screens as Portals to the World, by Alyssa J. O'Brien

Tutoring Graduate Students in the Writing Center, by John Peterson and Joel Burges

PWR awards outstanding student work with IRAs and OPRAs, compiled by Wendy Goldberg & Chris Gerben

Students Publish Work in New Anthology: Official Book Introduction with Preface by Wendy Goldberg

Stanford Library Honors Boothe Prize Winner in Podcast

PWR Instructors Leaving the Farm

A freshman student recently stood me up. Later, she came to apologize for having missed our meeting and explained that she had thrown all her energy into another class because she was worried sick that she would fail it. She had therefore confined herself to her room for days to make sure that she lived up to the expectations of a new assignment for that class. Her problem, she explained, was that the professor in the other class found her thinking too unsophisticated for college and that her vocabulary in class and in her papers was ”simple”. The student was devastated and didn’t know what to do to ”fix” the problem. She believed that, though other students used fancier concepts in class discussions, her own thinking about the themes of the class were just as interesting and complex as theirs. She had met with the professor to explain herself and to find out how to fulfill the requirements of the class. At the meeting, he had suggested that she learn two new words a day to expand her intellectual horizon. The student was appalled and felt she was being patronized and wronged. I too was very surprised and uncomfortable with the professor’s advice to her and, although this might have been poor judgment on my part, I told her so. Obviously, I didn’t know the story from the “other” side but I wondered if the professor failed to realize how patronizing and humiliating his suggestion was despite what was probably good intentions to help a student improve.

Then again, how would I have handled the situation? While I feel that the professor’s advice is a reflection of a top-down teaching method which seldom works to bring out students’ own thoughts and unique experiences, what would I do in a similar situation if I truly felt that a student lacked sophistication in her way of expressing herself? Did I just dodge the question out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings? Or is there, as I suspect there is, more to a discussion about academic eloquence than whether it is appropriate to suggest that a student learns two new words a day?

Teachers and students are obviously situated differently in the hierarchical space within which the production and exchange of knowledge take place in our universities --regardless of gender, race and class -- but this particular encounter happened to be between a white, intellectual male and a Latina woman from a poorer part of the U.S. It therefore turned into what I, for lack of a better term, will call a “neo-colonial” encounter. The meeting about academic expectations was between two people from groups which have historically been the privileged and underprivileged respectively (socio-economically as well as educationally). I wondered what impact such historical positioning has on whose knowledge is being taught. Is it his (the Western world’s, the privileged classes’, the primarily white intellectuals’) knowledge and can it ever be “ours” (hers too)? Was it only because educational standards were not met in this particular situation that class, race and gender were not erased as important markers in the meeting? Or are we incorrectly assuming that academic discourse carries with it a mutual language and an intellectual community, which supersedes more local languages and knowledges stemming from the ethnic, class and gender background of students and teachers? I suggest that meetings between students and teachers of different backgrounds are always marked by how that difference has and continues to play out in larger social and political contexts. Does it matter? If so, what can we do about it?

I raise these questions not to vilify the instructor or victimize the student but to try to think through issues which relate to my own teaching and which may be pertinent to all teachers in multicultural and diverse classrooms. I do this by analyzing a recent situation where the theme of the class I taught--white European dominance and marginalization of Muslim immigrants--was about to be reenacted in the very classroom in which I tried to deconstruct the hierarchy and defy easy categorizations. I found myself (maybe) silencing one of my non-Western minority students in a discourse, which was meant to deconstruct the dominant narrative and provide a space for minority work. Hence, in a situation where I made a conscious effort to be sensitive to the larger social and political context of our diverse racial, class, gender and religious backgrounds, my own situated identity as a teacher who grew up in a European country intersected and interfered with my relationship to and understanding of the student in ways I had not anticipated.


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