“Negotiating Selves, Constructing Community: The Teacher as Alien Presence”
William Paterson University
Having taught now for the last seven years in small state colleges, catering overwhelmingly to first generation students, or students from working class and immigrant backgrounds, both at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI, and now at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, I am constantly struck by the contradictions of my position as a South Asian woman teaching English literature to American students. For me the classroom is an infinitely volatile and creative space, space, not just a contact zone â€œwhere disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (Pratt 34) but a psychosocial and institutional space of where I find myself negotiating my many selves, across space and time, across the diverse literacy practices and pedagogical strategies learned through long years of having been both schooled and taught in India. I find myself comparing institutional contexts, class room cultures, student-teacher relationships, in a strenuous and on-going self-reflexivity in order to build a collaborative class room community that is not stumped by difference. Rather, I strive to keep alive the unfamiliar so as to engage with the material we are studying and writing about in a spirit of inquiry and intellectual zestfulness.
I believe my â€œalienâ€ status functions as a catalyst that energizes debate and conversation about the texts at hand. At first, this parsing of myself used to be acutely uncomfortable, as students commented, â€œFor an Indian woman you speak very good Englishâ€ but these occasions also became valuable teaching moments, to unpack a whole colonial history, to dissect the class privileges that accorded me the education and mobility to be teaching here in the first place, to overturn the familiar trajectory of migration as flight from poverty and political instability. I often find that I am perceived as an alien presence whose authority is compromised by my being a foreign female with a vaguely British accent who despite long years of having lived here still let slip an occasional Indianismâ€”â€œThriceâ€, as short form for three, â€œflatâ€ instead of apartment, â€œsurnameâ€ instead of last name, among other such lapses.
The situation is complicated by the infinitely more informal cultural ethos of the American classroom, very different from the one I grew up in and taught before being transplanted here. I embrace the informality but am still taken aback by the â€œretailâ€ attitude to education in some students. I guess I must be old fashioned. Needless to say the instances I am exasperated by this are far outnumbered by the occasions of sheer gratification achieved by finally cohering a collaborative community of incredibly diverse but interested and motivated learners engaged in dialogue with each other and me. Pedagogically, my long years of studying and teaching in a lecture format keep surfacing, like Banquoâ€™s ghost that will not behave even as I strive strenuously to execute a more interactive classroom atmosphere. I am astounded by the tough work schedules of students, many of them older, juggling work and school, and look back at my pampered student days where I stayed with my parents and where my only responsibility was to study and do well, Sure, it was a privileged upbringing, one that I have been unselfconscious of till my career as a teacher here in American universities.
Since I have been commuting between 150-300 miles to work at the two jobs I have held, students often comment, â€œthey must pay you well to commute such a long distance,â€ ( alas not) or that I must really need the job which creates grounds for solidarity in shared economic travails. As a teacher scholar, I find that I do not so much construct my life as I am constructed by my students. This is especially so, when I teach courses in South Asian or postcolonial literature. Despite a rigorous attempt to be dressed in generic western professorial attire, in trousers and a shirt or jacket, I find my identity reduced to my Indiannessâ€”â€œSo what caste are you?â€ â€œDid you have an arranged marriage?â€ Did your family have domestic help too?,â€ interpreting caste, class, and gender in too personal a way to my consternation. I fin myself resisting the role of a cultural tourist guide trying to draw back the conversation to issues of literary merit, to social justice or theoretical termsâ€”hybridity, otherness, bricolage, etc
My teaching life as a researcher and scholar is a constant battle to unlearn my privileges, to deconstruct my prejudices, to evaluate my values, to engage with my fears and desires. As Pratt argues, classrooms can be utilized as such social spaces, since through “exercises in storytelling and in identifying with the ideas, interests, histories, and attitudes of others,â€ the contact zone classroom requires that divergent voices and viewpoints be heard and engaged (40). Research in the social sciences bears out my personal experience of the effects of powerful and often unacknowledged interaction between personal biography and professional and social contexts upon teachers in schools and higher education. I have learned now to thrive in the contradictions and ambivalence. But it is a delicate balance, to refrain from lapsing into autoethography and to use that unspoken difference as a launching pad for students to excel not just in the academic world but to equip them for other life worlds as well– to be active, engaged citizens invested in a common goal of a civil society with equitable rights for all.
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