A couple of weeks ago, I reached my Contemporary Pedagogy class ten minutes before the class start-time and started charting with one of my classmates who had also arrived almost the same time I had. Somehow, the conversation started drifting toward writing and I argued that the professors (at Virginia Tech or any educational institution) should be cognizant of the fact that different cultures have different writing styles. For example Asian cultures follow a circular writing pattern and on the other hand, the dominant writing style in the USA is linear. Hence, when the professors are evaluating a student’s work, especially an international student or even a domestic student from a different cultural setting than their own, they should be at least cognizant, if not considerate, of the student’s culture and look at their writing with the knowledge of student’s cultural background in mind. This is important because in the absence of knowledge of variation in writing style among cultures, the professor may judge student’s writing and hence their level of understanding of the subject matter poorly in case there is a writing style mismatch between the professor and the student.
While I was making this argument, another classmate who belongs to the majority group (white male) jumped in to the conversation and presented a counter argument by saying “Behave like a Roman while in Rome.” I find this attitude of the white guy very non-inclusive and even oppressive. However, this is not to say that he was intentionally trying to be non-inclusive or oppressive while making his comment. It is very much possible that he was unaware of his own privileges and the oppressive nature of his comment. And my aim for writing this blog post is not to point fingers at anyone. It is just to express my own feelings and if that classmate of mine reads this post, it is to educate him and many others who might be unaware of their privileges and the non-inclusive structure of the university and education system.
In order to understand why the comment made by my while male classmate non-inclusive and oppressive in the context of higher education in the US, we will have to go to the history of higher education in the country. The first colleges and universities in the country were set up to educate ministers or to provide education so that the graduates could take up public employment in Church and Civil State. The universities were accessible only to the dominant majority i.e. the white men. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that females and other racial minorities were given access to college education in the country.
In such a case where the universities were only open for the white males and were run by them, it is easy to understand that the education system was structured according to what the white males deemed appropriate. In other words, the university structure was designed in a way which was suitable for the white males. And the same argument can be made for the accepted behavioral styles including writing styles in the university and the academia. The styles of behavior and academic writing which seemed appropriate to white males were adopted and others were deemed inappropriate. While the universities opened for females and other racial minorities almost 150 years ago, I argue that on a structural level, universities have made little changes to accepting what is appropriate and acceptable; and what is not. Thus, the structures which govern the universities are still very “white male-ish” in nature. And hence, the university structures are not very inclusive of minorities.
How does this non-inclusive structure lead to oppression? Universities expect all the students to follow the rules, guidelines and structures and adapt to those. For a minority student who was taught a different set of behavioral patterns and social etiquette in their cultural setting, the guidelines which the universities ask them to follow might be strange and unfamiliar. Thus, what universities are asking them to do is to forgo what behavioral styles they learned as appropriate in their cultural settings and follow the behavioral styles which the universities espouse i.e. the style favored by the dominant group. When students try to adapt to the new set of behavioral patterns as asked of them by the universities, they face disconnect with their own cultural heritage and hence suffer isolation. They are neither able to identify with what they learned at home about appropriate conduct and behavior nor they fully learn the new style of behavior. And a lot of times, this difference in the behavioral styles is seen as an inability to learn. This perpetuates further oppression and segregation of the minority students.
I know it is not easy for any professor to learn about all the cultural styles whether it is related to writing or behavior. However, only by being cognizant of the fact that differences exist one can move a step forward in creating an inclusive learning environment. This is how a professor can start putting in efforts to understand where students are coming from and what values they bring to the classroom. This, instead of asking students to “behave like Romans while in Rome,” will create an inclusive learning environment in universities.