Monday, October 12, 2015

Why is "Behave like a Roman while in Rome" attitude problematic?

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.

15 comments:

  1. Nice subject for your blog! I have commonly had this conversation with people in the 'majority' as well. I see the problem come up with languages, such as with Spanish speaking in the US or with international students having thick accents when teaching in the US. Some people will say Spanish speakers must learn English! Thats the language we speak here. Or Indian TAs much change to an American accent to help their students understand them. I think that an equal effort from both sides helps. Natives must try to be understanding in addition to visitors trying to adapt. This is similar to what you are saying with writing styles!

    Open your minds people!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm upset, but admit I've heard students ask foreign teachers to speaker more clearly. It's embarrassing for me as an American, that someone would ask such a question of someone who by my opinion deserves an enormous applaud for attempting to speak in a language that is not theirs and in an environment that is potentially very alien. I grew up in Texas, and learning and understanding Spanish was part of surviving bullying from hispanic students in high school. I'm sorry for students that fall into my cultural demographic that give you absolutely no credit for attempting to work in American Universities.

      Ashish, I admit that I'm the one that mentioned "when in Rome", meaning that we must adhere to University standards, which require writing in the language native the university your attending. Interestingly, 4 yrs ago, a friend of mine who moved to South Korea to attend university told me that he was required to take 1 year of Korean writing and language before receiving a test that if passed would allow him to attend courses. This is very similar to our country for students that are entering as undergraduates. While I should have perhaps chosen a less cookie-cutter response for you, I believe if you were attending University in other countries, then you might perhaps be required to adhere to their policies, as my friend had to do in Korea.

      Delete
    2. Ross, this is my fourth term teaching first year as an instructor at Virginia Tech, and no international student till date has submitted any work to me which was not written in English. And I am almost sure that international students do not ask for submitting work in their native language. As far as adhering to the university level standards for writing are concerned, you should realize that all the non-native English speaking international students have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or equivalent test before coming to Tech and get an acceptable score on it. This means all the international students who are here a decent level of English proficiency as accepted by the university.

      However, if you look at my blog post a little more closely or/and the comments made by Tanya/Homero on the post, you will realize that I am not even talking about the basic English proficiency. I am actually talking about writing styles. Writing styles (circular, linear, zig-zag) have nothing to do with language proficiency. My argument is that the dominant writing style in the US (or the ones followed/accepted by Caucasian cultures) is linear and it might create problems for students whose writing style is not the same, not only international students but also African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, Native Americans and many others. Look at Homero's post(s) below and my point will be clearer. And this is where institutionalized discrimination happens when the student's writing style does not match the teacher's style.

      Now, talking about university or publication standards, think about who has made those standards. If they are made by the dominant group (which in most of the cases is true), they will not be much accepting of writing styles of the minority groups. And this is how discrimination happens.

      Delete
    3. To add to Ashish's comment regarding writing styles, I don't think professors should blindly accept multiple writing styles without question, but rather they should be *aware* that differences in style exist and tend to be cultural and be prepared to have a discussion of writing styles and how differences might affect communication. It's then up to both parties how to proceed. It's worth noting that the cultural differences aren't necessarily restricted to geographic regions: different disciplines can and do have different preferred writing styles, as do different journals. If you *know* your natural writing style is not aligned with the style that is expected in any context you have to make a decision regarding how strongly you feel your own personal style and the consequences of going against what is expected. If you're publishing to a journal that has a focus on critical analysis of social norms and conventions perhaps it would be a useful meta demonstration to buck the conventions of writing style for that particular journal, but for another journal with say a technical focus maybe it's not worth risking a rejection simply because the reviewers are confused by your writing style (or maybe it is if you're trying to make a point). I guess what I'm saying (Ashish will complain I'm writing too much, to which I would ask him to try not to silence me because he doesn't agree with my verbose writing style) is that people should be aware of differences in writing styles and acknowledge that no style is "better" or "worse" than any other, but like everything else, a particular style might be more or less appropriate in any given context. There is no blanket rule that says one should always do what is considered appropriate in a particular context, but one should be aware of the consequences of not doing what is expected and be prepared for them.

      Delete
    4. Well on a lighter note, I belong to a country where over a billion people think that Americans have accent. Does that make us right since majority matters? The answer is no! You will find the matter more and more grey as you dive down deeper and deeper into its subjectivity.

      Same goes with the writing style. However, I do agree that if one comes to foreign land, (s)he is supposed to follow the cultural norm of that state no matter set by whom. On the other hand, as far as universities in America is considered, I think management should and can definitely be pushed to understand international student's cultural background. There should be training for professors too as a part of continuous improvement in their teaching skills.

      Delete
  2. O Ashish! This was so refreshing to read and a good reminder to me as I'm teaching my first semester to be cognizant of cultural differences. Although being in WGS, I'm aware that I 'should' be inclusive, but my privilege as a white instructor who generally passes as straight sometimes makes me forget to pause and be aware of my students' differences. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great topic and post, Ashish. Like most things, my response to the "when in Rome" phrase really is "it depends". I like your example of taking cultural writing styles in to account when grading work, but at the same time I also think that work submitted should be compared to the standard for the discipline as well. When we do that, the cultural differences tend to matter less. For instance, scientific writing is different than writing in the sociology field. Technical writing is different than poetry or an ethnography, and so on. You give the example of Asian culture writing being circular in nature. Using that specific example, I see that cultural style might be difficult to for a student to alter to meet the guidelines for a lab report which is more structured and linear, but it may not be as much of a challenge for that student to submit work in a humanities course. If US writing style is more linear, it may be easier for a student to submit a lab report than to alter their more structured writing style to something more creative in nature like the paper for the humanities course. In these instances, I think a professor should take a students cultural writing in to account, but also help them to shape their writing in to the style expected of the field in question.

    Going back out to the broader "when in Rome" comment, I think it is important for individuals to be mindful of the cultural expectations and associated behaviors of the environment they are in. For instance, in the US it is generally okay for students to eat and drink in class, but in Iran that would be considered very rude and not allowed (as we learned in class last night). So, while I think we should be mindful of individual cultural differences, it is also important to focus on adjusting our behaviors to the specific environments we are in as well. All in all, now that I have talked in a giant circle...."it depends"...thanks for a great post and getting my mind thinking in so many different directions! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tanya, I completely agree with the fact that one should look at the context in mind and adjust their behavior accordingly. And that is called being inclusive and cognizant of the context. The problem arises when the other party is not being inclusive of others' context and is expecting a behavior completely suited to their own context. For example, taking the writing example again, a student should be made aware of the writing styles which prevalent in the US, but at the same time writing style is not something which can be changed in a day and hence, the professor should be cognizant of that. Also, coming back to pushing students to meet a certain standard, it is important to realize that those standards are also made the by dominant group. Actually, the Caucasian cultures have a linear writing style, but the African American and Hispanic cultures have a non linear writing pattern, so if we are asking everyone to adhere to the standard and to strive to meet the standard, we are again not being inclusive of a lot of domestic students to begin with.

      As critical or culturally inclusive educators, we should not just stop by saying that "this is what students should be doing as this is what the standards are." We should rather aim to redefine the standards so that it is inclusive of our student population.

      Delete
    2. Ashish,

      Great post. I remember when I did the theses for my master program back in Venezuela. I used grounded theory and was using several U.S. authors as my reference. My advisor there is a great writer (in Spanish) he kept returning my document and telling me "Why are you writing like you are in the U.S. don't be so linear and direct, you need to be more circular, don't get to the point, make the readers wait." You can imagine my surprise when I started writing here in the U.S. and my advisor was making me change paradigms again. However, I do think that it is important to learn how to write according to the audience. For example, if you want to get published in a recognized journal it is likely that you will need to adapt to their writing style.

      Regarding your first comment. I don't know if you have read this article: http://diverseeducation.com/article/64583/ if you check VT regarding signs of institutionalized racism you will see that we don't score very good. Therefore, I think it is really important to help people understand the problem when it comes to inclusion. Most people don't usually say or behave in order to hurt others, however, we do need to make them understand how we feel when comments that are not appropriate are made. I hope you took the time to talk to this individual to help him understand the issue. Remember "silence is the voice of complicity"

      Thanks for sharing!

      Delete
    3. Thanks Homero! I agree with you that we need to keep the audience in mind. But again, we have to take a step back and see who is setting the standards for these journals. If it is the dominant group which is setting the standards, then we again have a problem of institutionalized discrimination when we ask people to stick to "journal standards". I know it is fine balance between being culturally inclusive and accepting writing which is difficult to comprehend. While all the people irrespective of their writing styles and language proficiency have the burden to make themselves understandable to the audience, the "audience" also has the responsibility of being more generous and inclusive of varied writing patterns in their definition of what is considered effective writing.

      I did check the link which you sent. Unfortunately, we do not score high on institutionalized racism and this is exactly why "behave like a Roman while in Rome attitude problematic." It just perpetuates institutionalized racism.

      And finally, though I did not talk to that guy about how is comment was discriminatory, but I did make sure that he gets to see this blog post. I know that is not the best thing to do but I am just afraid to speak up. I have been condemned (by the majority) in the past for speaking up and hence, have developed a deep fear of speaking against what I find unjust. Unfortunate, but true!!

      Delete
    4. You make a great point that I haven't thought about. Maybe we also have institutionalized racism in major journals. I agree, we need to take a step back and make more research in how these journals are being managed.

      I'm sorry to hear that, remember at the end you must feel comfortable and blogging about it is a great first step. Hopefully when you see the positive impact of speaking up you will feel more comfortable doing it.

      Again, thanks for sharing!

      Delete
  4. I think when we talk of diversity or inclusiveness it is a spectrum. What we are vying for right now is diversity in the classroom. It is an important step but you pointed it it may not be enough. Real diversity comes when you have an awareness and appreciation of some of the finer details such as these. I think the same is true with the syllabus in the courses that are taught. Right now historical references still mostly point to the Greek or Roman Empire. What about ancient Chinese or Indian or Middle Eastern cultures where a lot of knowledge evolved way before?

    On the other hand as soon as we start taking too much pride in our culture the minds become less accepting of other opinions. So its a fine balance I guess

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarang, I personally do not think that taking pride in one's culture and respecting others' cultures are mutually exclusive. One can do the both. However, I agree with you that the courses that are taught these days focus a lot on the Western civilization and do not pay attention to what happened or is happening in other parts of the world. That being said, there are some teachers who are trying to break the hegemony of Western civilization in their classrooms. Donna Riley, currently a professor at Virginia Tech, had taught a class in Smith College in which she had tried to point out inventions and discoveries that happened in the non-Western world. You can read more about it here: http://ashish-dss.blogspot.com/2015/10/critical-pedagogy-in-engineering.html

      Delete
  5. It's really important to be cognizant in a diverse group. A lot of times, a non-inclusive environment exists out of people's unconsciousness.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, and great responses. I have a creative mind that does not think in a linear fashion. Commonly referred to as ADD or ADHD, or at least I've been told, and my writing I leans towards a more "zig-zag", or "circular" fashion. Interestingly enough, English is not really the first language I grew up hearing, my mother speaks a language only spoken in two Sicilian villages which neither Sicilians, or Italians can understand. I have never really thought about this before, but my mother/family all speak in a very circular, zig-zaggy fashion. I'm not sure this completely clears things up for me, but thanks for sharing. It has certainly provided me with a new perspective on both my writing and speaking style.

    ReplyDelete