"This felt weird";
students' encounter with difference
The wholistic approach to analysis provides a rich understanding of the data and how my students responded to the class.
Pesos, Dirham, Shekels, cedis, ouguiya, library cards, postcards, maps, subway passes and many more artifacts circled the harkness table. I tasked the students to create a narrative based off of their exploration of the objects. After comparing their narratives, the students were surprised to find that although they examined the same artifacts, they produced a range of reports and observations. I had the students analyze the artifacts individually because I wanted them to recognize what Freire explains as conditioning.
When the students examined these artifacts from my home, they paid attention to different details. One student in particular commented on the map of Rabat. He noticed that the neighborhoods in the center of the city were named in French and that the neighborhoods on the outskirts had Arabic names. The student noticed that the map provided a visual representation of the legacy of colonialism. This student was able to recognize power relations through language and location. I was heart broken when his critical eye was transferred to another class after the second week of school. Another student created what he called a narrative around my life. The student assumed that I had traveled to all of the countries represented in the currencies. Another student created a fictional character and developed a biography after examining just one business card. I noticed another student paying attention to the material makeup of the artifacts. I was delighted to see the plethora of methods used to interpret the artifacts. It lead to a more enriching post activity discussion. In my journal entry dated September 8, 2015, I wrote: “the students found it challenging to articulate why they were able to come up with different understandings of the text.” We were a step closer to appreciating how human beings can have such different understandings of reality.
One student’s reflection reveals the discomfort that he faced. He stated that “this assignment was really weird” and “felt a little weird”. Indeed examining one’s conditioning and vulnerability can be discomforting, so can recognizing one’s own privilege. In order to develop fluency in critical literacy, there must be discomfort. We must take a critical stance towards our very own assumptions and understandings of the world. The student then stated “I think that it was beneficial because I saw through the new lens I picked which further benefited my understanding of this text.” I think the students’ original lenses of privilege were partially recognized when they had to compare their original notes from the worksheet to what they found to be the revealing truth about the “indigenous people” they so quickly judged.
Nacirema, American spelled backwards, is a satirical piece that poses as an anthropological article. After reading the article, my students immediately trusted the source and initially distanced themselves from the Nacirema civilization that was described with detail. The article presents a cultural ethnography on a “mysterious” tribe in the Americas. The vivid language othered the habits and rituals of the Nacirema with a mysterious interpretation. For example, it describes women under a hair dryer as women baking their heads in ovens. After the students read the article, they had to answer a question: What were some of the most important things you noticed about the text before we read our discussion of lenses? What do you know? What can you infer? One student responded: “facts, non-bias, scientific document, bizarre rituals.” Students described them as “strange/exotic customs”. One student even wrote “very opposite of what I (we) are used to”. After analyzing the text, students learned that the Nacirema were really Americans (spelled backwards). Students did not become critical until they felt misinterpreted.
The Nacirema activity revealed that one’s perspective or reading of a people or group affects how one writes about or interprets even the most mundane and routine habits. Students stated that this activity taught them that they cannot trust everything they read.
Many students did not recognize the exoticised language/tone of the text until after they realized the article was talking about Americans. That is when they started to question terms like “magical” and “medicine men”. The students initially interpreted the text as “factual and unbiased”. It was not until after students learned that the text was about Americans that they began to critique the accuracy, bias and language used.
The first questionnaire that I gave my students asked them “In what different ways do identity, knowledge and experience influence how one understands the world? Why is it that human beings can have such different understandings of reality?” Although these are the questions that I wanted my students to explore, I think setting them up together somehow guided some of the students to answer in a certain way. For example, one student’s first sentence in her response to the second question was “Human beings have such different understandings of reality because of the three factors in the previous question: identity, knowledge, and experience.” Perhaps assigning the questions separately would aid the students in thinking about the questions separately. They are different questions and they deserve their own space given the thoughtfulness each question demands.
One thing I did like about the assignment is that it gave me insight into how dichotomous the students may view the world. For example, one student’s answer to the first question included: “Some people may live under a grim childhood, making them hate the world around us; on the other hand, some may live under a happy environment, creating an optimistic idea. In conclusion, these aspects influence how one sees the world.” This basic sentence informed me that as a class we would have to examine notions like “happy” and optimistic” and factor privilege into these concepts that we have come to universalize. If they truly reflect on experiences, and how they influence our perspective, they might cite race, class and gender.