Training in cultural competencyIn any grouping, one can find a privileged centre surrounded by those that deviate from what constitutes the majority. States need to learn this, too.
The academic year has come to an end once again with final grades turned in, overgrown weeds in my garden cleared, horse manure hauled and spread and tilled into the soil, and tomato and eggplant seedlings planted amidst incessant rain. However, there was no commencement. No donning of academic regalia, and no disciplined march to our seats led by the university marshal. Neither was there any formal conferring of degrees to the graduates (with occasional whoops escaping from the audience despite the stern voice of the Dean of Student Affairs asking to hold all applause until the end).
As much as the professors missed this ritual, the graduates certainly missed this milestone celebration due to the pandemic. While potential commencement speakers remained uninvited to offer their wise words on this occasion, some like former president Barack Obama couldn’t refrain from sharing their wisdom through the internet. For our part, those of us in our department organised a Zoom graduation celebration on the last day of classes to allow faculty to say a few words about the graduates and the graduates to share their reflection with their fellow English majors and professors. To add some solemnity to the occasion, some of us even appeared in our academic regalia.
For the past few years, this season was a time of rush for me because of travels. Even while tying the loose ends of the semester, I would clear the weeds, till and fertilise the soil and, as soon as the commencement was over, I would sow and plant and then leave for one destination or another. But this year, my destination is home. There is no hurry to finish the garden and leave. And to close the semester more productively, I am even attending the year-end training programme for faculty on various pedagogical and academic issues. May 18 marked the first day of the four-day ‘May Institute’ (as the programme is referred to). The final session was on building cultural competencies—delivered by three (two white and one black) presenters from a Chicago-based organisation called Chicago ROAR (Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism) that the Office of Multicultural Student Services had organised.
I was puzzled at first by the title of the session. Who can teach the professors other than professors themselves? After all, most of us hold terminal degrees in our subjects. Cultivating a life of the mind ourselves and inculcating it in our students is our vocation. Once through the American academe, we come out, ground and baked, as voracious readers, if not tireless writers. As long as we teach our specialist subjects in a palatable way to our wards, our job is done. That is one reason, unlike the meticulous training given to elementary, middle and high school teachers, we never receive formal teacher training. So, why a session on cultural competencies for the professoriate? Are we not culturally competent, despite being vetted and tested and certified as specialists in our respective subjects?
Well, it turns out that we are not. The presenters explained their concepts through tree and cloud charts. To be entirely culturally competent, we need to understand the human as a tree. The tree chart had roots, stem and leaves and branches. Roots stand for worldview (how people conceive of the world and imagine their relationship to it through stories representing reality)—for cultural theorists, it would be equivalent to ideology. The stem stands for language, a structure that regulates thinking, feeling and meaning-making. If language can facilitate, its limitation can constrain. Leaves and branches stand for lifeways, the most visible cultural markers, such as cuisine, dress, rituals, etc. One needs to understand all three in order to understand the complexity called a human being or a human community. And since we teach human beings, if we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the three, our pedagogy can’t succeed.
The cloud chart explained privilege by putting ‘white centre of dominance’ at the centre and words like ‘lazy, savages, uppity, women, illegal, non-white, heathens’, among other words, in the periphery. Then there was a series of binaries, such as us & them, good & bad, straight white cisgender male, Christian heteropatriarchy, official history, nationalism & their opposites. ‘In the United States, WHO is presumed to be abnormal, deviant, bad, immoral, and uncivilised?’ And who is their opposite?
After having thought through these critical concepts and binaries of ‘white institutional values,’ we were asked to consider how an institution, such as a university, can be a multicultural and anti-racist institution. To go from one to the other, an institution would have to go from either/or to both/and; competitive individualism to collaboration and cooperation (nurturing individual creativity); from a scarcity mentality to abundant worldview; secrecy to transparent communication & decision-making. Only by adopting and absorbing the second set of ‘transformational values’ can an institution transform itself into a mission-focused university with a bias toward effectiveness.
Many of these concepts are well-known to those of us who have gone through academic training in critical and race theory and worked in the last 30 years in the United States’ higher education. But I had never seen these presented to the mainstream university faculty before. This was disabusing the faculty of any undesirable assumption of privileged position by making them aware of it in relation to their students and each other.
What if a whole country like Nepal and its officialdom went through such training in cultural competency? Because, at the core of each nation-state, not just the United States, there is the centre of race, caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, and denomination within a faith that is privileged; then there are marginalised and others. The university is indeed an ivory tower of sorts. The challenge is to transform all state institutions through such training.
What do you think?
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