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Monday, November 28, 2005

Cultural insensitivity

Warning: The subject of this post is probably not quite what its title promises.

I've been thinking about this subject off and on ever since Dr. Virago's great post on teaching religious texts in the literature classroom, but I've been thinking about it even more since getting this most recent batch of papers from my survey students.

The question is: how do you get students to understand that writers from different periods sometimes have values that are, uh, different from ours? Even if those writers can otherwise often seem fairly modern in their sensibilities?

One paper, in particular, nearly sent me over the edge. It was ostensibly about the role of women in Canonical Work (although in point of fact it wound up being more about sex and sexuality). Now, there's definitely some freaky stuff in there, and the author's treatment of sex is occasionally bizarre or uncomfortable-making--but that's mostly below the surface. On the surface level, there's really nothing in the work's depiction of women that would be out of place in many a Victorian novel (or, for that matter, many a 20th-century movie or pop song).

But. This kid just couldn't deal. He couldn't get past what he perceived as the work's sexual double standard--and so intent was he on proving that the work was hypocritical that he completely ignored the repeated evidence that the male characters actually do get punished for their sexual trespasses (albeit in rather different ways than the female characters). Worse yet, with each seeming inconsistency, he would write, "this doesn't make sense," or "this seems unfair," or, worst of all, "this doesn't make sense to a modern reader."

Finally, I wrote on his paper, "THIS WASN'T WRITTEN FOR THE MODERN READER!"

It's the more frustrating, because there are really interesting things to say about the work's treatment of sexuality--but in order to say them, my student would first have had to think for a moment about why the author depicted men and women the way he did: what values that depiction illustrated and what kind of message he might have been trying to send to his readers. And. . . he just couldn't do that.

Really, it's cultural insensitivity on a par with going to a foreign country and saying, "Eww! Why do people EAT this stuff? That's just stupid!" Or, "What a dumb kind of toilet! Why don't they get with the program and join the 21st century?"

The question then is: how does one forestall this kind of reaction? In the classroom--as I wrote in response to Dr. V's post--I try to emphasize both the foreign-ness of a given work or period and its modern relevance, and I like to think that I often succeed. (After we've read a fairly steamy poem aloud and worked through it, I'll ask, "does it surprise you to learn that this was written by a clergyman? Why?" And then after we hash that out, "is there any way that this could be seen as a deeply Christian poem?")

I really do think that the authors I work on are pretty wacky, and I love their wackiness and the quirks of their particular belief systems; encountering an unexpected way of looking at God, or sex, or civil government in the works of several centuries ago is a large part of the fun of what I do. And I want my students to find these things surprising and new, too. They may certainly challenge and criticize the works we read--that's my business too, after all!--but when they challenge them, I want it to be from a position of comprehension, not automatic and presumed superiority.

I wonder, though, whether this is something that I have to state explicitly to my students, in my syllabi or on the first day of class--or whether it's only a spiel (or harrangue) to be kept in reserve to deliver as occasion warrants.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 9:16 PM |


Blogger What Now? commented at 11:02 PM~  

Just last night I had to point out in a comment to a student's paper that it wasn't a good idea to repeatedly call the subject of her research paper "absurd" and "ridiculous." The fact that things were kind of different in the early 19th century does not inevitably mean that it was an absurd time. Sigh.

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 5:44 PM~  

A great post? Aw, shucks. *blushes* (Or did you mean "great" as in size -- because it was awfully darn long! Heh.)

I want to respond in kind -- like you did in the comments at my blog, and maybe also with a follow-up post -- but I'll have to come back to do it later when I have more than two active brain-cells to rub together.

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 5:46 PM~  

Oh, and by the way...

Finally, I wrote on his paper, "THIS WASN'T WRITTEN FOR THE MODERN READER!"

I bet that was really satisfying!

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 1:12 AM~  

Dr. V.,

Satisfying, yes, but possibly a bit too bitchy. I try to remind myself--as New Kid wrote several weeks ago--that my students really aren't trying to piss me off with their writing, and that I need to respond generously and helpfully--but sometimes I think it's good for them to see the frustration they cause!

And yes--it was a great post and a really enjoyable exchange; I don't know that I'm actually doing much more than rehashing one aspect of it over here.

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 3:46 PM~  

Satisfying, yes, but possibly a bit too bitchy. I try to remind myself--as New Kid wrote several weeks ago--that my students really aren't trying to piss me off with their writing, and that I need to respond generously and helpfully

Alas, you're right. And even when a comment isn't intended to be bitchy, sometimes they read it that way, so you have to be gentle with them.


sometimes I think it's good for them to see the frustration they cause!

I think this might be right, too. so many of them never imagine a reader when they write, so a little expression of readerly frustration might remind them that their words aren't just in their heads.

I do still want to respond to the substance of this post, but it might have to come in a post of my own at a future date. For now, I'll just pithily quote (and yet utterly forget the source of the quote! doh!) and say that we should remind our students, periodically throughout the term, that "the past is a foreign country." Yes, human beings in these 'foreign countries' do have some things in common with us, the travelers, but they also sometimes have vastly different ways of going about things or of perceiving the world, etc.

I think there is more to say here, but alas I'm only allowing myself limited blog time until I finish my book revisions. But I hope to get back to this.

Blogger Another Damned Medievalist commented at 2:14 AM~  

In my classes, we always start out with a discussion of presentism and why it's Wrong. And I generally start out with the analogy of, "when you go to a different country, do you expect people to behave the way they do here? What kinds of differences might there be? What sorts of things might cause those differences?" and then I ask them if the world their grandparents grew up in is much like the world they grew up in. From there, I can talk about why we have to treat the past with the same consideration and understanding. Before saying that people should have behaved in some way, we have to ask why we want to say it. Is it contextual for the time and place?

It's a hard thing to get students not to judge, especially when many of them have been taught that we learn history to avoid the mistakes of the past (which is just not really true), or that history is tracing some abstract view of human progress. It is what it is. We have to respect people for what they were. We don't have to agree, we just have to try to understand.

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