As a teacher of college students I feel that motivating students by allowing them to see that learning is an exciting venture is my number one priority. I feel that this can be accomplished if I allow my students to know that their learning matters to me. According to the educational theorists, Schlossenberg, Lynch, and Chickerling, “mattering is important to all adult learners. For some it may be the single element that makes the difference in their completing their degrees and developing a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of belonging.” Students need to believe they are a part of a learning community where they feel connected to their knowledge. My job is to facilitate knowledge construction, rather than to simply impart knowledge.
To enable students to have the experience of mattering I create a feeling of connectedness within my classroom. I do this through small group work and class discussion. Through small group work my students learn that their input “matters” to their fellow students. The following exercise illustrates how I create a connected community. My students are asked to analyze three stories with a common motif over a period of three weeks.
The central question in each story asks what it means to be an American. The first short story, an autobiographical account by Rogelio Gomez, “Foul Shots,” exposes students to a Mexican-American boy and his struggle to belong to a culture in which he feels alienated. This story is significant because the reader sees the “man’s” view of the “boy’s” thoughts as Rogelio Gomez looks back at, and interprets, those feelings. After reading the story I ask my class to cite specific instances of stereotyping. By doing this I want to show my students the great fantasy of the “idea of a social body constituted by the universality of wills” (Foucault). Stereotypes exist because of power relationships. These stereotypes manifest into the negative self-images that the Mexican boys had of themselves at the time. Gomez admits that they are ashamed because of “the supposed inferiority of our language and culture” (53). Next, I ask my students to compare popular television mothers now to those Rogelio watched in the 1960s. This question is meant to bring contemporary culture into the discussion, and allows the class to focus on the prevalent American “types” of mothers. I then ask them to compare these television mothers with their own mothers.
In this way I hope to make them feel a connection to their own culture, and also to Rogelio’s. The climax of “Foul Shots” comes when the all-white upper-class basketball team throws the Mexican team a bag of Fritos. This is a prime example of popular culture informing racist stereotypes. This incident is made poignant because of the “Frito Bandito” commercial that was airing during this time. The commercial was later banned because of its offensive nature. I break my students up into groups and give them each a question to discuss. I then tell them to report their findings back to the class. By separating my students into groups I disperse the power away from the “Panopticon” of the teacher, because I cannot possibly hear what my students are saying. By “Panopticon” I refer to Foucault’s idea of the centralizing of power by an authority figure, and the idea of surveillance. We are all learners in my classroom.
Group one is asked to explain why they think this action upset Rogelio so much. Group two is asked to share a time when they were made to feel inferior. Group three must focus their discussion on what could have been thrown in the middle of that room that would have had the same impact.The final group lists athletic events and their stereotypical association with a specific race or gender. I want them to begin to see how culture shapes their understanding of themselves. Group discussion also helps my students to define learning as a joint construction of meaning.
The next story that I deal with is called “In Search of Bruce Lee’s Grave” by Shanlon Wu. This story is about one Asian-American male’s search for identity. He attempts to define his Asian maleness through identification with a fictive character represented in popular culture. The only problem is that there are not many Asian role models in the media. This absence says something about American culture without my having to point it out. Since all of my students can identify with this creation of identity through hero worship, the point that alienation is a cultural construct becomes clear. I ask my students to tell me who their heroes were when they were growing up. This exercise is always fun. The responses range from Charlie’s Angels to Michael Jordan. The last story I would like to discuss deals with the issue of cultural and gender bias.
The story is titled “There was a Man, There was a Woman” which comes out of a collection of shorts stories by Sandra Cisneros called Woman Hollering Creek. This story focuses on one woman’s desire for freedom in a world controlled by men. We talk about how the woman in the story interprets the “truth” of her surroundings. Foucault’s definition of “truth” maintains that “each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition, and the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true (Foucault). Reality based on dominant discursive attitudes is particularly evident in the first paragraph of the story. When the woman returns from the hospital after childbirth she notices “her lipstick, and body talc, and hairbrush all arranged in the bathroom a different way” (Cisneros 50). I ask my class to discuss the options available to her should she choose to leave her husband. The “truth” is that the towns she has known “are built so that you have to depend on husbands. Or you stay home” (Cisneros 50). Gender inequality leads into a discussion of the wider topic of women’s place within our society. Within the context of the story, the woman can either go back to her father’s house or she can continue living with an abusive husband. Since I realize that we cannot interpret a text without bringing our own cultural context to it, I ask the class if they can think of an instance in contemporary society where a woman drowns her children, since this is mentioned in the story. Susan Smith’s name comes up immediately.
We begin to analyze exactly what would drive a mother to such despair and cruelty. I write their ideas down on the board in “bubble clusters” so that they can see how a seemingly disjointed set of ideas can become a valid interpretation of a story through joint construction of meaning. After clustering their ideas, my students are made to see how this play of statements can form a cohesive whole. By examining relations of power in this little vignette, I focus my student’s attention on who has power in our society and who does not, thus, I am showing how all stories are part of a larger meaning involving historical conditions, relationships, and influences. By introducing my students to the analysis of works according to their relationships to power, I hope to foster critical thinking skills.
It is important to try and help students to understand and interpret the culture which surrounds them. One’s ability to interpret popular culture informs critical applications to works of literature. By making connections between works of art and their everyday lives, I believe I help my students to create meaning and recognize the prevalence of power relationships in the world. A complex network of power relationships and cultural practices informs everything that my students read. It is my job to help my students recognize that there is no one universal truth, because once they realize this, they are on their way to articulating and trusting their own voice.