Teaching Today

Conversations in the Global Classroom

Which histories matter? Which literatures? Who gets to decide? These questions are particularly complex with an international student body, writes Deborah L. Williams
 

June 13, 2017
 
 
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“Is that what really happened?”

The student who asks me this question is not being disingenuous. We are in a literature class that is part of New York University Abu Dhabi’s core curriculum, and he is pointing to pictures in Art Spiegelman’s book Maus that show starving Auschwitz prisoners being beaten by Nazi guards. The fact that the prisoners are drawn as mice and the Nazis as cats does not lessen the impact of the drawings, and the student is clearly rattled, although it isn’t solely the violence that has shaken him.

He’s a lovely young man from Islamabad, Pakistan, who had been taught only the most general outlines of World War II, and Spiegelman’s book has rocked the foundations of what he knows about world history. His comment sparks a response from a student who is from India but grew up in Qatar, relating how the school librarian would lend a copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to trusted students. “She’d put it in a bag for you so no one saw the title.” Another student, from a former Soviet state, countered these narratives almost defiantly, saying, “All we learned in high school was that war. It was like that was the only history that mattered.”

Which histories matter? Which literatures? And who gets to make those decisions? These questions are particularly complex at NYU Abu Dhabi, where I have taught for the past six years, and where there are more than 100 countries and at least 90 home languages represented among approximately 800 students. The language of instruction is English, but the classrooms are anything but standardized.

It is entirely possible, for example, to have a class of 15 students in which no one comes from the same country or educational background or speaks the same home language. We are all of us operating slightly off balance; we are all outside our proverbial comfort zones -- and thus learning, in fact, how to expand and redefine what “comfort” looks like.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2006 book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which some people now dismiss as old hat, offers a useful way to think about what happens in these global classrooms, although he does not specifically address the issue of pedagogy. For Appiah, cosmopolitanism matters because it allows for conversation across difference: the cosmopolitan sees difference as an opportunity rather than a threat. Appiah points out that in the global world of the 21st century, cosmopolitan conversations “can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.” Given the astonishing diversity of educational and cultural traditions that populate each NYUAD classroom, teaching here becomes an almost daily exercise in putting the theoretical ideas of cosmopolitanism into practice.

These cosmopolitan conversations occur most readily in the core curriculum classes that are at the center of NYUAD’s commitment to liberal arts education. All students take two core colloquia (at least one in the first year), which the NYUAD Bulletin describes as “organized around some of the most pressing challenges global society faces today” while nonetheless illustrating that “timeless questions can also be timely.”

Students also take four “competency” courses: one each in Data and Discovery; Cultural Exploration and Analysis; Structures of Thought and Society; and Art, Design and Technology. The competency courses “offer ways of thinking with which [to] approach the world … [and] demonstrate the relevance of a range of disciplinary thinking to life beyond the classroom.” All the courses in the core are asked to find ways to take into account not only the university’s geographical context but also the diversity of the student body itself.

Diversity has, of course, become a buzzword on American campuses, but it operates at NYUAD in pervasive, sometimes unexpected ways. That the cosmopolitan conversations in core classes have an impact on the students is not terribly surprising -- that’s actually the easy part. But by fostering a more reflective and self-aware pedagogy, these conversations may also have an impact on the faculty -- a task that is much more difficult, and perhaps even more important.

During my first week of teaching at NYUAD, I asked the students a very standard question: “What do you think?” The students stared silently. I asked again. A girl raised her hand to say that no teacher had ever asked her that question before, and other students nodded in agreement. They thought that my question was a trick designed to reveal how little they knew.

The students’ response to what I thought of as an unremarkable question made me rethink a simple yet fundamental aspect of my classroom practice: how to foster student discussion. How do I help students engage with the questions that arose, for example, during our reading of Maus, about how historical narratives are constructed, or what it means to read across a range of literary and cultural traditions?

These questions are -- or should be -- part of any literature discussion, but they come with a more pressing urgency here, not only due to the diversity of the student body but also to the fact that many of these students come from countries where the national narrative is not one that allows for multiplicity, duality or ambiguity.

Questions of this sort get embedded with one of the abiding issues at this polyglot institution, which is the question of translation. With so many people working across so many different languages, the question of “what do you mean” takes on multiple layers. As a way to engage them more fully in the context of the multilingual classroom, I ask students in all my classes to translate a poem or short paragraph from their home language into English (or from English into another language, if English is the home language). Students might not be able to comment on the accuracy of one another’s translations, but they are able to discuss the shared experience of translating.

The students may start with technical issues about the placement of adjectives or the use of verbs, but inevitably they move to discussions about such things as the shifting nature of a “home language,” or whether the translation process is always and only a process of loss. In the shared space of wrestling with translations, the students also help one another -- and me -- grapple with how to translate experiences, emotions and ideas from one context to another.

Thus, for instance, a student from a conservative South Asian family told me that she understood her mother better after reading John Okada’s 1957 No-No Boy. Okada’s novel chronicles the experiences of a Nisei returning home after being sent first to an internment camp with his family and then to prison for refusing to swear allegiance to the U.S. government. Ichiro’s refusal, which makes him a “no-no boy,” emerges from his sense of loyalty to his Japanese-born parents, who had never fully assimilated to America. The family tension in Okada’s novel translated to my student’s frustration with her family and helped her to find compassion for her mother, who was less than enthused about the student’s plans to pursue further education, rather than a marriage, after she graduated from college.

The conversations about translation, about narratives of history, about constructions of the self often continue beyond the limits of the classroom, and are frequently what NYUAD graduates point to as being among the highlights of their undergraduate career. A year or so after our class, I heard from the student who had been so affected by Maus. He’d actively sought out other classes that complicated the narratives he’d grown up with and wanted to tell me about a movie he’d seen, which was “as good as Maus.” The name of the film? Schindler’s List.

Bio

Deborah L. Williams is the program head of the literature and creative writing program at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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