I’m From a Completely Different Culture

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

When we moved here, my husband and I were talking with incoming students before the start of the semester. “Are you from around here?” we asked. “No,” said the student’s brother, “I am from Sligo.” (Google says Sligo is 11.3 miles from here, 19 minutes by car.) I should have realized then that we had landed in a different world.

During hunting season – which I’d never seen before – people walked around in blaze orange and proudly showed their guns. My children grew up with school holidays for Doe Day and Buck Day: my parents and siblings didn’t understand this – nor did I. Where I grew up (suburban Chicago), only “bad people” owned guns. As far as I knew, no one hunted. I had fished before, but with dandelions rather than worms. Guns and blaze orange still make me feel anxious rather than safe.

In college, I never took a test late or missed an assignment – for any reason. I’ve had several students this semester who’ve taken off school when an uncle or grandparent got ill, then again when that relative died. When my grandmother died my senior year, I missed a day for the funeral; I couldn’t imagine my parents sanctioning me missing school to see her during her illness. Of course, I went to school three hours from my parents and three from my grandparents (in opposite directions from me).

Many of my students haven’t traveled outside of the county or state. Their families expect that they will return home to settle, even though many don’t. My parents assumed that we would live elsewhere. My parents live in Texas, my sisters near Chicago and Boston, my brothers near Denver and Omaha.

I expected to be anonymous in the large high school I graduated from (about 950 students in my graduating class) and our metropolitan area. I enjoyed that anonymity. When we moved here I both enjoyed and was uncomfortable going out to eat at places surrounded by people I knew. I’ve come to appreciate that sense of community.

In my family, overtly expressing anger never felt safe and, while I sometimes expressed that anger, it was never easy. Local children who are more open in their expression of anger – culturally-normative for lower middle class students – challenge middle class norms and run into problems in the schools and the community.

Why does my own culture shock matter? My ability to reflect and comment on my experience can help my students challenge their own experience as the norm. It can also help them recognize college as a culture with a different worldview and values, which they must learn to adapt to.

When I talk about race and culture in class, when we do a “culture walk,” my students begin to understand how race and culture make a difference for people who look different from them; nonetheless, my white students often continue to see themselves as “normal” and cultureless. They have a difficult time recognizing their own cultural assumptions. They see their cultural decisions as normative and the way that things should be. Their culture blindness makes it difficult to identify the oppression and privilege that their future clients will experience.

When I talk about my very different culture, however, they begin to understand: I look like them, think and act like them in many ways, but am not like them. We have different values, goals, food preferences, and media appetites that stem from our cultural backgrounds (e.g., social class, ethnic backgrounds, the parts of the US that we grew up in, generation). Our discussion begins to drive home some of the ways that worldviews aren’t fixed, but arbitrary outcomes based on where one grew up, where one’s parents and grandparents came from, the color of one’s skin.

Many of our students hold a cultural worldview that is very different than the worldview of their faculty and the greater university community. My father taught at Northwestern, then Texas A & M. My grandmother frequently said (in a song-song voice) that I should “go to college to gain a lot of knowledge.” I entered college fairly clueless about the expectations of the university culture, but I always believed that universities were, first, about ideas.

One of my struggles with my freshmen this year may in fact be due to a culture clash that I’ve missed. My freshman and I frequently hold very different cultural assumptions:

  • What should a university education do? (My freshmen: Get me a job. Me: Develop a broader understanding of the world, the skills of thinking, writing, communicating, and relating.)
  • What is most important? (My freshmen: My family and friends, even at the expense of my sleep and classwork. Me: The ideas we discuss in and out of class.)
  • What should I learn in a course? (My freshmen: The answers on the test. Me: A new way of looking at the world, the ability to ask the central questions of my discipline and to recognize what you don’t know.)

I’m, of course, drawing some of these distinctions more strongly than is fair to either them or me; yet in large part they are true. Recognizing these distinctions can help me work more effectively with my freshmen.

These are difficult issues, but talking frankly about my own culture’s values, preferences, and choices helps my students begin to see and reflect on their own. I hope our reflections will help my psychology majors work more effectively with people from other cultural groups. I hope they will help my freshmen transition into the university community more effectively.

I plan to continue to learn from my students. §

Many thanks to Melissa K. Downes who, as always, pushed me to further develop and articulate my ideas. She, in fact, pushed me to consider the cultural differences between me and my freshmen.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park). A third, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives, will be coming out in 2016. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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2 Responses to I’m From a Completely Different Culture

  1. Emily Sprague Pardee says:

    Once upon a time, long long ago I was teaching Calculus in a two year college in rural Wisconsin. Among my students was a bright, determined young man from the region of Europe which blends into Asia. (And for nearly a year he called me, “Sir,” because that’s the way his English teacher at home taught him to address his professors.). As most of the international students did, he arrived with excellent computational skills and a well-developed ability to stick with long problems to arrive at correct answers. But my priorities lay in getting students to be able to explain their problem-solving techniques, then to interpret their results in the context of the problem, steps which his teachers had never required of him.
    His first exam was a sequence of nests of disordered hen scratches in each of which a number would be nestled. You may imagine the scoring. To his credit, after a half hour’s worth of histrionics, he set up shop in the corner of my office and spent the rest of the semester learning how to line up his steps neatly and to couch his answers in simple declarative sentences which referred back to the statement of the problem. He learned how and when to use a graphing calculator (which he periodically kissed, declaring it to be his best girlfriend) and in the end, with input from a male (Turkish native) colleague, learned to address women in authority as, “Ma’am.”
    I will never forget that year.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Run Away From Home to See the World (More Clearly) | Hand in Hand

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