– Jeanne M. Slattery
I’m reading – and enjoying – Sandra Cisneros’s (2015) A House of My Own. Cisneros describes her travels around the world and the ways that her writing has been affected by the places she’s lived. At one point she says, “So often you have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own” (loc. 536-537). Going to college is like running away from home and visiting other homes. College is an opportunity to better see your own home and that of others.
When I wrote I’m From a Completely Different Culture last year, I was mostly thinking of the ways that becoming aware of my own culture helps me work more effectively with my students: to see their blind spots, the places they are stuck, and the ways that their assumptions and perspectives inform their different choices. Know your audience.
However, I also want my students to recognize that their cultural values and perspectives are different from those of the people around them. If they are going to work effectively with others – something important even for my business students – they need to learn that other people may or may not perceive the world the way they do. I want them to see that there are many different cultures (choices/values/goals/beliefs) in addition to their own.
In class, I often assign and talk about radically different ways of seeing the world rather than only their own perspectives: Oliver Sacks (2015) talking about his pending death, Atul Gawande (2014) talking about the importance of choice in assisted living settings. In my Intro to Counseling class I spend a fair amount of time talking about Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub rather than “cause a little one to stumble” (Andrea Yates Confession, 2001, clip 7). My students start the semester appalled; they end up understanding her decisions without excusing them. As one former student said,
I know that if it hadn’t been for those two classes with you in my final semester I could never deal with my daily responsibilities here at [a human services program]. For one, you really helped me to realize that no matter what, a person is a person and that everyone’s experiences shape the way they behave and you can’t judge or label them based on one action. Who would have thought that all those awful hours talking about Andrea Yates would be beneficial in the end? Some of my parents have done awful things (I have one that’s on Megan’s Law), but I am able to work with them and actually see them as a person.
I also frequently ask my students for their varying perspectives on a common issue (e.g., how they handle anger). Students find both commonalities and differences among their classmates. Their commonalities allow them to recognize connections that let them to face the differences in the room. Their differences allow them to recognize, accept, and work with the differences they’ll meet in the future.
Sandra Cisneros (2015) said going off to graduate school in Iowa “held up a mirror to myself and allowed me to see what made me different from my workshop classmates, to go home to my Chicago childhood, to the neighborhood and people only I knew, the stories that were mine alone and those of my brothers or cousins or friends” (loc. 538-540). Imagine if my psychology students believed that their perspective was the only valid one. What damage could they do in their work and their relationships?
Increasingly, I’m focusing less on telling my students the answers and more on helping them learn how to question. I want my students to begin to consider other possible explanations for a person’s behavior. Was Andrea Yates evil when she killed her children? Was she psychotic? Was she a loving mother? Beginning to ask these questions changes the story and, as my former student suggests, allows her to be “able to work with them and actually see them.”
My students may not change their fundamental perspectives on the world, but I hope that college opens their eyes to previously unseen possibilities and lets them appreciate these other choices. Perhaps they will embrace their previously-adopted choices and live them with more honesty and integrity. I hope they approach other people with greater empathy. Gaining new ways of seeing the world and one’s self should be fundamental outcomes of going to college.
Andrea Yates Confession. (2001, July 14). Clip 7. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from http://media.swagit.com/s/chron/Houston_Chronicle/01062005-8.high.mov.html
Cisneros, S. (2015). No place like home. In S. Cisneros (Ed.), A house of my own: Stories from my life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gawande, A. (2014). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. New York, NY: Metropolitan.
Sacks, O. (2015). My periodic table. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/opinion/my-periodic-table.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region®ion=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=1
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, Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org