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in my other life, i’m a graduate student studying language, literacy, and culture in a higher education context. and this quarter i earned my master’s degree!

as a part of my culminating project, i was asked to reflect on my education. i had a really good time thinking about why i would pursue the education i did, and what its relevance to my life was…so here’s a piece of my other life:

There is a lot to know about being a cog in the wheel of a large research institution—and one that is widely regarded as diverse and liberal.  As an undergraduate student in this institution, I was quite unaware of how the systems in place favored native English speakers beyond the obvious: all instruction is offered in English.  But as a native speaker, my undergraduate experience lacked the perspectives to see the systems in place: I failed to understand how language policies and practice, as well as the implicit understandings and values that come from those policies and practice, could not only limit access to education for CLD students, but also encourage and establish institutionalized racism.  It was finally my professional experience as a student advocate that led me to open my eyes to the underlying issues within the institution.

As an adviser, I finally had access to diverse and enough student perspective to better understand that the severe disadvantage of the CLD student went beyond the so-called “language barrier,” and that their greater disadvantage was the culture in the institution that brands them as deficient, and remedial.  I could see from my students that they were frequently treated differently, and had different access to resources than my native English speaking students.  There was a lack of understanding that there is the responsibility, on the institutional side, to teach CLD students about the institutional cultures—and instead there was the expectation that these cultures are implicit and should be automatically understood.  And, I could see from some colleagues across campus that the cultures of working with CLD students were deeply ingrained and all but invisible.  Institutionally speaking, complaints that CLD students are difficult to work with are still prevalent, and language skill and ambiguous references to “cultural differences” are often invoked as reasons why working with these students are frustrating, and time consuming.  From the student perspective, I understand that there is the perception that faculty and staff might dismiss what they say, may not expect them to speak in class, and might assume that their silence is culturally derived—instead of a result of their institutional experience.  My students worry that they will offend classmates, faculty and staff, and some have adopted the institutional perspective that they are less intelligent than the native English speaker because of their linguistic fluency.

Obviously, the situation is troubling.  My masters-level education has helped me to understand and provide a context and history for the institutional cultures in play.  Freire (2000/1970) describes his famous theory of “banking” education—where the emphasis on the education is the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, which he contrasts with conscientização—or education as a process of raising consciousness.  As someone who sat in 800 person lecture halls and completed multiple-choice examinations—I understand the banking method Freire describes.  As an educator and student services professional, I am up against the culturally valued banking method every day.  This method sets up a dynamic between the professor and the student that elevates the professor as the provider of knowledge, and devalues the student into a vessel for storing it.  I personally believe this dynamic to be especially true of CLD and ELL students within the context of higher education, particularly as the banking method practice is outside holistic methods of education and further devalues student experience as irrelevant to the educational process—individual student experiences being even more crucial for the institution to acknowledge in the case of CLD students.

bell hooks (1994) discusses a form of holistic approaches to education on the part of the professor which incorporates the values of the student experience. hooks calls for the professor to be an example of the process of self-actualization, and terms education as a self-actualization process—similar to Freire’s conscientização. But, as hooks points out, it’s “rare to hear anyone suggest that teachers have any responsibility to be self-actualized individuals” (hooks, 1994, 16). Or, as her focus is on post-secondary education, it is rare for faculty members and professors to be held accountable for any sort of holistic evaluation, or, for that matter, held accountable for valuing their students’ individual experiences. Instead the focus, and evaluative process, for educators at the R-1university seems to be hinged entirely upon academic research and building academic knowledge—in short, “banking.” This method of education, and the value of this method to the institution, leads to the assumption that an individual who has enough academic equity is automatically qualified to educate and impart knowledge to students and that the emphasis on specialization at the university level leads to the accumulation of knowledge in a certain area or discipline makes one an expert, and therefore worthy of academic respect. This encourages a model of teaching that isolates specific academic study from the “outside world” and further encourages the separation of academic learning and other learning/student experience. Additionally, this perception of academic learning seems to elevate academics as being superior, more indicative of an individual’s intelligence, and as a marker of status and success, to other kinds of learning that individuals engage in, in relation to other aspects of life.  And the perceived impact that the “language barrier” and cultural experience has on the ability of a student to serve as a repository for faculty knowledge is therefore a key functionality of lowering the status of CLD students by the institution.

With regard to the unspoken culture that CLD students ought to “assimilate”  or become “cultureless”—these concepts fall in line with the institutional value hinging toward objectivity as a basis for pure academics. The culture of the academy seems to place cultural value on the glorification of “pure discipline” and the heavy emphasis on specialization over holistic discourse, self-actualization, and interdisciplinary. hooks notes that “the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness…and supports compartmentalization” (hooks, 1994, 16). She points out that the emphasis on the split between mind and body manifests itself in an institutional culture as a separation between professional and private, and for CLD students—academics and personal experience, including the experiences that in a large way set them apart from native English speakers and may be the basis of their academic identity. This culture is so deeply ingrained into academic culture that there seems to be an academically universal condition that the road to true scholarly success requires an abstraction of knowledge from the other aspects of life. By institutional standards the acquisition of true education is reserved for individuals who have “emptied out” themselves and have “an objective mind—free of experiences and biases” (hooks, 1994, 17). I find hooks’s statement here to be particularly poignant with regard to CLD students.  While students who mirror the majority culture of the institution may find that their cultural values and experiences are integrated into the “objectivity” valued by the institution, CLD students in particular may not have this experience.  The process of empting themselves out for academic greatness is too closely related to the call for CLD students to deculturate in order to be successful in American society.  I feel strongly that these institutional academic values are exclusive of CLD students and further devalue their status in the institution.

While my education calls for me to critically consider the cultures of racism and context of Washington’s famous call to “cast down your bucket where you are,” the spirit of it is a vital motivation in crafting this project (Washington, 1996/1901, 99).  The issues for CLD students in the American school system, both K-12 and higher education, are amazingly overwhelming.  At times throughout my masters coursework, naming my education as an attempt at the process of Freire’s conscientização is amazingly appropriate.  Many times I found myself emotionally overwhelmed by my class readings, personal anecdotes of classmates and professors, and students I spoke with in the course of completing class assignments.  If raising consciousness in the individual is a key piece of a true education, then my masters-level education has been amazingly effectual.  And again, I return to the thought that the issues facing CLD students in higher education are amazingly overwhelming—I learned this, if nothing else.  While my education has spurred a desire to, all at once, change the face of American education to make it more accessible to every individual who wishes to pursue it, the task is monumental.  And the frustration of knowing that brings me to where I stand today.

When I consider all that needs to change, I realize that sweeping institutional change cannot be brought about by one person alone.  On an individual level, I can strive to serve my students without subscribing to the same cultures and bias that drive the institution.  I can speak up in conversations with colleagues and peers, and refuse to stay silent in meetings and discussions about the needs of our students.  Beyond that individual interaction, there is only so much I can do to work towards a culture shift, even at the departmental level, let alone the campus and system levels—even for one university.  While the shift in culture would need to be quite significant, and require the buy-in of the entire institution, I have also come to see that  there are many basic ways to work towards solutions to complex problems—and like many of the problems that face the human condition, education itself could go a long way towards resolving some of the incongruencies in CLD student educational opportunities.

While I have postulated that there is some limit to the ability of any one person to fully shift established culture, my education has also provided that cultural shift has to start somewhere.  What I can do is cast my bucket down where I stand.  I can take seriously the responsibility to articulate what I know about issues facing CLD students—culture shifts have to start somewhere and there are many individuals who are already whole-heartedly working towards a more inclusive institutional culture.

Freire, P.  (2000).  Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition).  New York: Continuum. (Original work published in 1970).

hooks, b.  (1994).  Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.  New York: Routledge.

Washington, B.  (1996).  Up from Slavery: An Autobiography.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.  (Original work published in 1901.)