Saturday, March 22, 2008

Against introspective cultural studies

Is the most effective means toward understanding other people really to probe your own experiences and personal history? Do instructors and trainers trying to promote intercultural understanding generally assume this to be the case? This seems to have been the approach both of the instructor who taught a Multicultural Ed class I took toward the teaching credential, and of the facilitator who did an anti-bias training at my school earlier this year. Then, a few days ago, a group of my students hanging out to do some math before a test were complaining about an episode suggesting, I think, the same preconception.

These students had also attended a diversity training, and the facilitator had - if I understood the students correctly - wanted to help the learners understand that saying "that's so gay" would be hurtful and inappropriate. He had tried to relate it to their experience by asking them how they would feel if he'd expressed general disapproval by saying "that's so nigger."

All other objections aside - I am puzzled by the idea that invoking a hypothetically analogous reaction would be the teaching strategy chosen. As far as I can see, no such parallels are needed to make the point. You only need to know that gay persons are, as a matter of fact, troubled by such uses of the term. And to know that, you only need to ask them, and then to listen.

The mistake may be, I think, one of believing too much in introspection as a source of knowledge of others, of directing a search inwards where directing attention outward is what is necessary. There is also the possible mistake of assuming that invoking strong, painful emotions promotes sympathy toward others. Why would either assumption be true?

What, indeed, is the rationale for starting off education classes or staff developments with activities of the kind "Think of a time you were involved in a bullying incident, and talk to your partner about it for one minute"? Of course, it is an empirical question whether reliving difficult past experiences might place one in a better position to empathize with others. If there are data to suggest that such reminiscing does promote insight, openness and understanding I would like to know. I am wondering, though, whether this apparently widespread notion is not rather a piece of pop psychology that sounds more plausible than it is. As it is, I am inclined to believe that rummaging in learners' personal histories distracts more than it contributes to the project of intercultural understanding.

Apart from epistemological objections about remembered personal experience as a source of insight about others' experiences, there is the question whether dwelling on painful past experiences actually promotes the desired kinds of attitudes and behaviors toward others. My hunch is that the opposite might be the case. Seeking out internal states of distress may well place us in a position where we are less able to be empathetic and responsive to others. In order to become more capable of listening and hearing what others are saying, to be capable of getting into our students' heads, to even want to go there, to be touched by their concerns and to work to address their needs, we must - I think - be in a position of emotional strength ourselves. States of insecurity or resentment are highly self-centered, and not conducive to orientation outward. Feeling what victims are feeling may be antithetical to being more reasonable and kind toward them. While on the one hand having had difficult experiences can increase our ability to understand what others are going through, sympathetic understanding might, paradoxically, require some sort of privileged position of emotional distance from those experiences.

Arguably, training activities involving the telling about sad things in the past have as their purpose to remember those experiences, not to actually become, again, victim of bullying or ostracism. However, it is curiously difficult to access past mental states without re-entering them. Remembering what being depressed is like from a vantage point of emotional health is virtually impossible - and to the extent that the pain can be reconstructed, it is just that - re-constructed, accessed by actually reverting to that mental state. Recalling the experience of being bullied can hardly be done with any degree of vividness without actually experiencing, again, the anxiety and shame of that experience. And in such a position one probably is not capable of much good. So, even if the past experiences did provide some real insight into the plight of others, it might well be at the expense of empathy and goodwill.

While I am writing many of these statements in fairly definite forms, as if they were assertions of belief or truth, that is largely because inserting indicators of their hypothetical character everywhere makes for awkward prose. This whole issue of learning when the learning outcomes have to do with attitudinal and emotional shifts rather than with grasping a concept is opaque to me. I feel fairly comfortable with breaking down processes of purely cognitive change, as when arranging the components of a math concept into a sequence for instruction - but constructing learning experiences to shape affect is different. Is it even reasonable to use the same term, 'learning,' for both processes? Interestingly, the word "understanding" is used both to describe knowledge about another person, and to describe connectedness and commonality of purpose with another person, although the two are hardly the same thing.

Whether these think-of-a-time activities really do much good or not, I do know that I would much rather attend hours of direct instruction about who my students are, how they experience their schooling, what their parents are concerned about, what rhetorical styles and actions are valued in their communities - things that I could not have figured out by mere introspection. And the little group of students kibitzing about their training experience over the math papers agreed: to find out whether saying "that's so gay" was acceptable, one should just ask gay people how they felt about it, and then listen.