Culture, Care, and Competence

chartI walk through the main entrance of my college’s main building each day. There are three entrance points for the public in this ten-story building. We don’t have many campus buildings; space is limited in NYC so we build up rather than out, giving a large body-traffic flow at this main building.  This is my fourth semester teaching at my current college and, though this may be a strange observation, I have never entered or exited the building when the student in front of me did not hold the door open for me.

I noticed this pattern right away.  It is something that I have never witnessed at any other university.  It happens every single day.  And, if I am standing on line, the students let me go first.  I do not know any of these students, but they recognize me as a professor right away.

There are other things that I have noticed about the students at my college. If I am sitting in my office, eating my lunch when a student stops by, they feel bad and are deeply appreciative that I would speak to them while I am eating, that I would allow them to interrupt me. In fact, when a student doesn’t approve of my health choices (or even when I am eating healthy), they have often stopped by at a later time to bring me lunch. My college has strict rules about not accepting gifts from students, but, for my students, food does not count as a gift.  I should say here that the students who I currently teach are more financially challenged than any other group I have taught, though I have always taught working class, first generation students.  But that doesn’t stop them from trying to take care of you.

nonwestern-learningI won’t say that these characteristics are ones that I have never experienced amongst my students before.  That wouldn’t be true.  But not at THIS LEVEL.  It’s quite palpable.  And while my colleagues are certainly quick to point out how wonderfully non-entitled the students at my college are, I hear very little discussion about how the students’ cultures, backgrounds, and experiences account for their alternate ways of being in the world.  The caring that I have described didn’t just emerge from thin air.  It is a cultural disposition.

It seems strange to me to subject so many students with such non-Western, non-white, non-individualist, non-neoliberalist, non-patriarchal dispositions to the endless, traditional, individualist curricular paradigms and white, western modes of argumentation that they get at my college.  These students challenge all of that even in the way they hold the doors open!  Seeing my students’ cultural dispositions and, thus, their cultural competencies (rather than merely complimenting their non-entitlement) would mean an entire eruption of the current colonial model of pedagogy where we bestow Western logic and knowledge upon them.  It would mean a shift in the whiteness on which higher education rests its values.  That kind of shift would open even more doors.

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