This book is meant to serve as a guide to and lead-in for discussions about the first-generation and international student experience. Many sections include data, narratives, general information, pertinent hyperlinks, or discussion questions on relevant topics. The discussion questions are both reflective and generative, meaning you could flip a classroom and ask students to prepare answers before class, or you could use them for in-class brainstorming and discussion.
Before using this book in your course, I would ask you to be reflective as well with some of the following questions helping to guide your syllabus planning:
•What educational experiences do you share with your students?
•Conversely, where do your own experiences greatly differ from those of your students?
•What was different when you were in school compared to the era in which your students are studying?
•Who are your students? What do their personal lives look like?
•What access do they have, and to what resources or information are they denied access?
•Who at your institution might not be welcoming of your particular students? Why? How can you help make them feel more welcome?
As a pedagogical preface for instructors, I would also ask you to consider this: don’t be a brutish professor. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that to be a “brute” means to be an unintelligent, unreasoning, and rough person, something like an animal or a beast. Sometimes, “brute” is used synonymously with “barbarian” when characterizing someone who is rude, wild, and uncultured. Etymologically, “barbarian” identifies a “foreigner,” or someone who does not share the language and culture of a host civilization. However, is someone necessarily rude just because they don’t share a language or a culture? I say no, but I also say that they can be when barbarians are also brutes.
I’ve been a brutish barbarian. I’ve traveled to Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Taiwan, and Thailand without as much as a paper dictionary in hand because I expected that my English would get me through. To be fair, I wasn’t the most brutish; I never yelled at shop workers for not understanding my English, and I never spoke English at a condescendingly slow pace expecting better results. However, in the Westvleteren Flemish region of Belgium, I did try to ask for an English menu in English, which was pretty brutish of me. In Berlin, I did try to ask a metro station attendant for directions in English, even though any simple travel guide easily provides that template sentence in German. In these moments, I didn’t even perform the easiest of tasks; I didn’t make the least effort possible. Instead, I made no effort. I simply showed up with my American passport and my clearly enunciated English and expected to be greeted, not only at the border crossing but also at hotels, at restaurants, in taxis, and in the culture at large. I was being a brute. Don’t like the word “brute”? Okay, replace it with “asshole.” You’re the instructor or professor; you’re already in the position of power. No need to be a “brute” in addition.
When teaching students unlike yourself or teaching abroad, there are “barbarian” pedagogical moves and then there are “brute” pedagogical moves. The barbarian type runs the gamut so that gaffes are hard to categorize. A simple example would be writing a South Korean student’s name on the whiteboard using a red marker. They might inform you that you’ve just listed them as a deceased member of the class, and you will (or should) learn not to do that again in consideration of that student’s culture. At least, that’s what the clumsy yet innocent barbarian does. The brute, in comparison, looks at that South Korean student and tells them that their culture doesn’t matter. The brute tells them that their classroom is an extension of the United States of America, and that in the United States of America, students need to learn not to take silly things like that so seriously. Honestly, they’ll tell the student, they’re tired of this generation’s incessant focus on “microaggressions,” whatever the hell that means! They’ll tell the student that they need to learn to assimilate if they want to succeed. They’ll say they can’t be bothered to switch pens for each student’s preference.
“So, what, am I supposed to do your name in green and then only blue for students from the southern hemisphere and then make sure I don’t use black for any students who might be offended by my correlation of a marker color with a term used for skin color?”
See how quickly this fictitious caricature of mine got out of hand? Instead of simply acknowledging the action, showing care for how the action affected someone, and making an effort to change future actions, the brute doubles down on ignorance, stubbornness, and violence.
Here are a few of the more notorious brute actions I would suggest instructors and professors consider:
• Don’t make your students change their names to accommodate your untrained tongue. Ever. Don’t pitch it like it’s “cool” to have an English name in an English language classroom. Don’t botch pronouncing their name all semester. Don’t laugh through your own failure to say their name correctly and turn it into an uncomfortable mess for everyone, even if you’re faux-condemning yourself with an “oh, I just can’t seem to get this right!” kind of phrase. Instead, make the effort. Do some research. Watch a YouTube video or two on basic pronunciation in your students’ native languages. “Jiang,” “Xing,” and “Zhang” are different. Figure it out. Ask the student for help if you’re not getting it right, and don’t get offended or turn apathetic when they don’t feel like helping you. They’ve been through this before, and they’re not hopeful that you’ll do better. Work on it. And then, when you’ve got it down perfectly and you come to class and say their name and know that you nailed it perfectly, don’t expect applause. You haven’t done anything special; you’ve just put forward a decent amount of effort. Keep working on it for future students in future semesters. Each one of your students deserves your attention and effort.
• Don’t make assumptions about students’ preferred pronouns and their usage of pronouns for others. Make it a point to put your preferred pronouns at the top of your syllabus and to talk about them on the first day of class. Personally, I prefer that students use “Dr. Higgins” and “he/him/his.” After announcing that, I invite students to share their preferred pronouns with me publicly during class or privately either in office hours or by email. I also make it clear that they can update me on their preferred pronouns as the semester progresses. When you do this, be sensitive to your non-native English speakers. These students who might not conform to hegemonic gender identities get it especially rough because, when they confidently announce that they prefer one gendered pronoun to another, or when they use a pronoun in their writing that seems grammatically incorrect, the linguistic authority standing in front of the room might challenge them. Since they’re still learning the language, their adoption of a non-conventional pronoun seems like an error more than a choice. Don’t challenge them; let this one slide. If they are making a mistake, they will figure it out soon enough without your insistence. At least at that point, they will have realized it for themselves. That’s much better than having their preferred identity or their cultural usage of pronouns stamped out by someone who holds all of the cards in a very uneven linguistic power dynamic.
• Whenever possible, ask your students what questions they want answered in your class, what kinds of authors they want to be introduced to, what kinds of narratives they want to read, what problems exist in their lives that they want to be equipped to fix. Even if the class is focused entirely on American history or American literature, your students might want certain topics covered that you would never think of adding to your syllabus. Do this instead of telling students which authors they need to know, which texts are the most important, and which issues are the most relevant today. If accommodating them doesn’t distract from the course’s overall learning outcomes, then why not?
• If you’re teaching at a United States college or university abroad, don’t try to make “Americans” out of your students. The United States university abroad should not be used as an assimilative tool of soft power. Don’t expect that your students abroad act like students back home. Definitely don’t grade them on the premise that they should. American students might feel comfortable cutting a professor off mid-sentence or boldly countering a half thought put forward by another student in class, but that’s not the modus operandi of all students. Instead, figure out how you can bring out the best in your students without forcing those students to fit your mold of what a “good student” is or does. For example, you think students should “actively participate,” and you’re bummed that your non-American students are so quiet in class. You chalk it up (rather condescendingly) to some cultural weakness like “everyone in this country is so shy” or a flaw in “this country’s way of educating young students.” Instead of doing this, you might accept that there are other non-verbal, asynchronous ways students can participate. For example, having your whole class join an online chatroom eliminates many stressful barriers such as pronunciation anxiety, the difficulty of jumping into a conversation gracefully, or producing an accurate, complex, functioning sentence on the spot for some would-be participants. Unless those skills were the things you were specifically testing students on, why not let them participate and discuss your course’s content via this medium? This is only one example of accommodating your students, each and every one. Think of others after you get to know your students on an individual basis. Your class, just like the United States of America, doesn’t need to have a “love it or leave it” mindset. Instead, you can make it a truly welcoming, divergent, powerful, and productive space by bringing out the best in everyone involved.