Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Regional Difference

I've been thinking about teaching and regional issues since Scott brought up the challenge of discussing these issues at CMW. At first I thought of dialect matters. When I taught in Oklahoma, for example, I had a lot of students who used "are" and "our" interchangeably. That doesn't happen much in Mississippi even among the poorer students. But really dialect isn't what I want to talk about right now.

Scott brought up Red State values, and that is something I'm interested in discussing. There is a certain level of distrust of academia in the community. I grew up in Mississippi, and I remember when I was in college at USM, a friend of the family asked me if I was being careful what I learned there. He said people who went to college came away with strange airs and weird ideas, and sometimes they even lost their religion. I was being warned not to be too receptive to college or to new or different ideas. Evidently, the warning didn't take because I just kept going on and on to school beyond all reason.

We have a large number of first generation college students in the school where I teach, and I know that being taught a distrust of "those liberal professors" in the home is only one the many factors that comes bundled in that package. My first year on the job, I was asked by a school administrator if it was true that I was teaching my students about false gods. He said, "You've got to be careful what you have them read." It took me a minute to realize the false gods that had been protested were Zeus and Athena and that someone had taken Homer's Odyssey as a threat to her religion. I just said "Yes, sir" at the time. I still teach the Greeks, but now I make sure to mention that none of us are expected to convert.

For the most part, outright conflicts over community values versus academic values are few and far between. But there is a definite undercurrent and an awareness that you have to respect where the students are coming from and not be antagonistic toward even the silliest of their objections if you are to survive as a teacher here. Once we had a student photocopy Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" from the lit book, highlight every curse word in it, and take it to the dean's office to show what we were making her read. Again, we got a warning to "be careful." I kept right on teaching the story, but from then on every time I taught it, I started with the question, "Why do you think there are so many curse words in this story?"

But this is just one issue, and it's really not something that I concern myself with on a day to day basis. It might mean my approach to issues like the one Scott brought up concerning textbooks would be quite different from someone living and teaching in another region. I wouldn't fight the fight over a comp reader. I'm too busy trying to save Zeus. From my experience, taking up the banner of academic freedom to argue a cause is only worth it if academic integrity has truly been compromised. If I can get the same job done in a way that does not cause conflict, I will take the path of least resistance.

Does that mean that I'm limiting myself or limiting my students? Maybe. Maybe not. I do think the trust that I gain from the students is more tangible and more valuable than anything I may have lost by not going with my original plan, however.

I have a list of things related to regionalism I'd like to talk about, but I think this is enough for one post. I'll be very interested in continuing this discussion and hope to see others post on this as well.


Nancy McKeand said...

Teaching at a small college in Louisiana, I could relate to much of what you said. I think, though, that my situation is atually a little more like Scott's because it is a small Seminary college - all our students hope to go on and study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. I am always very aware of topic and language and - most especially - sexual content when I choose materials. It is actually not too difficult because my ESL students are somewhat more open than the local boys. Not being Catholic myself complicates the issue further at times, because I worry that there may be stuff I am missing, things I should watch for that I don't know about. After 4 years here, that is less of an issue than it was in the beginning, though.

I think your point about respecting where they are coming from and finding a way to respect thier objections is a good one. I know it is true in my case. My professional survival definitely depends on it.

But that doesn't mean I don't look for those things that will allow me to stretch their thinking, expand their horizons. I think that is a big part of my job. It is a tightrope to be walked.

Sharon Gerald said...

I grew up here and grew up in the same religion that most of my students come from. I'm still something of an outsider due to my education, but I do at least understand where the lines are. Someone coming in from another part of the country would probably have a tough time adjusting.

It's a good place to live and work. Don't get me wrong. It's just that the good old boy system is alive and well.