I'm "Different." You're "Strange." Culture Clash.

Mcdonald By Melissa McDonald
I once had a student who claimed he did not have a culture. “Of course, you do,” I explained. “You just don’t see it because you’re used to it.”
When I first started teaching, I was in a familiar place—my home state of Louisiana—so I understood what my students were thinking when they asked me why their other instructor(s) were so fascinated by their culture. To many, Louisiana culture is unique and fascinating—crawfish boils, Mardi Gras, and the like. To my native Louisianan students, it was a  normal way of life. Inspired by this exchange, I developed my first-year composition course around the theme of culture because I wanted my students to see other cultures and places like their non-native instructors saw theirs. It also gave both U. S. and international students a chance to share their experiences with each other. (I later published my ideas in The Journal of College Writing.)
Now, I am in the North, watching the snow outside my window (awaiting a “blizzard” that is supposed to show up soon, whatever that means) and thinking about how different this place is compared to other places in which I have lived. I am now one of those instructors, the one who is always asking her students about all those weird things she encounters. As you might imagine, I am someone who enjoys learning about new places, though place, of course, involves much more than culture.
Here is what I have learned so far:
First of all, I hate snow. You may be saying, “Snow is not cultural.” Oh, but it is. More specifically, it is a defining part of place and the cultures within that place. I grew up in the Deep South. It snowed maybe every ten years or so; in some places, only every twenty years. If the snow accumulated an inch, everything closed down, and we all had the day off from school or work. Where I live now, snow is a part of normal winter life. If it snows eight inches, my boss expects me to be in the classroom, on time, smiling cheerfully. Things like snow plows, snow shovels, ice scrapers, etc., are relatively new to me, though they are commonplace to many of my students. If I ask about them, in my still noticeably southern accent, my colleagues and my students give me a good-natured chuckle. (At least, I hope it is good-natured.)  Naturally—and laugh if you must—teaching part-time means I do not have to go out in the snow too often during the week. Online teaching means I do not have to go out there at all.
Secondly, my southernness will always be obvious. On the first day of a new class, after hearing me speak, someone asks the inevitable question: Where are you from? If I say “Louisiana,” I get the other inevitable question: Are you here because of Katrina? Um, no. Thankfully, I hear that one less and less. More often, I hear “you don’t sound like you are from Louisiana” because I have a southern accent rather than a “Cajun” one. Then, I have to explain how culture, the way we speak, etc., can vary even within one small geographical area (like a state, or even a city). Always getting the same questions can be annoying, yet it makes for an interesting segue into a class discussion about culture and place and how they affect my students’ own writing.
And last but not least, maybe things are not so different after all. In classes everywhere, I have seen the same student diversity, the same student excuses, the same student plagiarism, the same student excitement about learning (or lack thereof), the same student everything.
I have learned that, no matter where I go, not only can I teach my students about culture and place, but also they can teach me. Once they get past laughing, that is.
About the Adjunct: Melissa McDonald is an adjunct instructor, writing consultant, and a military spouse all rolled into one. She earned a BA in English from Nicholls State University and an MA in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She has taught composition, technical writing, and literature courses, both face-to-face and online. She also has experience as a journal and a newsletter editor, a webmaster, and a writer. Outside of work, Melissa enjoys spending time with her family, playing with her cats, reading, writing, and cross stitching.

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4 Comments
  1. Melissa McDonald says

    Thanks, Helene. I think it is harder to shake our cultural influences than it is to pick them up. Just as you have yet to start saying you’re fixin’ to do something, I’m always catching myself say “y’all” and other southernisms.

  2. Melissa McDonald says

    Cally, that is so true, but it is part of those critical thinking skills we desperately want them to learn.

  3. Helene Matheny says

    Great post! Made me chuckle since I am in the opposite situation – A New Yorker who is now teaching in Mississippi!! I have yet to catch myself saying that I am fixin’ to do something! LOL! Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

  4. Cally says

    I really enjoyed this blog! I find that students DO have a difficult time seeing their lives from a different perspective. It’s like trying to teach them to write from the viewpoint of a READER.

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