Volume III, Number 1, Spring 2007

"Learning to Listen: Changing Perspectives in the Study of Cultural Diversity in North-America" by Judit Ágnes Kádár

Judit Ágnes Kádár is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies, Eszterházy College, Eger. Email: jutka888@yahoo.com

Among the exciting subjects addressed by the 2004 HAAS Conference, the choice of discourse one ‘uses to avoid traditional disciplinary exclusions’ as well as the question of how our perspectives in culture studies affect our understanding of American culture in the process of coming to terms with our own social and cultural environment appeared as thought-provoking approaches to the study of cultural diversity in North-America. Our particular workshop addressed the very issue of practical methods in approaching multicultural societies in a classroom context through interdisciplinary and multimedia means. Adopting a comparative view on the cultures and literature of both North-American nations, the present paper aims at outlining some of the possible interdisciplinary perspectives in U.S. and Canadian culture studies that may significantly contribute to students’ familiarization with these societies as well as help them apprehend their own socio-cultural environment.

A number of professional experiences in U.S. and Canadian literature and culture, multiculturalism in North-America, and the additional teaching experience in a Canadian community college (Mississauga, ON, 1992, teaching Polish and Vietnamese students), along with two seminars, one on Ethnic U.S. writing in Salzburg (2003) and the other one in Calgary on multicultural Canada (2004) provided a special perspective on the various concepts of multiculturalism and stimulated the elaboration/adaptation of a few effective approaches and the correlated teaching methods in the study of these multicultural societies, with special regards to two common concerns, i.e. regionalism and ethnicity. Exploring these fields, we need to pose and answer some questions, like:

  1. What are the most effective ways to approach North-American cultures and to present them in class?
  2. What are the most adequate and updated conjoining methods of research, investigation and presentation?
  3. How can we update our database as well as methods? (Does the implementation of foreign models work well enough, or do their adaptation and inclusion of additional scopes work a lot better?)
  4. To what extent should we explore current issues in the classroom and how should we address traditional perspectives and topics? (What would be a feasible balance of these two sets of approaches?)
  5. What can be the possible direct and indirect objectives of such courses in European, more specifically Hungarian higher education? What can students benefit?
  6. Is the contemporary professional arena too pluralistic and/or fragmented to find common grounds in methodology?

On the basis of the above concerns, I would like to focus on some area specific challenges that affect North-American Culture Studies and share our experiences that may answer some of these questions.

Firstly, as for the classroom study of ethnicity, there is a need to clarify the definition of ethnic minority, double minority status and then focus on a limited scope to avoid overgeneralizations. Secondly, notions like bilingualism, aboriginal, first nations, assimilation, acculturation, prejudice and discrimination are immersed into a new context and stimulate further questions, such as racism among students or how to address issues like racism and racial consciousness in various contexts, how to avoid overgeneralizations when talking about minority status and finally, how to analyze its psychological and sociological implications.

What may derive from our particular European approach to North-American cultures is that on the one hand, while the U.S. is perhaps the most well-known country in the world, there is comparably little knowledge of Canada in the average European mind. In addition, because of a limited scope due to the size of our nation and the relative cultural homogeneity of Hungarian students, it is difficult to comprehend the immense variety of cultures, and to appreciate the value of cultural diversity, i.e. “Otherness”. On the other hand, Americanization has been creating false images of the North-American continent, preventing a deeper understanding of the ever-changing cultural paradigms. Therefore a comprehensive study and re-articulation of American and Canadian ideas in the Hungarian national context is necessary to be shared with our students.

Another set of area-specific challenges is related to the various concepts of regionalism. Initially it seems difficult for our students to grasp the immense relevance of distance and regional identities. Regionalism and ethnicity are correlated in identity formulation processes, for instance in the transfigurations of the concept of ‘home’ in a multicultural country reflected in writings like Michael Dorris’s “Home” (in Pack-Parini, 58-65). This exemplary treatise on the ever-changing concept of home in immigrants’ imagination presents us the impact of a complex and for us, Europeans, perhaps unfamiliar understanding of home and personal attachments on the identity formulation of many people in the New World.

In general Canada and the U.S. present significantly different processes of national and sub-national identity formulation and notions like the ‘melting pot’ and ‘salad bowl’ seem to have been by far the most influential concepts for decades in culture studies. However, ethno-cultural and regional diversity appears both as challenge and opportunity in constructing one’s identity. This ambivalent nature is presented by literature and sociology. Because the immense distances and the great variety of distinct ethno-cultural groups both in the U.S. and Canada, the instructor/facilitator should help students understand and conceptualize this vital and diverse blend of regional and ethnic identification is a priority task in order to provide a firm base for further studies in these cultures.

As for regional identification, I found for instance George Bowering’s novel entitled A Short Sad Book (1977) a powerful artistic endeavor to grasp the specific nature of this identification. This texts attempts to replace traditional emblematic and exclusive notions like Canlit, true story, linearity or maple leaf forever with a new, more diverse and all-inclusive post-modern notion of national, regional and individual identity. As for ethno-cultural identification, for instance Anthony Wilder’s “Stations” depicts the special state of mind minority people, for instance immigrants, urbanized Métis and the Inuit or Quebeckers leaving French Canada seem to have developed.

There is never a single frontier between one nation-state and another, but always two. The frontier belonging to…is at the …custom post, and that belonging to… is down the street a bit, at the…custom post. The peculiarity of it all is that when you are between one customs post and the other, you are nowhere at all. And, having left one structure of conventions and sanctions in which your passport describes you as such and such a person, without yet having entered another similar structure, you are not only nowhere, you are also nobody. Because of the double frontier (opposition) which replaces the single one (distinction), for a few minutes you are really or potentially stateless, that is, STRUCTURELESS. In actual fact, of course, provided you bear suitable markers, you glide across a single boundary like a bit of information moving from one subsystem in the ecosystem to another. (Zinovich, 9)

All in all, the above examples of regional and ethno-cultural identification problematized in literature present the utmost need to obtain new perspectives that previously might have been unknown for our students.

In the following I will present some strategies I have found applicable to handle such challenges smoothly. Firstly, in my view it is important to study our own background, loyalties and the way they define the paradigm we approach other cultures from. I believe that identifying parallel grounds and depicting shared fields of culture studies provide a great opportunity to utilize our distance from the culture we are investigating. Moreover, regionalism and ethnicity can be taken as two stand poles, frames of reference and comparison, that surely help students obtain a rather pluralistic attitude as well as conceptualize their knowledge in the particular North-American context. In addition, among further alternative methods in a multicultural classroom that may be considered useful even in an European classroom, one can develop for example the appreciation of native heritage, can stimulate group work based on equal contribution, or may enable handicapped students to come out with ideas. Besides the possible implementation and combination of the above ideas, adding literary texts like Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands or secondary sources like Kate Mangelsdorf’s “Students on the Border” (in Severino-Guerra-Butler, 298-306) may even more enrich students’ understanding of the distinct North-American notions of the border.

An additional method that has become recently a major update opportunity in the exploration of North-American cultures is multimedia support that enables us to combine and compare various scientific and/or artistic approaches. Sociographic films like the Tony Kaye-directed American History X (1998), Desmond Nakano’s White Man’s Burden (1995), or the movie on contemporary Hungarian-American immigrant experience entitled Getno (dir. András Salamon, 2004) not only enrich students’ knowledge of ethnic disparities, discrimination and xenophobia in general and Ku-Klux-Klan or the recent Hungarian immigrant experience in particular, but also familiarize us with the identity formulation processes that are mostly alien to Europeans. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s provocative treatise entitled America (1996) challenges fundamental American ideas from a distinctly European perspective and included in our investigations this book may alter any attempt to stick to some sort of a ‘single truth theory’ in American culture studies.

As for another example of implementing multimedia support, the comparative analysis of two films based on fiction might be taken. In the Kevin Costner directed movie entitled Dances with Wolves (1990) the presentation of the so-called Gone Indian process of identity shifting helps us obtain and outsider-turned-into-insider’s interpretation of the majority versus ethnic minority relations, while in Never Cry Wolf (dir. Carroll Ballard, 1983), the movie based on Farley Mowat’s 1963 novel another example of outsider-turned-into-insider’s interpretation in an environmentalist respect appears, challenging traditional white superiority, too. Such discussions may investigate those shared sensibilities that reflect significant aspects of these cultures. Besides the almost identical scenes and similar development of the central characters, the register systems of marking cultural difference are seriously challenged. Just like Eurocentric superiority in ideas, lifestyle or values, both films regard a kind of Rousseauian-Thoreauean notion of the environment as a refuge and spiritual alternative. In a broader sense general humanity is implied along with learning how to identify and comprehend markers of cultural difference and appreciate diversity, intercultural communication and the development of intercultural competence, i.e. learning to listen. Interdisciplinary analyses incorporating sociology, ethnography, film studies and history, just to mention a few, can be extended with individual research in various fields e.g. from update internet sources or from visual arts. This comprehensive pluralistic approach is both useful and enjoyable for our students.

Turning our interest from socio-cultural towards literary studies, a special challenge is to locate this field within the body of North-American multicultural studies. The 1960s’ sociopolitical changes in the world claimed for a reassessment of traditional critical standards, reevaluation of reading paradigms of cultural difference and attitudes, in an inevitably political way, that altogether signify another major methodological issue. I believe that our age is an exciting period of literary criticism for faculty, critics and writers. One of the scholarly discussions exemplifying the latter was the 2003. Salzburg Seminar on contemporary American literature, where among others Marc Chenetier represented the European school of aesthetics, while Mae Henderson and Helena Maria Viramontes supported the contextual approach to minority American writing, and last but not least Emory Elliott finely balanced these opposing opinions. The Caton, Rhyne and Elliott-edited critical treatise entitled Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age (2002) reflects similar attempts to articulate a need of finding a subtle balance between textual and contextual approaches in the study of minority literatures. Elliott concludes that “We must objectively reassess the issues of canon formation, the evaluation of works of art and literature, the presentation of interpretations that have meaning and value for our current students (Elliott-Caton 13).” Nevertheless, Chenetier warns us that in the context of minority literatures “too often, teachers cover mainly the biographical, historical and political circumstances in which the text was written and avoid discussing the formal qualities that they normally would consider in teaching established white authors (Eliott-Caton 13).”

The issue addressed here is how one makes aesthetic judgments about another in declaring that person to be physically or spiritually beautiful or in decreeing the other’s cultural expression and artistic productions to possess superior qualities, to identify the aesthetic functions as a positive bridge across the gap of difference. At the same time, however, when the person making such a judgment is in a dominant position in political, legal or economic terms and “renders aesthetic judgments that demean and subordinate the other by pronouncing the person or his or her cultural production to be inferior, beneath consideration, or objectionable, the aesthetic may operate as a tool of divisiveness, enmity, and oppression (Elliott-Caton 3).” As Elliott warns: “the aesthetic is always in danger of being exploited in the service of individual prejudice or of nationalism, racism, sexism, and classism (ibid. 3).” As we see, the professionals are aware of the complexities and challenging nature of how to approach multicultural societies through the lenses of art as well as how to appreciate works of art without the obsession of binding it constantly to the social context.

Thus, let us explore some practical strategies of working against factors rendering the text into some sort of use of its own ideological context. Carol Severino in her “Challenging Ethnocentric Models of Persuasion” problematizes current rhetoric texts, their writing criteria and the cultural construction of identity through writing and reading such texts. She warns us that “Professionals seem to celebrate heteroglossia and difference, [however,] most rhetoric instruction remains monologic and ethnocentric (Severino et al, 12).” Perhaps this concern is similarly present in not only the North-American but also European research and classroom context, too, therefore it is worth facing this challenge for all the academia.

Because textbooks do not acknowledge or teach cultural variation in rhetorical strategies, they tend to represent persuasive writing as necessary thesis-driven and linear. This approach, holding up the propositional model as the only appropriate for of academic writing, excludes the wide range of styles and rhetorical strategies many students bring with them. Moreover, a survey of persuasive strategies in other cultures suggests that as a measure of rhetorical effectiveness the logocentrism of Western tradition is the exception rather than the rule; both oral and literary traditions of non-European cultures challenge the straight-edged geometry of Western rhetoric. (Severino, 16)

In addition, Severino claims that “Our conceptions of effective organization and coherence are culture specific (17).” She briefly refers to the example of the Chinese “eight-legged essay” (ba gu), where indirection, repetition, associative development is favored against hierarchical orders, the Korean rhetoric structure called ki-sung-chon-kyul, in which digression of the main textual body is plausible. For another example, Amerindian storytelling like Leslie Marmon Silko’s Pueblo spider web-like radiating story-telling, emphasizes connections and inclusiveness, and finally the Arabic (Koran-based) power of words in ability to reach towards human experience in stead of reflecting it.

Curriculum, lesson plans and student assignments may equally reflect a balance of contextual and textual analyses, for instance checking markers of cultural difference in texts. Moreover, beyond the daily practice of the classroom, supporting theses may reflect similar demands and opportunities. For instance a thesis by Zsuzsa Stefán entitled “Silence as a Narrative Technique in Contemporary Asian-American Female Writing” (Eszterházy College, Eger, 2005) can stand for an example of the sophistication of students’ interest and knowledge, in which the writer of the essay investigates the narrative presentation of listening to silence in order to comprehend the function and effect of un-telling in narratives of double minority (female and ethnic) status.

Last but not least, among the practical strategies that have proved effective in the study of North-American multicultural societies, incorporating multimedia tools, especially films and additional internet resources, seems to be an increasingly popular demand among students these days. To mention a methodological experiment that has proved exciting for our students, a comparative analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1851) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) introduced a pluralistic approach as well as certain strategies of un-telling as revolt and healing parallel with the process of learning to listen to previously silenced voices. Furthermore, besides the analysis of the two novels, a comparative view of the movie versions provides students with an opportunity to investigate some shifting cultural paradigms.

Studying and interpreting these additional models of approaching Western, basically logocentric versus other possible rhetorics may indeed enrich our experiences of appreciating multicultural voices. As a conclusion, obviously, besides obtaining a broad perspective and deep understanding of the regional and ethnic complexities of North-American peoples, cultures and countries, another objective can be for us to compare our experiences and explore correlative phenomena in Hungary nowadays, for example the challenges of handling racial, gender and other minorities as well as of encountering the diversity of the European community. Baudrillard, who is otherwise extremely critical of American culture, believes, that we, Europeans, are too much stuck up in our history and unable to formulate truly pluralistic societies. He suggests that we should take into consideration some achievements of American existence, for instance he believes that in the USA every single ethnic minority has developed its distinct culture and language that the group members apparently consider somewhat superior to the rest of the population. However, doing so, they altogether present a competitive but truly egalitarian and liberal palette in the confrontation of races (Baudrillard 106-7).

The latter, in my view, applies even more to Canadian culture, perhaps since it is even less bound by conformism and political correctness. A critical appreciation of the extensive experience in developing multicultural societies in North-America may enable us to alter our image of our own society as well as to find joy in exploring differences, once we develop skills to listen carefully to markers of those differences. This process is challenged by the rugged reality of social changes. Nevertheless, learning to listen is one of the most exciting intellectual adventures we can share with our students.

Works Cited

  • Appleman, Deborah and M. Reed eds. Braided Lives: An Anthology of Multicultural American Writing. St Paul Minn.: Minnesota Humanities Commission, 1991.
  • Artibise, Alan F.J. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Canadian Society: A Guide to Literature. Montreal: Association for Canadian Studies, 1990.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Amerika. Budapest: Magvető, 1996.
  • Collins, Jim. Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Di Pietro, Robert J. and E. Ifkovic. Ethnic Perspectives in American Literature. New York: MLA, 1983.
  • Driedger, Leo. Multi-Ethnic Canada: Identities and Inequalities. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1996.
  • Elliott, Emory, L.F. Caton and J. Rhyne eds. Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. Oxford UP, 2002.
  • Fuchs, Lawrence H. The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity and the Civic Culture. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1995.
  • Pack, Robert and J. Parini eds. American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices. Hanover: Middlebury College Press, 1994.
  • Severino, E.C., J.C. Guerra and J.E. Butler. Writing in Multicultural Settings. New York: MLA, 1997.
  • Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A History. Basic Books, 1981.
  • Zinovich, Jordan ed. Semiotext(e) Canadas. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.