On Teaching

On Teaching – Living in the Gaps: On Teaching the Messiness of Culture

Tyler Branson, PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University

I write this blog to you now while sipping café con leche along the Guadalquivir River in the ancient Andalusian city of Seville, Spain. These details signal an effort not to showcase my international pretensions but rather a hope to situate myself within a unique perspective on interdisciplinary teaching and writing. As a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition teaching a class in Spain called “Engaged Global Citizenship” through my home institution’s Center for International Studies—I feel it would be apt to describe this kind of work as roughly within the scope of “American Studies.”

I’d like to focus this piece on a particular thread that emerged from one of our class discussions, because I think it sheds light on both the ways we can encourage among our students the kind of compassionate, engaged citizenship we expect, as well as a commitment to effective and reflective interdisciplinary pedagogy in our own teaching communities.

In one of our discussions, my students reflected that despite being fluent in the language, having learned the history and culture of the region, and being somewhat attuned to the particular norms and values of Spanish culture, they were nevertheless marked as “outsider” as they attempted to assimilate and engage with the city. This incessant goal, they realized, which is common to many study abroad students, to transform into cultural chameleons within the various cultures in which they are studying, will always fall short. Despite how much history they study, how “accurate” their accents, or how culturally savvy they consider themselves to be, they will always be marked as “American” as they attempt to communicate with other Sevillanos. They do not share in the living history of the city or the memories passed down from generation to generation. The very geography of the city means something entirely different to the locals—it’s a kind of knowing in which my students will never be able to share.

Do we attempt to close it? Do we accept its presence and ambivalently remain insulated in our own cultural practices? Or do we embrace it, live in it, study it, and cultivate a critical perspective on it? In other words, shouldn’t we carefully explore this gap as engaged citizens of the world? Through our discussion we came to the conclusion that this “gap” is much more than the gulf between Seville and Texas, but one that engulfs us all.

As a teacher, there is always a gap between myself and my students. In the discipline of American Studies, there are lacunae in which tensions, disagreements, and contradictions circulate and bump up against one another. In cultural encounters there are gaps separated by relationships of difference, privilege and power. But by embracing these gaps we create discourse.

The metaphor of the gap is limited, obviously. But even then I think it helps to explain that as teachers we can never feel too comfortable in our pedagogical practices. As a young and emerging teacher, I value this gap: the one between my goals and their manifestations in the classroom; the one between my positionality as a raced, gendered, and classed position of privilege and those very ideologies I encourage my students to subvert; the one between the lessons of my discipline and the way the “real world” is structured and continues to be structured by various and fraught interconnected relationships; and the one between my development as a thinker and writer and the development of my students as thinkers and writers. These gaps are always present, and they always come to bear in our relationships with one another.

Also, my experiences as a teacher here in Spain reveal to me how expansive teaching can be, and all the different nuances of what “effective teaching” can look like. There will always be tensions and gaps in the way we approach the creation, circulation, and transmission of knowledge. But we can stay committed to reflecting on those gaps, living within them, and figuring out new ways to look at them through our teaching. Teaching is a messy and contradictory space and through an engaged commitment to that space I hope to grow as a teacher and encourage similar growth in my students. In other words, as my students work toward critically and sensitively navigating the cultural gaps within their host cities, so too should we as teachers reflect on and work within the gaps and tensions present in our own pedagogy.

Tyler Branson is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University.  His areas of interest include Composition Studies, Public Discourse, and technology.  His current research project focuses on the “messy” communicative spaces created through community engagement assignments in composition classrooms.  Please visit the TCU departmental website to learn more about what we do.

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