Paola Gemme, Associate Professor of English at Arkansas Tech University
I was trained at a major state university to do one thing well: teach American literature to approximately mid-nineteenth century within a cultural history framework and with an emphasis on diversity. By the time I graduated in the late nineties with a dissertation that analyzed more periodical illustrations than novels, I was more comfortable calling myself an “American Studies” practitioner than an “American literature” expert. When I found a job in the English department of a small university in the South, however, I was asked to teach everything—and a lot of it. I do teach American Studies—alas, only one introductory class every other semester—but over the years I have been assigned courses ranging from ESL Composition to World Literature, Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL), a seminar in Rhetoric, and even Italian, my native language. In other words, I have morphed from a specialist and a researcher into an over-extended, overworked jack-of-all-trades.
Yet, the American Studies practitioner in me survives. One way I have managed to reconnect with American Studies is through outreach projects that employ my students at the university to expose local elementary school children to cultural diversity. One of my current teaching responsibilities is to acquaint groups of graduate students in TESL from Taiwan and China with central aspects of American culture, including ethno-racial diversity, so they can include cultural competence in their own English language curriculum. One of my assignments asks them to prepare and deliver a lesson on an aspect of their own culture to American primary school children. This exercise acquaints them with multicultural education as it is practiced in the United States, shows them firsthand the interaction between teachers and students specific to the American school culture, and gives them a chance to converse with native speakers of English. In turn, since I started this experiment four years ago, two of the local primary schools have been visited by over forty students from Taiwan and mainland China who have taught about 600 children on topics ranging from Chinese ideograms to how to make rice balls. Beyond the cultural knowledge gained by a considerable number of children, the most profitable outcome of this experience is the amount of interest in their foreign visitors displayed by the children, their willingness to try and pronounce the sounds or write the symbols of a different language, and the ability of some of the American teachers to weave this experience into the curriculum, for instance by asking their students to write a thank you letter to their Chinese guest teacher.
I did a similar project last semester with about fifteen students, both U.S. national and international, who took my Teaching People of Other Cultures, the unfortunate title of a course required by the state of Arkansas for ESL accreditation. The course is designed primarily to give future instructors the ability to modify their presentation of content to make it accessible to English language learners and to create assignments characterized by high cognitive requirements but low linguistic demands. At the same time, I stress that a culturally varied audience needs a multicultural curriculum as well as a modified presentation of the same old material. Hence, one of the assignments for the course is to teach a lesson addressing issues of prejudice and cultural diversity. My international students and first generation immigrant students opted to focus on their culture of origin: a woman from Saudi Arabia taught about Ramadan; a student from Japan showed children how to bow in different ways to express different meanings; two students from El Salvador played bingo in Spanish with first graders; and a Hmong student showed the children traditional Hmong textiles. The Euro-American students were also required to prepare a lesson. One read multiple versions of the same fairy tale to make children aware of the role of point of view in shaping a narrative; another asked children to create families and groups of friends from picture cards showing individuals of different ethno-racial background, class identity, and ability so as to identify and address early forms of prejudice.
When I graduated with a dissertation on American narratives of the Italian struggle for national unity and independence, a project that fit the label of transnational American Studies, I did not know I would one day be teaching Taiwanese students about the American education system nor U.S. students about why multiple-choice questions are difficult for English language learners. Still, I believe I have found in the outreach efforts I have described a creative reconnection to my old American Studies self in spite of, but also thanks to, the impossibility of disciplinary concentration at my institution. True, I do not teach my favorite courses—“Global Views of the United States,” “Wealth and Poverty in the U.S.” or “Latino Experiences in the United States”—every day, but I still practice American Studies in another way, possibly a more consequential one. In fact, I believe I am truer to the democratic goals of our discipline when my students and I teach primary school children about the many different ways of life in the United States and the world than if I could teach American Studies courses only within the privileged confines of the university. We may not be using the terms “multiculturalism” or “transnationalism” with children, but, I am convinced, we are putting both concepts into practice.
Paola Gemme is an Associate Professor of English at Arkansas Tech University. She is the author of Domesticating Foreign Struggles: The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005).