4Cs: Teacher as Cultural Broker

My UMass colleague (and 2005 Scholar for the Dream Award winner) Linh Dich began her excellent one-woman panel presentation “Cultural Broker: Beyond the Teacher Role” by expressing a familiar desire: to be that accomplished and authoritative teacher who seemingly effortlessly cultivates a utopian classroom of universally eager and engaged learners. But the utopian classroom, Dich concedes, is precisely that: a utopia, not a real or possible space. Her desire for that ideal teacherly identity, Dich suggests, reveals a belief that in some ways we see students as static in relation to ourselves, with the teacherly persona always needing to change, to become more noble, more committed, in order to better serve the students — and yet that ideal teacher into whom we continually attempt to transform ourselves is a teacher who is herself ideal largely because of the ways in which she is able to transform students’ selves.

Here, Dich shifts gears, and points to the increasingly diverse population of higher education, an increase curiously paralleled by a growth in white male authority. In our increasingly diverse classrooms, however, the idealized teacher as traditional white male authority figure (think Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society) simply doesn’t work. As a remedy, Dich invokes and connects two possible alternative figures: that of Henry Giroux’s border crosser and that of Anne Fadiman’s cultural broker.

Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down demonstrates how the collision of cultural values can become a deeply problematic power struggle, and shows the consequences of cultural misunderstandings at their worst. (I encountered Fadiman’s book as the first text in a seminar on research methods and ethics, and found it to be compelling and saddening in its representation of the cultural imperialism of the biomedical community toward a Hmong family and their epilepsy-afflicted daughter.) With Fadiman as an example, Dich asks: do we as teachers know how to listen to our students from subaltern backgrounds, or do our idealized teacher-figures have analogues in Fadiman’s doctors who in their arrogance fail (or refuse) to understand cultural practices different from their own? Misunderstanding can lead to mis-teaching and the subsequent exclusion of marginal (often immigrant) students. Which means, Dich argues, that we need to start inquiring into the ways marginal students learn in order to remedy that marginalization: decontextualized assignments that fail to account for cultural difference reinforce the exclusionary walls set up by white male authority. Teachers who act as border crossers (by negotiating the boundaries between different cultures) and cultural brokers (by acting upon those boundaries in order to alter their inherent power disparities) may be the prime candidates for such action. Which leads Dich to her concluding question: does the way she inhabits a position of alterity (not white, not male, not Mr. Keating O Captain my Captain) offer her more possibilities to act as cultural broker and cross borders that white middle class male teachers may find themselves unable to cross? If so, she suggests, then the work of teaching may not be quite so much in being all-knowing, as she once supposed, but in knowing where the borders are.

As one might imagine, Linh’s presentation prompted an extremely productive Q&A discussion where most of the audience simply didn’t want to leave, but rather continued to engage the compelling questions she’d raised. There was a lot of talk about teacher positioning and self-representation and how students respond to teachers’ various self-representations. I tried to offer a brief recap of David Bleich’s earlier suggestions about the hopeful implications for composition offered by higher education’s changing population, and wondered aloud how teacherly culture and self-representation might actually spur curricular change and thereby affect the borders that the cultural broker works to break down, and I asked this because I think Linh’s insights about the value of the work of Fadiman’s cultural broker offer productive possibilities that go far beyond Giroux’s work. Giroux’s work, I think, relies on those borders as its theoretical exigency, and so helps to reinscribe them, whereas Fadiman (if I’m recalling the book correctly) points to a situation in which the moral consequences of cultural domination become so horrifying that the biomedical community is forced to change. In other words, the status quo of attempts at border-crossing cultural translation — Hmong families need to learn how to follow doctors’ orders — is revealed as ethically bankrupt: understanding is simply not enough. And this is where I start to see Giroux’s critical pedagogy as little more than a politicized recuperation of the New Critical attention to the literary truth of The Work Itself: all one needs to do, many critical pedagogues seem to say, is perceive the hegemonic forces of the world as they truly are. It’s lit-crit cultural consumption dressed up in radical politics to make academics feel less bad about being bourgeois: once you arrive at Platonic truth, unmasking the ideologies that reproduce hierarchical oppression, you need do nothing else save to help others arrive at that same truth.

What Linh’s proposing via Fadiman, I think, is something far more radical. It’s a way to move beyond critical pedagogy as a mode of inquiry and actually get into the politics of institutional change, of opening up ways in which marginalized populations might talk back to (or even take back) the institution, and in so doing — as David Bleich described — open up the possibility for genuine two-way cultural change.

There are, of course, some fairly obvious questions, the first of which (asked with some self-interest) might be: can teachers (like Giroux) from non-subaltern backgrounds act as cultural brokers?

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