Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Macaulay's Children: The problem of how we pick what to teach

As a Professor of Communication teaching in Singapore, I have often been struck by the absence of introductory or advanced texts that are grounded in Singapore or in the broader context of Asia.

I find myself having to cover Western concepts of Perception, Stereotyping, or Media Structures as the fundamentals of communication and new media theorising, modifying then the readings in the texts to "fit" my students in Singapore by drawing in examples or cases from Singapore. As I pick an international version of a much-used US-based text, I am left wondering what it means to have an "international" version of an introductory text, where most of the concepts are US-centric.

Singapore emerges in my pedagogy as a source of case studies, built into a comparative frame where the foundations are covered in a required US text.

I remain dissatisfied with this strategy of adapting a fundamentally US-centric text to the Singapore context of my students (I am not even sure what the term international means in the title of the text I have adopted).

I recognise that the base remains US-centric, but this is nevertheless a base that gives me an entry point and I end up using the text, in spite of all my writings on decolonizing method and pedagogy.

This problem with having to pick texts and seminal readings raises a vital question about pedagogy, located in Asia.

What are we to teach students as seminal texts? What texts get counted as seminal texts?

So for instance, with students in my critical-cultural studies module, do I go to Adorno, Horkheimer, Gillroy, and Williams? And what are the implications of these choices

What would an English literature professor pick as seminal texts? Would she go to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bronte, and Blake?

And what about students in Psychology? Would they be required to read about William James, cognitive dissonance, impression management, expectancy value, big five, psychodynamic theory etc.?

And what then would be specific to their lived experiences as we teach from these Western materials, rooted in Western thought, and presented to them as universal markers of theory? Do we teach them to adapt their world-views and adjust themselves to these theories? Do we teach them to take these theories as the seminal pieces and then look at how they can understand their lived experiences in Singapore through the language of these theories?

How do we, and how do I, as a Professor of Communication in Singapore, choose what to pick?

Why is it that I find myself at a loss to pick seminal texts that are rooted in Singapore or China or India.

Perhaps my failure as a teacher in delivering my pedagogy in content rooted in Asia (or a specific locale within Asia) is tied to my predicament as Macaulay's child. 

Digging deep into the history of colonialism   of India tells me how a rich history and tradition of education in India was systematically erased through Macaulay's intervention. Macaulay, believing that the Indian languages were incapable of providing a basis for a modern education, introduced English as a colonial intervention into India, accompanied by the widespread teaching of English literature as the basis for modernisation. He had argued that ‘all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England,’ thus unleashing a violent history of erasure that is integral to the pedagogy of modern India. 

You see, what we take as seminal today, is deeply tied to this history of oppression and erasure. 

As a child of Macaulay's intervention, I must speak his language (English), read his literature (English literature), and proclaim my arguments in a form that is rooted in the logics of the English language.  Even as I write this blog post, I must erase myself so I can participate, benefit from the accompanying economic logics, and erase the rich narratives of my Bengali culture. More importantly, the erasure is so final that I don't know any other way to express myself outside of Macaulay's logic. Much like the problem with the selection of my introductory text, I am deeply tied to he assumption of what must be included in order to form a foundation in education in a specific discipline.

In other words, my ability to select and be inclusive is constituted within a liberal modernist logic that must erase my Bengali identity and work it into the training of the baboo class that my forefathers were bred into. In this sense, selection is both a privilege and also a tremendous sense of loss. Selection is a luxury that places me in an economically viable profession of being an academic with a global reach in a position to make decisions about what gets taught in the classroom.

To humbly start the process of decolonizing what I teach and how I teach what I teach, I recognise that I must myself start on a journey of decolonisation, trying to understand my erasures amid my privileges.

This journey of decolonisation itself is a paradox as I know not how deeply I have been erased and how deeply I have erased myself.

I have a strong feeling that the language in which I express myself is not the soul I feel within, and the yearnings of my soul from deep within must remain unspoken, hidden, silenced, erased.

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