Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Teaching communication in Singapore: Humility and commitment

A number of my friends have shared with me their wonder at our decision to move to Singapore. They have shared their surprise as well as their inspirations. I had a pretty solid appointment at Purdue in a leadership role and Debalina had promises of a tenure track career at one of the leading communication departments that also has a lot of history in the discipline.

Moving to Singapore and to NUS had a number of underlying reasons, a lot of them personal, and some really important ones that were professional.

One of the most salient reasons for the move was what I thought was a truly transformative opportunity for putting my commitments to de-Westernizing communication to action.

Of course, one could make the argument that the process of de-westernization needs to happen at the very heart of Empire. Through deconstructing and critique, the workings of power can be carefully examined within spaces of belonging in the Western academe.

I had been doing that, sometimes successfully at other times unsuccessfully from within the US academe for over a decade.

So what would be the opportunities for co-constructing communication in ways that are rooted outside of the US, in ways that are transformative? This question challenged me, intrigued me, and offered me both an opportunity and a challenge to test my commitment! I looked forward to the opportunity to work with some amazing colleagues who are doing amazing research and working through this very question from so many different ways.

So what have been my experiences in this over one year of teaching in Singapore?

As I shared in the previous blog post, it has struck me that a lot of how we teach communication and what we teach in communication continues to be centered in the US and in the West. We go back to teaching students about Aristotle and other dead Greek men when talking about rhetoric. We reproduce the racist assumptions of Lerner and Schramm when we teach principles of communication. We take Singapore as a departure, begin with core texts and then adapt these texts to Singapore, throwing in a case study here and there.

Increasingly, I am deeply dissatisfied with this strategy.

My dissatisfaction stems primarily from the inability of this strategy to meaningfully conceptualise communication in ways that are respectful of, mindful of, and informed by lived experiences in Singapore and more broadly in Asia.

I am also dissatisfied then by the aspirations we project for our students because these aspirations are bounded in Western ideals and value-systems.

I am dissatisfied more fundamentally with my inadequacies as a teacher. I am humbled by my everyday lived experiences in Singapore and by the complexities, negotiations, and resilience of everyday Singaporeans that I meet. I am inspired by the many voices in Singapore and the many insights they offer about communication.

As I reflect back on the project of decolonisation that is integral to this journey, I come to recognise the need to be humble as a teacher of communication. I can grow as a teacher centered in Singapore and in Asia through a commitment to learning and to letting this learning begin the un-learning!

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