“The Elusive Asian American Self: Authority in the Intercultural Classroom”

By Celestine Woo

As a graduate student, Woo, an Asian American, realized she had difficulty asserting authority and originality in her writing. This realization led her to question cultural assumptions underlying modes of education, particularly the two outlined by Paulo Freire:

1) “banking” mode – characterizes students as passive, unimaginative, lazy, and in need of direct guidance by the teacher; “learning” occurs mainly through memorization; the teacher is the main authority. 2) “problem-posing” mode – characterized by students’ self-expression and questioning of authority; focuses on active, student-centered learning; teacher is more of a facilitator; the student has authority over learning. •
According to Woo, an emphasis on the problem-posing mode may become problematic when viewed through a cultural lens. Many international students have cultural backgrounds that view the teacher as the sole authority and frown upon questioning of authority and overt self expression. American culture, on the other hand, typically characterizes the ability to question authority, express oneself, and generate “original” ideas as indicators of intelligence, drive, motivation, focus, and potential for success. Therefore, American instructors often use the problemposing mode, emphasizing self-awareness and expression in their classrooms. Many American instructors are frustrated by “banking” students, whom they perceive as lazy, as unwilling to take charge of their own learning. Conversely, many students (both international and American) who possess the banking mentality sometimes perceive problemposing instructors as lazy because of an expectation that imparting wisdom to the student is the teacher’s responsibility.

What We Can Take From This Article:

We must be prepared to work with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds whose notions about education may vary greatly. Recognizing the existence and value of different cultural ideas is imperative if we wish to teach international students how to express themselves in the American classroom. Devaluing one view of education while proposing another is counterproductive. We must teach self awareness to students instead of assuming it is an ingrained trait. We should discuss in class what self expression accomplishes, how it differs from culture to culture, and ways students may express themselves in ways necessary for success in the American setting. We must realize that the other extreme of timidity in the classroom is not ideal either. As Woo says, “personal catharsis is not the ultimate aim of [the] class” (144). While one of our
Beth Wilkerson ENGL 885 – 2/10/09

aims as teachers is to encourage self expression, our main goal should be to help them teach themselves to learn and succeed.

Beth Wilkerson ENGL 885 – 2/10/09

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