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Global Kinships: A Beginners’ Community-Based Research Agenda

Critical Conversations and the Academy
A National Symposium
November 22-23, 2019
University of Miami
Miami, Florida

Marsha W. Rhee, , Johnson C. Smith University
Katrina Watterson, , Johnson C. Smith University

Background

Language educators, particularly at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, are faced with the ongoing task of engaging predominantly African-American student bodies in the education of languages and cultures other than their own. Indeed, more contemporary social science and humanities research show significant gaps in the informed study of African-American youth and their dissonance with language acquisition.  Foreign languages, in particular, are not often cited in the research of African-Americans in secondary and postsecondary education.   Calhoun (2012) acknowledges, “There has been relatively little qualitative research on minorities in foreign language learning, and especially African-Americans, in foreign language classes (p. 27).  Other postmodern studies, including the work of Anya (2011), Kissau, S., Kolano, L.Q., & Wang, C. (2011), Kubota & Lin (2009), and Wortham (2001), explore ontological awareness in relation to linguistic diversity without much renderings on actual subsets of the African-American population.   In this exploratory classroom research, the two researchers situate and track traditional freshmen attending a Historically Black University.  The subset under investigation is African American.

Although this research endeavor has proven to be a great challenge, it behooves social science researchers and academicians to investigate the thoughts and attitudes of African-American students in the quest to prepare them to live and work effectively in an increasingly global society. Calhoun (2012) notes, “Our increasing technologically advanced, globalizing world means that people are migrating to all corners of the world, and crossing cultural barriers both physically and digitally, eroding traditional ethnic and nation-state borders (p. 24).  As a result of ever-present racism and discrimination against African Americans in the United States, the researchers can acknowledge the hesitation of African-American college students to embrace other languages and cultures. Cultural theorist and linguist U. Anya (2017) breaks down the legacy of pain among African Americans and legitimates the reluctance of a younger generation of African Americans to participate in meaningful transversal networks of global diversity:

However, while there has been profound improvement in race relations and material conditions in this country, when comparing the present with not even as far back as fifty or sixty years ago, glaring race- based disparities in opportunity, treatment, and achievement still persist. (p. 1)

Moreover, Anya (2017) establishes an argument for race essentialism in her description of the current American sociopolitical climate:

The disparities remain alongside outright terrorism and violence against blacks, as was seen in the South Carolina mass shooting and church burnings in the summer of 2015, the white supremacist shooting at a Black Lives Matter gathering in Minnesota that autumn, and the beatings meted out to black protesters by rage- filled white attendees of Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump’s political rallies during the tumultuous 2016 election season. These conditions and incidents do not escape the notice of anyone with access to mass media, Internet, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which have become formidable platforms to publicize and debate issues of race and racial injustice. (p. 1)

Numerous racial and discriminatory incidents, both past and present, are reported on a daily basis, contributing to the sense of Other that has so strongly plagued African-American students as they seek higher education and to find their place in a 2020 global society.

Community Study

Working in tandem, instructors of ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences provided an enriching model of global cross-fertilization via service/engagement pedagogy and practice.  These classroom best practices are rooted in Johnson C. Smith University’s Student Success Model as well as instructors’ participation in Faculty Resource Network seminars.  Multidisciplinary learning outcomes in these courses included:  students gaining meaningful glimpses into another culture; students expanding their worldview by experiencing the language, art, cuisine, and customs of another culture; students engaging in an organized service activity that addresses community needs; and students demonstrating a heightened sense of vocation and an informed commitment to social justice. Johnson C. Smith’s University College non-cognitive objectives are designed to: (1) help freshman/sophomore students recognize the importance of service and civic activities; (2) encourage freshman/sophomore students to make differences in their communities; and (3) provide students with knowledge, skills, and resources to make those differences.

The purpose of service/engagement in courses offered via the First-Year Experience @ University College (Johnson C. Smith University) is to cultivate critical thinking skills, enhance leadership capabilities, and expand global education opportunities among freshman students, while enriching their connections to their respective academic disciplines. The service/engagement component in ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences specifically provided incoming freshman students with meaningful connections to community leaders, organizations, and internships directly or indirectly linked to African diasporic studies.  Anya (2017) confirms that “greater incorporation of service-learning into language study to complement, enrich, and make student experiences more meaningful and beneficial” (p. 8) is necessitated. Students enrolled in the ENG and SPA sequences were assigned community mentors who served as conduits for students to (1) explore aspects of the African diaspora with which they had little or no experience; (2) observe practical experiences, interactions and cross-cultural dialogues; and (3) participate in organized service activities that addressed African-American community needs.  Students enrolled in the ENG and SPA sequences were challenged to (1) evaluate popular cultural narratives in written and oral formats; (2) test classroom/research knowledge via related service experiences in the local community; and (3) reflect on service experiences and diasporic research in the form of digital portfolio, short cinematography and public showcase.

As predominantly African-American students assumed the challenge of learning a foreign language and/or culture, they applied service/engagement meta cognitive skills to realize that language studies are also a study of their own culture, meaning that the aspect of Self begins to eclipse the Other. From researching Spanish-speaking regions like Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, and Colombia to African diasporic movements in countries such as India and Russia, students began to embrace the target language and culture, as they discovered their own presence and background within that culture. Students developed an appreciation for the study of the language and culture and will likely continue their studies in languages and cultures, preparing them to be the global citizens they should be in order to succeed in today’s society.

Findings

Founder and CEO of Unuhi Bilingual Books Mark Bassett (2019) reminds us of the overall benefits of second language education and research (“10 Benefits of Being Bilingual,” https://unuhi.com/10-benefits-of-being-bilingual/).

Increase brain power…[allowing one to be creative] and improve problem-solving skills… It can give children an academic advantage…[causing them to perform better in their various school subjects with increased] cognitive and literacy function…Increase awareness of other cultures…[which helps the learner to contemplate numerous viewpoints and perspectives]… Make travel easier and more enjoyable, [which allows the learner to navigate and communicate more effectively during national and international travel]… Improve competitiveness in the job market, [meaning more opportunities and higher salaries]… Find it easier to learn a third language, [which intensifies the stated advantages]… You can better raise your children bilingual, [allowing your children to enjoy all the stated advantages]… Stay mentally stronger for longer, [which allows the learner to think clearly and remain alert throughout life, which leads to enjoying a long, quality life warding off such diseases as] dementia and Alzheimer’s…Improve social life, [allowing the learner increased confidence while meeting and communicating with various individuals in different scenarios]… It can make you more attractive, [especially to those who are impressed with the skills and intelligence of a bilingual individual]

While it is evident that those who have acquired the skill of bilingualism enjoy lives that are rich both personally and professionally, it behooves us to investigate the attitudes of those who are not acquiring this highly beneficial cognitive skill. Due to a noticeable lackluster approach to foreign languages and cultures by African-American students at Southern University-Baton Rouge and Johnson C. Smith University, these students were the focal point for this probe. Inspired by Watterson’s (2011) prior dissertation research titled The Attitudes Of African American Students Towards the Study Of Foreign Languages and Cultures, instructors of ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences intended to educate entry-level students on the African diaspora and the pre- and post- Atlantic Slave Trade cultural impacts, demonstrating an undeniable commonality between African American and Latino populations.

Students enrolled in ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences expressed that they were not aware of this common history among now postmodern, neo-colonial, native English and Spanish speakers, respectively.  Clear and frequent examples of student miseducation were evident in both the ENG and SPA course sequences.  For instance, students enrolled in Watterson’s SPA 131 course actively participated in cultural immersion research.   93% of student participants responded affirmatively to the inclusion of the African diaspora as part of the SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences.  These students raised an interesting point in that they expressed concern regarding the interest of other African-American students in this aspect. They stated that, although they are intrigued by the concepts of cultural immersion and strengths-based, non-cognitive learning approaches, they think that additional intentional attention may be necessary to educate African Americans as a whole at Johnson C. Smith University.  Students commented on the general mindset of those persons who reside in the southern region of the United States. One Southern University-Baton Rouge freshman student (2011) echoed similar sentiments, concluding that a more positive gravitation toward dual language acquisition would depend on the perspective of the student, one of whom wrote:

I don’t know exactly, because so many people think so many different ways. I know if it [were] me, regardless of it was close to our culture, our African-American culture or not, I’m still interested. But with other students, some of…it might capture them, it might not. Just depends on the student and how much they really want to learn something new, or something close to their heritage.

Similar viewpoints recur in the case study as evidenced with pre- and post- course writing assessments, foreign language interviews, and more generalized survey sets. In reviewing qualitative data compiled from both ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences, 97.8% of enrolled student participants at Johnson C. Smith University and Southern University-Baton Rouge—both Historically Black Colleges and Universities—have affirmatively responded to the suggested inclusion of the African diaspora within the foreign language and composition higher education curriculum. One Southern University-Baton Rouge student (2011) stated,

And I figure if they…let us African Americans know that we share a common history…, common things we had to go through with them, I think it would be…what’s the word, it would be a plus and you know, they would want to study it more.

Discussion & Future Implications

Using a largely nontraditional pedagogical framework, instructors teaching traditional service courses—chiefly, foreign language and composition—are able to better engage students in the rigors of liberal arts training and practicum via applied strengths-based teaching and learning.  The use of the non-cognitive indicator of success—service/engagement—allows for a more seamless and, certainly, more enjoyable foray into higher learning.  Students enrolled in the ENG 131-RHC 133 and SPA 131-SPA 132 course sequences benefited from instructors’ concentrated efforts to mesh their life world experiences with those both diverse and interwoven lived experiences spanning the African diaspora.  Instructors and students found common ground and an enlarged foundation from which to build higher order critical thinking, self efficacy and a growth mindset necessary for maximizing career and personal potentialities in what Anya (2017) calls “transformative socialization” (p. 8). Based on positive student feedback and the support of local community mentors, professors of record are considering the following implementations:  formal development of cross-curricular, research-intensive courses and student-centered symposia emphasizing diaspora studies.  Future research goals include a longitudinal case study on the factors that contribute to African-American students’ attitudes toward second language acquisition. These factors include study abroad opportunities, the attitudes of foreign language and composition faculty, family structure and values, internationalization of the liberal arts curriculum (Watson, 2014) and partnerships with other universities both nationally and internationally.

 

References

 

Anya, U.  (2017).  Racialized identities in second-language learning: Speaking blackness in Brazil.  Routledge Advances in Second Language Studies.

—-(2011). Connecting with communities of learners and speakers: Integrative ideals, experiences, and motivations of successful black second language learners. Foreign Language Annals, 44(3), 441-466.

Bassett, M. (2019).  10 benefits of being bilingual.  Retrieved from https://unuhi.com/10-benefits-of-being-bilingual/

Calhoun, A.  (2012).  Moving from race to identities in second language learning. Second Language Studies, 31(1), 23-44.

Kissau, S., Kolano, L.Q., & Wang, C. (2011). Motivation, race, and foreign language instruction: The need for culturally responsive teaching. The NECTFL Review, 68, 39-61.

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (2009). Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Introduction to research and practice. In R. Kubota & A. Lin (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 1-24).  London:  Routledge.

Watson, M.M.  (2014).  Writing and the internalization of U.S. higher education:  the roles of ideology, administration, and the institution.  Dissertations-ALL.  155.  Retrieved from https://surface.syr.edu/etd/155

Watterson, K. G. (2011). The attitudes of African American students towards the study of foreign languages and cultures. (Doctoral Dissertation). Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Wortham, S. (2001). Narratives in action: A strategy for research and analysis. New York: Teachers College Press.