Academic journal article ARIEL

Lear Reassembled in a Rust Belt City: Playing with Intercultural Insights

Academic journal article ARIEL

Lear Reassembled in a Rust Belt City: Playing with Intercultural Insights

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article describes my attempt to apply insights from a Fulbright teaching experience in Semey, Kazakhstan to a Shakespeare classroom in the Rust Belt city of Flint, Michigan. Returning to a monolingual classroom in the United States, I sought to import the anthropological component of foreign teaching, in which students are guides to culture and the classroom is a space of intercultural exchange, by using a strategy that worked overseas: designing a class around a major collaborative project. The task of adapting Romeo and Juliet to contemporary Kazakhstani culture inspired my decision to use William Shakespeare's King Lear as a bridge between the lives of commuter students who are fearful of Flint and the people they pretend not to see--the homeless, schizophrenics, and drug addicts. Any collaboration (at home or abroad) must draw on student strengths, and, as a result, my pedagogical projects exposed the strengths and weaknesses of post-Soviet collectivism and American identity politics, respectively. While the bulk of the essay examines the way the class and I explored and revised our views of a defamiliarized city, its people, and one another, I also reflect on the greater difficulties of being a teacher-anthropologist in one's home culture. Teachers who have unpacked their book bags in foreign classroom have, by necessity, found ways to bridge the gap between books and the world, and they bring home important paradigms and a sense of urgency to live what they teach.

Keywords: Shakespeare; Flint, Michigan; Kazakhstan; global pedagogy; place-based education

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Before I began teaching at the University of Michigan-Flint (UM-Flint) in 1996 I had spent a year teaching at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. My Turkish experience led to a curiosity about the wider Turkic world. When I came to Flint, I still dreamed of going to Central Asia. A Muscovite work-study student in our department who had been there asked me, "Kazakhstan? Why would you want to go there? It's just like Flint." After having taught on a Fulbright in Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk), a Kazakh city that was subjected to Soviet nuclear testing every Saturday for forty years (a friend recalled that the china in the cupboards rattled), I came home with an understanding that there were similarities between the two places: Soviet industrial imperialism made Semey a dumping and testing ground, and a similar kind of imperialism, the General Motors' strain, had built and destroyed Flint. Despite the shared fate of being industrial wastelands, Semey and Flint could not have been more different as "teaching places." In Semey, where foreigners are rare, students were excited to attend lessons for the chance to communicate with me; as they filed out of the classroom, almost everyone said "Thank you for you." By contrast, Flint students, who are more comfortable texting than talking, seemed apathetic and disconnected from me, one another, their educations, and even the real, as opposed to the virtual, world.

Upon reflection, I decided that what made the foreign teaching experience so powerful was the anthropological component (Kietzman 104). Because I spoke little Russian and no Kazakh, the students in Semey were my guides, and I left each class with rich insights into their cultures. Knowledge is frequently enhanced by an awareness of difference, and displacement helped me see clearly that real education happens when teacher and students feel a current of mutual desire to speak themselves to one another. I learned to trust the passionate, emotive force that pushes people to communicate: it was the common "language," more important than English, that enabled us to overcome and even appreciate our lack of words, faulty grammar, and cultural differences.

Coming to know the students felt a lot like falling in love. "All men by nature desire understanding," says Aristotle (12). If this is so, it tells us something important about the analogous activities of knowing and desiring--both have at their core the same delight of reaching and entail the same pain of falling short:

Stationed at the edge of itself, or of its present knowledge, the thinking mind launches a suit for understanding into the unknown. …

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