The Postcolonial Student: Learning the Ethics of Global Solidarity in an English Classroom

By Raja, Masood Ashraf | Radical Teacher, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Postcolonial Student: Learning the Ethics of Global Solidarity in an English Classroom


Raja, Masood Ashraf, Radical Teacher


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In the fall of 2006, I planned and taught my first course in post-colonial literature as a full-time faculty member of Kent State University's English department. (1) This essay provides a brief discussion of the teaching strategies, the literary texts, and student involvement in this particular course. Postcolonialism, in Ania Loomba's words, "helps us think about the questions of domination and resistance that have been raised by anticolonial movements and postcolonial studies worldwide" (211). As most of the postcolonial literary works represent the real life issues of postcolonial countries, postcolonialism as a field therefore serves as one of the most radical fields to teach the importance of difference. (2) This teaching of difference also implies "teaching the world"--by which I mean teaching our students about the struggles and aspirations of people outside of the United States and other industrialized nations.

My approach to teaching postcolonial texts is political: I do not only teach the politics of a particular text itself but also the socio-political circumstances that inform various postcolonial literary works.

Certainly, my own background plays a major role in shaping my students' perception of the texts and my classroom. I moved to the United States in 1996 after resigning my commission as an infantry officer in the Pakistani army. My teaching is frequently informed by my past and present cross-cultural experiences. Knowing that to some of my students I probably embody the U.S.'s most conspicuous Other, a person from a Muslim country, gives me at least, on the surface, the advantage of offering a kind of teaching about the global periphery that to them must come across as more "authentic." (3) I use my cultural background and the knowledge of my students' culture to create a sort of cultural in-between-ness that usually helps dispel their hesitance and eventually assists in building the teacher-student trust needed to create a better learning environment. (4) In the process of developing a rapport with the teacher, they also develop a sort of intellectual exchange with a teacher who, besides being their professor, is also a person from another primary and significantly postcolonial culture.

Certainly, postcolonial texts and theory offer quite a radical approach to learning about the world. But postcolonial texts alone, no matter how radical, cannot perform the task of enlightening our students without a more nuanced and informed pedagogy. In my personal teaching practice, literary texts do not constitute an end in themselves, but are rather instrumental in teaching the world. This does not imply that I completely foreclose the very "literariness" of the literary texts, but that I emphasize their intimate grounding in the world of lived experience of the global south. This teaching of the world involves an attempt on my part to encourage an ethic of global solidarity, by which I simply mean encouraging a mode of identification with the plight of the others who may be different but still share the same planet. Such an ethic aims to encourage our students to look at their own everyday practices in a critical manner and, if needed, change their practices to facilitate a greater degree of good for the rest of humanity.

Most of our students come to our classes as young individuals whose identities are still in flux. In most of the cases their identities are inextricably linked with personal and social histories that predispose them to respond to different teaching practices in varied ways. When the teaching materials are not in consonance with their previously held beliefs, they feel threatened; the "mere encounter with difference can be enough to threaten their identity-bearing beliefs and worldviews" (Bracher 26). In such situations, effective pedagogy introduces difference in our classrooms without posing it as a threat to students' personal identities, especially if the main goal of the course is to nourish a global ethic of care. …

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