Friday, February 4, 2011

Distinction without a difference: “Foreign Culture” and Cultural Diversity”

Currently at the University of North Florida, we have courses that students can take to fulfill “cultural diversity” (CD) and  “foreign culture” (FC) requirements. The CD requirement applies across the university to students in their first two years, while the FC requirement applies to students in the College of Arts and Sciences and is satisfied by a number of junior and senior level courses.  Neither of these categories is tied to a specific department: CD and FC courses are located across a wide range of academic fields.

The rationale for these requirements is that students need to be taken out of the cultural context they are familiar with and exposed to “others.”  I agree with this, and as an anthropologist, I might go so far as to say that the students need to be taken out of their comfort zones and then brought home again, hopefully to understand in a new way their own cultures.  But I have a problem with the distinction, as it is now drawn, between CD and FC.  CD courses are about “cultural diversity” as it exists within the US.  FC courses are limited to “cultures” outside the US, hence the term “foreign culture.”

This distinction ignores the fact that there are “cultures” within the US that are just as “foreign” to most of our students as many of the cultures they might encounter outside the US.  Consider:  Cherokee, Hopi, Navaho, Inuit, Lakota, Mikasuki, Cree, Omaha, and many other Native American cultures. Or African American cultures, such as Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Seminole. Or the Amish and Mennonites.  Or isolated Appalachian communities.  What about the Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian communities within the US?

And what about native Hawaiians?  Hawai’i is in the US, technically, but….  And where does Puerto Rico fall in this scheme? The people are US citizens by birth, but their first language is mostly Spanish, so do they represent “cultural diversity” or “foreign culture?”  What do we do with the Cuban and Haitian communities in South Florida?  Or American Samoa?  And to turn the question around, what might be wrong with considering the cultural diversity of a “foreign” place like China or India?  Does only the US exhibit “cultural diversity?”

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because CD and FC courses nearly always fully enroll, because they meet requirements that students have to fulfill.  Departments that are able to offer these courses can generate nice pots of tuition money for the university. And for faculty who teach them, especially in anthropology but likely some others as well, they represent the one chance we have to offer a course on our geographical foci (the Caribbean, West Africa, Mexico, etc.) without worrying that the course won’t attract enough students.

The problem is that the strict delineation between US-based CD and “foreign” FC means that any anthropologist who specializes within the US may have a tough time getting to teach their specialty. The Foreign Culture Committee, which bestows the label “foreign culture,” recently denied FC designation for an anthropology course on peoples and cultures of the Southwest on the grounds that “the southwest” is part of the US.  Such a course, as taught by our resident expert in this area, would give students beyond anthropology an entry to some pretty exotic cultures, including for example the Hopi, Apache, and Navaho, among others.  At the same time, the designation would ensure that the course is available for anthropology students.

My interim solution would be to keep CD courses as a designation for lower level (frosh and sophomore) courses that teach about “cultural diversity” within the United States, and then to expand FC to include upper level courses that examine the cultures of coherent communities within the United States that differ significantly from the mainstream, European-based, unmarked one that most of our students come from.

Any quest for change will face the inertia of a somewhat powerful College committee; but this is a fight worth having, I think.