Magazine

'Culture is Sneaky'

'Culture is Sneaky'

Fall 2017

Timothy Baldwin and Martin Avila Jr.

Editor’s note: “Latin@” is shorthand for Latino/Latina.

At the beginning of every semester, professors provide their students with a course syllabus and underscore salient information: Students must notify the professor about absences or emergencies via email. Students would be wise to sign up for office hours to discuss questions about major assignments or problems with course content. Students should participate in class discussion. But for Latin@ students, all of this advice, however well-intentioned, may seem odd, confusing, or even “weird,” because, as one Latina student told us, “culture is sneaky.”

What is it about these recommendations that can fail to connect with some CCCU Latin@ students? What might the standard use of email or office hours reveal about the cultural values and assumptions of educators and institutions? What simple alternatives do Latin@ undergraduates suggest? In what follows, we draw upon our research findings to shed light on the oft-hidden cultural dimensions of several commonplace classroom teaching and learning practices. More specifically, we will explore some ways in which fundamental Latin@ values shape undergraduates’ preferred means of communication, relational expectations, and learning strategies.

Our Research 

Our findings are drawn from two related qualitative research projects. Tim Baldwin, a career educator who has taught in multicultural classrooms at secondary, college, and graduate levels, conducted the first study as part of his dissertation research. That study’s sample was comprised of 30 undergraduate students, at three Midwestern CCCU institutions, who 1) self-identified as Latin@ or Hispanic, 2) represented multiple ethnicities and nationalities, and 3) majored in a variety of disciplines.

The second study (which included Martin Avila as the co-researcher) dove into the findings of the first study – namely, that Latin@ interviewees highly valued welcoming learning environments, their professors’ multi-dimensional care, and interactive pedagogy. The 12 Latin@ students who participated in the second study met the same qualifications as participants in the first study, and all attended the same CCCU institution. All 42 students participated in hour-long interviews and were assigned pseudonyms.

Defining Our Terms 

To speak of fundamental “Latin@” values is a problematic proposition for a number of reasons. The term “Latin@,” along with its cousin “Hispanic,” is a broad label that often obscures the heterogeneity of peoples from 19 independent Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, many different languages and dialects, diverse religious traditions and practices, and overlapping colonial histories. If the terms “Latin@” or “Hispanic” are used without careful qualification, there is a greater danger of stereotyping how these students best learn and ignoring the ways in which they prefer to connect with their professors.

In view of this, the following discussion of our research findings centers around a few of the cultural values that are both germane to our findings and are common to a number of Latin@ sub-groups (though they are expressed with much variation and nuance). The diagram illustrates how these values interact:

Colectivismo, which translates as “collective” or “group,” is a cultural value that holds the group as primary reference point, the welfare of the group as one’s highest priority, and loyalty to the group as paramount. Colectivismo among Latin@s also prioritizes in-group harmony, promotes emotional expression, and looks to the family as its primary embodiment (familismo). In our research, the Latin@ students reflected a “collectivist” mindset in both their frequent allusions to their family members and affirmations that they thrived in learning environments in which the success and welfare of the group were prioritized.

Personalismo refers to Latin@s’ strong emphasis on close personal relationships and esteem for those who relate warmly to others. The students whom we interviewed, for example, deeply appreciated professors and staff who initiated relationships with them.

Respeto, or respect, is a deeply rooted value for most Latin@s that includes a broad set of attitudes toward individuals and the roles that they occupy. The students we interviewed consistently expressed deep respect for the position, work, and authority of their professors.

Confianza (trust) is foundational to the Latin@ community because of its important role in group and family dynamics. Students frequently shared, for instance, that the degree to which they communicated with their professors was strongly influenced by the presence or absence of a shared mutual trust.

Preferred Modes of Communication

While first-day teacher practices, students’ electronic communication with professors, and the practice of office hours have all been well-researched, Latin@ students have seldom been consulted. The perceptions of the students whom we interviewed, therefore, offer valuable new insights into each of these matters. They unequivocally confirmed what research has already shown about the first day of a course: Students’ perceptions of the first day of class powerfully shape their subsequent learning experiences in that course. Many Latin@ undergraduates recalled their first-day class experiences in great detail. Consider, for example, the following:

Right off the bat … he said, “I want you guys to come and meet me. I want to get to know you.” I appreciated that warm welcome. (Julio, business major)

Hearing a bit about where they are from and their family, that gets me interested. … If a professor has done a good job of trying to interact with us as students, then I will respond accordingly. (Daniel, psychology major)

When asked if their perceptions about how these professors communicated were shaped in some way by their cultural values, students repeatedly affirmed that Latin@s value relationships and personalismo. In addition, the students frequently emphasized how much they appreciated reciprocity in their relationships with their professors, as demonstrated by mutual personal sharing and storytelling.

Face-to-Face Versus Email Communication

A number of the students in the second study provided in-depth commentary on their email communication with professors. They indicated that they employed email almost exclusively to ask questions about assignments and due dates. More notably, Latin@ students indicated that they found emailing professors challenging for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The students could not see their professors’ gestures and emotions.
  2. Some of the students did not spell well in English, which made email intimidating.
  3. In light of their cultural value of respeto, the students found the informal nature of email to be confusing and even incongruent with the more formal nature of student-teacher relationships. They wondered, for example, about how they should address their professors or sign their emails.
  4. The students were disappointed when professors did not respond to their emails.

Students overwhelmingly indicated that they preferred to communicate “face-to-face” with their professors, a reflection of their high regard for personalismo. Several students, for example, said that they chose to talk with professors before or after class, even to ask basic questions for which they could use email. Strikingly, one student, whose aunt had recently passed away, told us that she went to each of her professors’ offices to inform them of her loss and upcoming absences from class.

Office Hours

The Latin@ students’ cultural prioritization of face-to-face communication also strongly shaped their perceptions of the use of office hours. A number of students perceived office hours as a strange practice for any combination of the following reasons:

  1. Meetings sometimes proved awkward due to the power distance between themselves and their professors, gender dynamics, or the professors’ own social insecurities.
  2. Office hour appointments heightened students’ sense of vulnerability, because they had to both take the initiative and reveal their need for assistance.
  3. Meetings seemed unduly formal because students were expected to come well prepared with specific questions and materials to discuss.
  4. Appointments felt quite impersonal, especially when professors sought to solve students’ problems quickly and dismissed them abruptly.
  5. If their professors did not show up, listen carefully, or move from behind their desk or laptop during office hours, these experiences increased students’ frustration with a class.

However, many of the interviewees were quick to affirm that they had experienced positive face-to-face interactions during office hour visits:

One of my professors makes office hours feel so welcoming. … He is very friendly and that lessens the intimidation. When I told him that I was struggling, he gave me many different alternatives to do better that really helped me. He tried to figure out the way I learn and then gave me tips. … It’s really nice because I can just talk with him as a person and be more open. (Marie Jose, sociology student)

He is one of my go-to professors because the first time I went up to his office, I actually ended up staying an hour. He was asking me about myself, which wasn’t something that I was expecting out of him. I talked to him about a project, but then he asked me a question, and we started talking about ourselves. (Samantha, political science major)

Comments like these suggest that Latin@ students appreciated both the academic help and personal care that they experienced during some office hour visits, but that they especially appreciated those professors who exhibited personalismo.

Relational Expectations

The above discussion of Latin@ students’ preferred means of communication aligns with the critical finding that they valued personal relationships with their professors. However, the students’ responses to our questions about forms of address and varying understandings of time provided additional insight into how deeply their relational expectations were shaped by their cultural values. More specifically, we found that the Latin@ undergraduates’ interactions with their professors were governed by a deep cultural respect for their elders and were colored by Latin@ understandings of time.

Respect

In response to questions about how they addressed their professors and why they employed particular forms of address and not others, Latin@ students regularly referred to their views of the inter-relationship of roles and respect. The students, with just a few exceptions, noted that they simply could not address their professors informally (i.e., by their first names), even when their professors had invited them to do so, because in their culture children are taught to respect their elders. Thus, to call a professor by his or her first name was virtually unthinkable:

I definitely did not grow up where it was okay to call adults by their first name. I came into college with the mentality that professors are definitely your superior, and that’s part of Latin@ respect for parents and respect for adults in general. (Melissa, environmental studies & English literature double major)

Respecting anybody who is older than you is a really big value in our culture. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel comfortable calling her by her first name, just because she’s my professor. She’s wise. She’s an authority figure, and out of respect, I call her professor. But just knowing that I could call her by her first name makes me feel a bit more comfortable with her. (Sara, nursing student)

The students’ respect for the position and authority of their professors, however, did not curtail their desire for relationships with their professors. In fact, the students whom we interviewed repeatedly shared their desire for caring, mentoring relationships with their professors. The Latin@ conception of respeto, however, required students to wait for their professors to take the initiative in establishing such relationships. As Samantha stated:

If I ask for help or go up to their office, am I going to come off as intruding on the professor? If I want to learn about their life, is that disrespectful? So, usually my relationships with professors have been successful if [the professors] make the move first, rather than me having to guess if its’s safe for me to ask those questions.

When professors did take the initiative to connect with them personally, the Latin@ undergraduates expressed profound gratitude. In talking about his mentor, Julio, a senior in his final semester, reflected: “Something that I really appreciate about him is that he cares about his students. He is not just about academics. He does care about us succeeding in class, but also getting to know the real us.”

Time 

The students whom we interviewed also underscored that different cultural understandings of time’s value and function markedly influenced their expectations of student-professor relationships. Almost all of the interviewees acknowledged that their professors were busy people with many important responsibilities, and they clearly understood the dominant culture’s view of time as a commodity to be organized, managed, and guarded. Nevertheless, their understanding did not change the fact that the time-driven behavior of some professors was still off-putting. One student, for example, mused on how strange it was to be asked to schedule a meeting several weeks in advance to address her immediate questions. Another student noted, “Most of my profs are really busy, so you need an appointment to see them, and you can’t really stop by whenever you want. And even if I do stop in when they have office hours, they are not there or they have a lot to do.”

By contrast, the Latin@ undergraduates applauded those professors who gave of their time freely – even abundantly – in keeping with a more typical Latin@ understanding of time. One male student, for example, directly linked time to relationship-building as he reflected on his office hours experiences:

I see office hours as a more casual time to spend with my professor. I want to spend it well, be it learning or just talking with them. I feel disappointed if I don’t feel as though I connected with the professor at all.

Manuel, a physics major, underscored the salience of his professor’s generosity with time and linked it to colectivismo: “She would stay until 6 or 8 pm if she needed to help us solve problems or something that we didn’t understand. That figure of a mother that stays there until you understand, it is just impacting you in a positive way.” In sum, for many Latin@s, time is a gift to be employed in the service of relationship, just as respect is a gift bestowed on those in authority.

Learning Strategies

The Latin@ participants in our research studies overwhelmingly preferred to learn in classrooms characterized by a participatory-interactive communication style. They were particularly enthusiastic about the value and cultural congruence of narrative learning and dialogue education.

The Importance of Narrative and Dialogue

The students were unabashedly positive about their experiences engaging with professors who used narrative learning, because stories function in ways that promote the Latin@ value of colectivismo. Professors’ intentional integration of narratives into class sessions 1) created memorable learning experiences that helped students integrate concepts into real-life scenarios; 2) promoted exploration of multiple points of view, which resulted in the development of richer perspectives; and 3) fostered relationship-building with their professors and peers based upon common human experience and cultural diversity. Daniela, a public health major, enthused:

Narratives and story are definitely important to me. I think that does go back to my culture. I am very much collectivistic, so I love learning about people. I love knowing their stories. I understand better when the professor can either give a narrative about themselves or someone else. This is part of being a community – part of being a family.

The Latin@ students were equally positive about dialogue as a culturally congruent teaching and learning strategy. Angela, a social work major, explained: “Discussion connects with me because I love to talk – that is a big part of my culture and who I am. I like having those discussions. It always brings up something new from someone’s experience.” Celina, a speech major, described an excellent literature course as “really conversational. We all sat around in a circle and talked about what we had read. It was more about ideas than drilling or lecture. … We were learning, but we were applying it more to our lives, talking more about why it matters, and bringing up things that were important to us.”

A number of the study participants also underscored that they valued dialogue because it increased peer learning. Though both of these learning strategies have long been known to foster deep learning, our research suggests they are particularly important to Latin@ students because they reflect collectivistic cultural epistemologies.

Taking the Next Steps

How can the results of this research be implemented in classrooms on your campus? The following suggestions, based on recommendations from the Latin@ students we interviewed, provide a couple ideas for where you can start:

  • Take the first step in building personal relationships with students. The students we interviewed, like their peers, deeply desire personal relationships with their professors; however, their cultural values dictate that their professors should take the initiative. Toward that end, they suggest that professors sensitively inquire about their well-being, their families, and their stories. Taking the time to do so demonstrates personalismo, and that will not go unnoticed.
  • Incorporate stories – especially personal ones – into your curriculum. No matter your discipline, explore ways in which to authentically employ narrative as a teaching and learning tool. Consider the relative cultural value of examples, illustrations, case studies, and narratives. “Show us who you are,” one Latina engineering major suggested. “Latinos connect more when we know more. Tell us a few stories.”
  • Re-envision the classroom and academic practices using colectivismo. Take the time to consider the many ways in which classroom and academic practices are predicated upon individualistic values, and invite your Latin@ students to help you see teaching and learning through collectivistic lenses. What kind of spaces could you create, for example, to turn office hours into group learning experiences? What might result if you were to envision “group learning” as everything that transpired within the classroom instead of solely what takes place in small group activities?
  • Learn from and with your Latin@ students. The Latin@ interviewees, including those who had very positive experiences, longed for their professors to assume the humble posture of learners alongside them – to be curious, for example, about different Latin@ sub-cultures, theorists, or theologies. Provide your Latin@ students (and all students of color) with multiple opportunities to share from their cultural epistemologies, their heritage, and their family narratives as part of your course curricula. Not only will this help them become more engaged in the classroom experience, but it can also help dominant culture learners better understand their Latin@ peers. Equally as important, those of us who teach and lead in CCCU institutions will learn much about culture, life, and faith as we engage with our Latin@ students.

Timothy Baldwin (Ph.D. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as an intercultural educator and consultant for CCCU and ATS institutions. His teaching and research focus on the intersection of diverse cultural epistemologies, responsive pedagogy, and multi-directional hospitality in higher education classrooms.

Martin Avila Jr. serves as the program coordinator for the Multicultural Student Development Office at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). He is a graduate of Calvin and is an M.Ed. student at Michigan State University.

Recommended Reading

Chavez, Alicia G. and Susan D. Longerbeam. 2016. Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A Guide to Balancing Integrated and Individuated Cultural Frameworks in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Garrod, Andrew, Robert Kilkenny, and Christina Gomez, eds. 2007. Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gay, Geneva. 2010. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice, 2nd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lozano, Adele, ed. 2015. Latina/o College Student Leadership. Emerging Theory, Promising Practice. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Williams, Damon A, 2013. Strategic Diversity Leadership: Activating Change and Transformation in Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Wlodkowski, Raymond J. and Margery B. Ginsberg. 1995. Diversity & Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.