More than once throughout my years of school, I have been asked to reflect on the question, "Who am I?" And, more than once, I have been asked to create some sort of visual representation of my answer, usually in the form of a collage. Attempting to answer this question almost always entails some evaluation of what I consider to be my culture . In the past, I have created collages that consisted entirely of pictures of musicians, or of baseball players, or of family and friends, or, sometimes, all three. To begin to approach the question of identity entails, I think, a narrowing of that query. We are all too complex to to be explained in any linear, logical, or even comprehensible way. So, while past attempts at this question have narrowed the question in different ways--sometimes even by leaving the question of identity broad but narrowly selecting objects for the collage--this time, I decided to probe my identity by asking myself, What do I consume, or What has consumed me?
The nature of consumption is one that, I think, relegates us almost entirely to the present. In other words, I am so consumed by the things I currently consume that it is difficult for me to remember the past consumptions of my life. In that way, my collage above depicts not a history of my life and culture, but rather a snapshot into who I believe myself to be now based on the things I am currently consuming/being consumed by. As I begin to analyze it, the first bit of self-reflection I run into tells me this: I am an educated, white male, who is neither so well wealthy so as to be part of the establishment nor so poor so as to be unaware of hegemonic structures at work in my society. Additionally, I might be an atheist, and I definitely have leanings towards humanism. From where do I glean this information? Well, from the things I consume: Gravity's Rainbow, V., The Crying of Lot 49, The Erasers, these are difficult texts. Moreover, they are texts that contain more than simple, straight narratives; they are layered with cultural references and social commentaries; they are texts whose authorial audience has been exposed to literature before. Why might it be obvious that I am a white male? Because everything that I have consumed (according to my collage) has been the product of a white male. For as much as some of the works on the collage might be considered symbolic of particular counter-cultures, they are all part of that dominant white male society. But, even while they are the works of white men, these products are also, in nearly every case, polemics on social change, or, at least, cynical works that are unhappy with the status quo. Importantly, however, the change advocated by many of these works is a change geared toward the self, a change about becoming a better human, even if that means recognizing that all in society is absurd.
My point in describing myself through the cultural products I have included on my collage is to illustrate the obvious correlation between race, class, gender, religion, etc and culture. It's my firm belief that had I been a black female, who was a Southern Baptist, and living below the poverty line, I would not be consuming the same things. And that speaks to more than just personal preference and taste; what I mean by that is that I would not be consuming even the same type of things. It's very possible that someone who shares the same characteristics as me--white male, etc etc--might not have Slaughterhouse-Five or Darkness on the Edge of Town on their collage, I would wager that he would have other artifacts that share similar qualities. This point also speaks to the fact that, while I think it's true that who we are helps determine what cultural artifacts we choose, it's also true that the cultural artifacts we choose help determine who we are. I can better articulate myself through my cultural artifacts perhaps for the very reason that these objects are cultural and, therefore, part of a larger shared community who understands them in much the same way that I do.
So, if we have established that there is a sort of symbiotic relationship between self and culture, each reflecting back onto the other, then it is worth discussing how that relationship plays out in the classroom. The town where I attended high school (as well as middle and part of elementary) was overwhelmingly white and upper middle class. I note this because often, throughout my teacher education, I have heard much about forming curricula that are representative of student interest and culture. Assuming that my teachers heard much the same thing, I have to think that my experiences as a learner were shaped by the culture of the school. I don't see it as coincidental that the majority of the novels I read in English class (some of which are on the collage) were written by white authors, and that when we read a novel by a black author, there was a distinct air of "cultural diversity" about the text. The culture of students in school invariably affects the sort of learning experiences they have, particularly in classes where there are a multitude of culturally different texts from which to teach.
Clearly, I give a lot of weight to culture as a factor that affects learning experiences, as I imagine most others do, too. My view of culture--or the aspects of culture that interest me most--namely, the artifacts produced such as literature and music, however, might be wholly different from someone who views culture primarily as concerned with heritage, family traditions, and the like. When I teach someday, then, it's very likely that my view of culture could have interesting implications. For example, if I am teaching a lesson on Slaughterhouse-Five, I might emphasize to my students the sort of larger, cultural context of the novel: how it deals with the Vietnam War through the lens of WWII, how its tone of pessimistic humanism might be related to a larger feeling present in post-war America, etc. But, if a student of mine tends to think of culture in far more personal ways, he/she might not grasp what I am saying, might see it all as a stretch. At the same time, these differing views of culture can also affect my interactions with my students. For example, I might tend to view them as I view my classmates in my own high school experience, as a collective mass of a certain type of person. But, the students might not understand this view. They might see themselves as too unique to be categorized, as each having a particular culture that is separate from their classmates. Moreover, they find it frustrating if I do not give them some personal details from my life that can help them to see me as a member of a small, personal, probably familiar culture.
Ultimately, recognizing these different ways culture can be conceptualized will only help me to become a more effective teacher. The more ways in which I can understand my students culturally, the more strategies I will have at my disposal for connecting with them and helping them to connect with me. This might prove especially true should I end up teaching in an urban environment where there might be such great diversity so that my view of large cultural collectives will be difficult to apply.