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  • Sadia Afrin

Who am I? A storyteller of power and prejudice



Being a South-Asian Muslim, Hijabi woman in my late 30s, when I sit in a University classroom at any of the North American countries, I wonder if anyone has thought of my journey to become who I am now in academia beyond my ethnicity or stereo-typical identity! The smiling faces around me appreciate my presence as a ‘brave’ woman to come across halfway around the world with a kid and husband to study abroad. I embody theories of diversity and inclusion or feminism to many. I have been asked many questions out of disbelief about the facts that I had chosen to wear hijab without my husband’s pressure when I got 33 or I go on a date on valentine’s day with my long-married husband. But mostly, I am doubted for my English as a second-language speaker and my knowledge sources from a third world country. I am currently a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo, Canada. Previously, I completed my M.Ed. majoring in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with a concentration on ‘English Education’ from the College of Education, University of Oklahoma (OU), U.S. However, I moved into Canada in 2018 due to Permanent Residency Visa requirements. After arrival here, I stayed focused to pursue my PhD and fulfill my dream of becoming a resourceful scholar and educationist in Higher Education. Yet, my foundation and education as a learner were from somewhere else.


I was born into a post-colonial country, Bangladesh, who (Bangladesh is personified as mother in our culture) was under the British rule for 200 years. The seeds of being superiors than ‘others,’ who are inferiors (Neimneh, 2013), to climb the social ladder by ‘education’ were planted in our society during that regime. These ‘others’ reside among our own people. English language is a key to rise above the ‘others,’ becoming the ‘elite.’ During my childhood and elementary education in an American school in Saudi Arabia, my visits to Bangladesh introduced me to this status quo through the praises and recognitions of family and society only because of my English skills. However, growing up in a multi-cultural community abroad, I learned English just as a ‘language’ beside Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu to communicate with the world I lived in. I mostly enjoyed writing in English feeling ‘powerful’ to express myself in another language outside Bangla (my mother language). The English word choices I made to portray the intensity and vision of my statement based on exclusive Bangla words/concepts; the certainty I felt to be ‘heard’ through the ‘medium of communication;’ the fruitless, grammar-based learning of English; the anguish of not being recognized as ‘talented’ without the skill in English; and many other experiences made my own identity complex over time. As I grew up, I often asked myself: why are English language, literature, and culture idolized as the gateway for prosperity and associated with intellectual ‘human’ identity?


Eventually, I studied English language and Literature during my B.A and M.A in Bangladesh to find a recognizable platform to study Arts opposed to Science though I graduated High School with all math and science subjects. However, the curriculum and lectures opted to glamourize the ‘wealth’ of English literature only. They did not show a connection with me and my culture to initiate a dialogue on those differences to take directions that were our own. I read English literature or saw a movie in English not to assimilate with the distant elite culture, but to detect the hidden concepts, mish mashed under the over-arching themes, such as neocolonialism (Kabir, 2013). Any plot, symbol, character, dialogue, scene, or any connotation of a word in English literature and media whispered something in my thoughts to contemplate. I could see myself in many pieces of English literature invisible, misinterpreted, and undervalued as an ‘other.’ I decided to adopt “interpolation” (Francis, 2007) to rise at the ‘top’ from where both the colonizers and colonized will hear me as I will speak from within the dominant community. I wanted to use English as a second language interchangeably with my mother language in order to express and represent my identity, culture, and history with clarity. Then I thought abruptly about: how our reality and critical consciousness (Freire, 2005) can be cultured while teaching English and negotiating with other languages and literatures?


During teaching at the English Department of a private university in Bangladesh after my first master’s degree, I saw the lack of meaningful learning philosophy and critical thinking among students in HE. For an example, the struggles of undergraduates to interact in English, though it is introduced in their 1st grade, needed to be understood in context. Ironically, I experienced injustice by not having the ‘authority/liberty’ to make necessary choices in teaching from pedagogical standpoint in the department. The innovative assignments, ideas, and practices to nurture and celebrate bilingualism and critical thinking without a North American degree in my profile were denied politically by my colleagues and superiors. While tutoring as a Graduate Writing Consultant later in the U.S., I found similar features among international students. Mechanical use of English for academic papers led Chinese, Arabian, Indian, and many multilingual students to use google translator and conditioned them to ‘survive’ for a materialistic destination. For instance, the politics of identifying a group/ skill as superior by the western concept of productivity and time hidden in the usage of word ‘efficient,’ defying hard work, is unknown to maximum of the English as Second Language learners (ESL). Moreover, devaluing heritage culture and language to consume English, left ESL learners divided in their strength to synthesize cultural and linguistic properties as an asset. I realized that outside of Bangladesh, there is similar emptiness in educational practices. So, who am I as a thinker/scholar?


The Marxist analysis of the Spanish poems of Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in my M.A. in English literature from Bangladesh took me closer to a stranger’s culture and history of oppression because I could process the English translations into a contextual perspective and meaning. Franco-phone Literature studied in OU made me feel like ‘I have been there’ when I read novels translated in English of Alain Mabanckou. I could connect to the collective cultural values of Africa as well as sense of alienation experienced in diaspora reading his characters and plots. Also, when I spoke at a round table discussion in the 2016 International Writing Center Association Conference in Colorado, sitting with my American colleagues, my presence itself made a statement in that room through my identity. It seemed like I broke something ‘normal’ in thoughts and expectations among my audience who thought “Decolonizing Writing Center” in the Western hemisphere was still a job for the White scholars. I embodied that writing in English can be about communicating critically, not about expanding ‘territories.’ I advocated for a new way of acknowledging ‘independence,’ speaking out loud about the (in)visible replication of imperialism in my book chapter, “Trajectories of Language, Culture, and Geography in Post-colonial Bangladesh,” published in Changing World Language Map by Springer International Publishing. My conclusion of this book chapter emphasized on the essence of reinforcing Bengali literature in the World literature arena, and growing bilinguals with critical thinking to contest against colonial legacy.


However, I soon read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Oppressed in OU. His ‘conscientization’ is a revolutionary concept, which advocates for a literacy and education that equip learners to look far into the political, social, economic, and institutional structures and elements of oppression in order to initiate actions towards freedom from dominance (Freire, 1970). The importance of Freire’s conscientization has a huge potential to speak to a person’s identity and reconstruct their reasons to learn a second language. Freire’s conscientization can instigate learning English to retaliate the neo-colonial narrative and academic aggression by deconstructing the use of words and discourse of the dominant culture that mislead civic society in the existing political realm; by communicating with people across the world about how to identify the differences between their hegemonic “consents” (Ashcroft, Griffith, &Tiffin, 2000, p.106) and undervalued root for linguistic preferences; and by developing counter arguments and agencies against the elite’s ‘standards and knowledge’ from a space within them. However, institutionally, the awareness about one’s ‘identity’ and empowerment due to neo-colonialism remains unlearned (Boufoy-Bastick, 2015). Now I am interested to see how Freirean approaches and this hybrid identities can critically engage. Ironically, my transition to Canada reshaped my research focus connecting both my passion and context.

Though diversity, multiculturalism, pluralism, inclusivity, and bilingualism are highly encouraged in Canadian education, their functionality is controversial through policies and practices as they appear assimilationist in nature and add to linguistic Imperialism of English (Duff, 2007). In Canada, the ‘others,’ in my observation, stand for hybrid identities (Smith & Leavy, 2008), which are formed through historical backgrounds in immigration, dislocation, indigenous lineage, and international education. I call them the hybrid generation in academia. This generation is not understood well to teach them writing, and adopting the learning process to listen to them is still rare/inadequate in Canadian universities. Rauna Kuokkanen (2011) in her book Reshaping the university: Responsibility, Indigenous epistemes, and the logic of the gift, wrote widely about the dominant concepts for ‘knowing others,’ which ultimately shed light on issues and needs of learning to learn about all kinds of complex and different identities. Hence, concepts of Linguistic Imperialism (Robert Philipson), Translingualism (Suresh Canagarajah), Disability studies (Jay Dolmage), Code-Meshing (Varshant Young), Student’s Rights to Their Own Languages (CCCC), and Critical Pedagogy (Henry Giroux and Paulo Freire) will be a great influence in my present and future scholarships too. Above all, I hope my own stories will bring real meaning to all these studies and perspectives.


References

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2007). Post colonial studies: the key concepts. New York, NY: Routledge

Boufoy-Bastick, B. (2015).Rescuing language education from the neoliberal disaster: Culturometric predictions and analyses of future policy. Policy Futures in Education, 13(4). 439–467. doi: 10.1177/1478210315571221

Duff, P. A. (2007). Multilingualism in Canadian schools: Myths, realities and possibilities. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 10(2), 149-163. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/19739

Francis, T.P. (2007). Identity politics: Postcolonial theory and writing program instruction.Retrieved from Graduate Theses and Dissertations. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/711

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (2005). Education for critical consciousness. New York, NY: Continuum.

Kabir, A. H. (2013). Neoliberalism, Policy Reforms and Higher Education in Bangladesh. Policy Futures in Education, 11(2). 154-166. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/pfie.2013.11.2.154

Neimneh, S. (2013). The construction of the other in postcolonial discourse: C. P. Cavafy’s “waiting for the barbarians” as an example. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 2(5). Retrieved from URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.2n.5p.133

Smith, K.E.I, & Leavy, P. (2008). Hybrid identities: Theoretical and empirical examinations. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

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