Transculturality and the Future of American Teachers in the Post-Trump Era
By Susan L. Capote Lamb
“Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.’ Today he would have pointed to our electronic media and said, ‘I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.’ We have leased these places to stand to private corporations.”
Marshall McLuhan (1964: p. 15)
In November 2020, after 7 days of election fatigue in the United States culminating in a collective emotion of jubilation and social vindication over Joe Biden’s election as the new president of the United States, I committed myself to coming back down to earth and returning to the classroom, knowing that I had a potential fight on my hands. As I attempted to return to the business of teaching in my school, which is in a politically conservative area of Houston, Texas, I was thrown back into the dark reality of the divisive nature of our American society, which continues to be dominated by an increasingly xenophobic and intolerant culture of hate. As a literature teacher, I remembered the inspiring words of Corinna Assmann at the 2020 HSE Autumn School, and was reminded of the reason why I chose to teach literature and not math.
Literature has the potential to teach through a transcultural lens in a very personal way, as Assmann states, helping us to find narratives that make it possible to accommodate different perspectives, which help us to find a shared future. Literature engages cultural ambiguities in order to bring new thoughts and feelings into context. Assmann articulates exactly my experiences with transculturality as an English educator, and as an immigrant youth who entered the United States as a refugee over 30 years ago.
When I returned to my diverse junior high classroom after the controversial results of the elections, I found myself fighting against the persistent Trump narrative of ‘us versus them’ – which is the polar opposite message of my transcultural pedagogical objectives, which aim to blur boundaries and notions of otherness. My immigrant students, who come from Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, and Nigeria, have been witnesses of the savage othering during the Trump era for the past 4 years. They were excited about the election results, and were met with direct opposition by my white American students, because their candidate had lost the election. And to add insult to injury, the very same media voices that assured my immigrant students that now, in the new Biden era, they would be safe and able to live freely in the United States (e.g., Van Jones on CNN), also reminded them that the culture of otherness they experienced (e.g., Neo Nazis emboldened by Trump) remains close to home. So as their English, social studies and media teacher, where do I go from here? And what does transculturality look like for teachers like me, post-Trump?
For the purposes of this reflection, I would like to explore, from an auto-ethnographic transcultural perspective, pivotal moments in my childhood as a refugee immigrant child in the United States, which influenced my development as an educator, in an attempt to answer how my ‘American’ education was primarily shaped by the media, and how I turned it from an enemy into an ally. I will attempt to address how political a teacher’s role is in the transcultural classroom, and how the media can be an ally of transculturality in a teacher’s personal pedagogy and classroom community. I will explore this from a McLuhan media perspective, as it relates to the recent 2020 American presidential election.
Media as Transcultural Ally
In a 1967 NBC film about Marshall McLuhan, he played with his own quote, “the medium is the message” by pronouncing message as “massage”. In another famous phrase, he takes this pun further and turns it into being ‘massaged by the media’, in the chiropractic sense. We are, as he says, roughed up by the media. “All media work us over completely.” (McLuhan, 1967: p. 26) We are manipulated and changed in ways we are often not aware of, without the advantage of hindsight, the “rear-view mirror” effect. “We march backward into the future” (p. 75). While McLuhan rarely made judgments about whether media is good or bad, from his words, one can build a case against the commercialization of our media, and its influence on the development of immigrant youth.
Asamen and Berry’s (2012: p. 375) statement that “[t]elevision and its electronic kin of the future can influence children’s values and beliefs about the nature of equality, equity, and social justice” has always reminded me of McLuhan. I have been inspired by Berry and Asamen’s position for years, ever since I first read their work in graduate school as a communications and education student at Columbia University. During the controversial 2016 presidential election, with Donald Trump’s victory and ascension to the American presidency, I had my students create a hypothetical “Public Service Announcement,” in which they had to take an unbiased position on the question of peace and social justice, and to present it, not as a solution, but as a way to get their audience to “imagine” another way to see the world in which the boundaries of culture are blurred. It was my attempt to apply culturally responsive and receptive pedagogy in my classroom, by creating a transcultural consciousness that might address some of Trump’s xenophobia and American exceptionalism, without being overtly political.After Trump’s 2020 loss, I reread Berry and Asamen, as well as Josephine Louie’s article, Media in The Lives of Immigrant Youth (2003), and remembered my early experiences as an immigrant refugee child in the 1980s, around the time that Marshall McLuhan’s predictions began to materialize.
The current 2020 presidential election has brought me back to Louie, Berry and Asamen’s findings, reminding me of my immigrant youth students, whose multicultural perspectives and social values are strongly influenced by the news and advertising of today, in a way that is very similar to my own experiences as an immigrant student in the United States. Like my students, I was one of those immigrant youth who displayed the “distinct media use patterns” that Louie describes. I, too, used the TV for social collateral, in order to understand myself in the new social space that I was attempting to carve out for myself in the U.S. But unlike my students, I did not have a president threatening to deport me. My relationship to the television media was always “cool” – in McLuhan’s sense that the viewer was not passive. I interacted with it, and it became my companion and my teacher. As I reflected on what I was to become, the media, in many ways, taught me where my host country thought I came from, and where it expected I would end up.
I am reminded of the book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Letter to My Son, where he describes the American history of violence against “black bodies” and lynchings that – unlike African Americans – immigrant youths like myself experienced through the media. These negative virtual images raped, lynched and crushed dreams by reinforcing negative ethnic stereotypes of people of color and other ethnic immigrants. I remember entering my Catholic School for the first time, and how it was filled with students who were all first-generation immigrant youth. I remember how all the students competed for American white privilege by mocking each other’s ethnicity, and how the teachers, instead of speaking up, chose to remain silent.
Looking back now, I am grateful to the teachers who taught me, through their uncomfortable silences, how important culturally-responsive pedagogy, transcultural awareness and media literacy is, because they modeled for me exactly the kind of teacher I did not want to become. These teachers encouraged a “hot” vs “cold” relationship to the television media, as McLuhan would have said, by allowing my classmates, based on the news coverage at the time, to believe that all refugees like me and the others who came off the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, were like Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. As a child, I wished that the media could find a middle ground in the presentation of the news, and that it reflected the needs of both sides, by reframing their message in a kind of transcultural language and understanding, the way good teachers try to do with their students.
After Trump’s win in 2016, and his recent 2020 loss, I experienced on both occasions a powerful teachable moment, when my students came to me wanting to know who was right, and who should have won the election? In 2020, I found myself asking the same question I had asked in 2016: How can I meet the needs of all my students, while not being political? How do I, as their teacher, keep an unbiased view of the events? I think my early experiences in elementary school ultimately shaped my stance on social justice and teaching practices as an adult. These experiences created in me a sense of cultural empathy, which I still carry with me into the classroom today.
So, what does transculturality mean to me as a current and future teacher? When Wolf Blitzer announced on CNN that Joseph Biden had enough electoral votes to be announced the President-Elect of the United States of America five days after the election, I received more calls from friends around the world than members of my own family here in the United States. The transculturality of the world with this American election was evident by the melting of borders, and the jubilant reactions around the globe. My immigrant students also felt the melting away of borders, but they did not feel the same welcome in our school here in Houston, Texas. My role as an English teacher, as we wait for the transition of power in our government to settle, will be one of the most significant of my teaching career, as it will affect how my students see themselves as part of a transcultural community, and find the power of their own voice.
As an educator, the 2020-2021 school year taught me, through a controversial presidential election in the middle of a triple pandemic (that culminated with the Black Lives Matter movement that spread around the world), that the power of our voices could not have been heard without the media’s ability to ignite the central nervous system of a transcultural global community. As a result, I hope that this school year has taught educators around the world that we need teachers who know how to harness the power of their students’ voices. We need teachers who don’t just teach students how to read and write, but also to recognize the importance of introducing and supporting transcultural references that make reading and writing meaningful:
“Culturally-Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. Culture is central to learning. It plays a role not only in communication and receiving information, but also in shaping the thinking process of groups and individuals. It is essential that a pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures offers full equitable access to education for students from all cultures.”
(Connected Education; based on Ladson-Billings 1994)
Moving forward as an American educator post-Trump and into the Biden era, I hope to see future teachers in the United States embrace cultural ambiguities and shared experiences with a transcultural lens, in what I hope will be more culturally-responsive classrooms. I hope that as 21st-century post-Trump era educators, our response at home in the United States will not only affect the social culture of our schools, but more importantly, will affect how our students see themselves for the rest of their lives – as a growing global community that has a powerful transcultural voice, with an echo that has already shown itself to have the power to change the world.
Susan L. Capote Lamb
Doctoral Candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University
McLuhan, Marshall & Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. 1967.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964.
Asamen, Joy Keiko & Gordon L. Berry. “Television, Children, and Multicultural Awareness. Comprehending the Medium in a Complex Multimedia Society.” Handbook of Children and the Media. Eds. Dorothy G. Singer & Jerome L. Singer. 2021. 363-377.
Louie, Josephine. “Media in the Lives of Immigrant Youth.” New Directions for Youth Development 2003.100 (2003): 111–130.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. 1994.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Letter to My Son.” The Atlantic 316.2 (2015): 82-91.