Teaching Across Cultures: What Transculturality Means for Teachers Today
By Philine Schiller
The author shares her experiences from the HSE Autumn School on transculturality and reflects upon the relevance of that concept for teacher education.
In a transcultural context, the idea of any culture as a hermetical, coherent and singular system is outdated and in need of redefining. The prefix trans- defies binaries: it implies a movement not in-between, but across – be it across communities, countries or cultures. When Wolfgang Welsch defined transculturality in the 1990s (not as the first scholar to use the term, but certainly as an influential contributor to the field), he did so by differentiating it from two closely related terms: interculturality and multiculturality. According to him, the major problem with both these terms is that they conceptualize cultures as insular and separate, whereas the notion of transculturality insists upon the permeation and coexistence of various cultures even within the same time and space. While this holds true for any age, it is especially relevant for our modern world, where—due to globalization and the rise of new media—cultures are more entangled than ever before.
Since Welsch’s conceptualization, transculturality has evolved into an interdisciplinary approach that can be applied to a multitude of fields. Some of these were explored in the 2020 HSE Autumn School, which sought to examine the links between transculturality and teacher education. During the workshops the participants received not only theoretical input on transcultural aspects within the field itself by learning about the theories of Ortiz, Anderson, Pratt, Welsch, Bhaba, Juneja et.al. in Dr. Carsten Wergin’s class but also within adjacent fields, such as politics and the study of democracy, race and gender studies, British comedy, second language education, and pedagogy. Of particular interest was, naturally, the classroom itself: a space where transculturality becomes both theoretical (teaching about transculturality) and practical (interacting with students from different backgrounds). The Autumn School provided valuable insights into what transculturality means to current and future teachers, and how important it is to teach consciously and inclusively. Because identity formation happens as much inside as outside of the classroom, it is vital not only to sensitize both students and teachers to the complexity of concepts like nation, culture and community, but also to encourage the questioning of one’s own sense of belonging, one’s values and traditions. Therefore, self-reflection is certainly a keyword when it comes to these processes, promoting a look both without and within oneself, where change originates.
Us vs. Them
The conceptualization of spaces like inside and outside, as well as us and them, were also focal points of the various lively discussions that took place during the seminar. Prof. Dr. Carola Mantel, who taught a class on “Pedagogical Orientation Within the Dynamics of Transculturality”, argues that it is the shifting of perspectives which is decisive: Where are you looking from, and how can you shift from a negative to a more open-minded viewpoint? She encouraged the participants to question their own prejudices and presented productive solutions. Likewise, Prof. Dr. Julia Roth offered a self-assessment test and asked how we can sensitize ourselves to the legacies of colonialism, which we are confronted with in the classroom (e.g. racist depictions in language teaching books, the (re-)writing and whitewashing of history), approaching transculturality from an intersectional and postcolonial perspective. The same perspective can be applied when looking at British comedy, as Dr. Corinna Assmann and Dr. Bernd Hirsch showed in their workshop, where they also sought to change perspectives on race and culture by analyzing and discussing sketches from Goodness Gracious Me, a radio and TV show that explored British Asian culture in the late 1990s.
A highly important aspect of transculturality in the classroom is ‘implicit bias’. Therefore Amarachi Igboegwu suggested in her class “Teaching Consciously: Understanding the Impact of Implicit Bias in the Classroom” that teachers ought to ask themselves how the frames of references they bring into the classroom are likely to impact their interactions with students. In her opinion, the classroom is always political. This view may well be shared by Dr. Tobias Endler and Dr. Portia Williams, who focused on “Teacher Education, Transculturality, and the Ingredients of a Vibrant Democracy”. Their workshop, which was one of the most provocative contributions to the Autumn School, centered on Jason Brennan’s controversial paper “Against Democracy”. Arguing for exclusive access to elections, Brennan asks: Who gets to participate in democracy? Does everybody deserve to? Is democracy even as great as it is made out to be? As could be expected these questions prompted heated discussions which outlasted the timeframe of the workshop. They also generated a lot of introspection regarding the nature of politics, and how we as individuals exist within political systems that make our every action inherently political—and how this shapes our teacher personae. The question of how (a-)political a teacher should or can be exceeds the scope not only of this article but of any discussion, as a simple and concise answer simply does not exist.
Cutural Sensitivity & Self-Awareness
Ultimately various questions posed during the Autumn School workshops were not explicitly answered for that same reason: There is not always a simple answer, and perhaps there does not have to be one. What seems crucially important, though, is that different viewpoints can be discussed critically and communally in the course of any virtual or physical exchange around the world. This should also be kept in mind when considering school as an institution and teaching as a profession: Transculturality can mean many things and is thus not only important for language teachers. Cultural sensitivity is indubitably important for every teacher, regardless of their subject. Permeating everything seems to be self-awareness, a conscious reflection on the self and on your actions, aptitudes and attitudes. Although the peaceful coexistence of cultures certainly is a goal worth striving for, it is not the reality we are faced with today; that is where the work of teachers and our society lies. The children who sit in our classrooms today will change the world of tomorrow. It is not our job to tell them what to do, but to help them become informed, educated, and hopefully compassionate individuals. Being aware of transcultural impulses and approaches as a teacher can only contribute to these goals.
In 1999, Welsch argued that “transculturality […] draws a different picture descriptively and normatively of the condition and relation of cultures: not one of isolation and conflict, but of entanglement, intermixing and commonness” (85). One might oppose Welsch: Entanglement does not exclude conflict. But it is possible to work through the conflict and be better for it. His general argument and future outlook, however, ring true: “the tasks of the future—in political and social, scientific and educational, artistic and creative respects—are best addressed through approaches which decidedly take transculturality into account” (86). Looking ahead, it becomes clear that a lot of work remains to be done. Recognizing that we live in a transcultural world is just the first step on a path that leads us into a more tolerant and open-minded world. We, as teachers, must continue learning to teach not only about, but across, cultures.
Brennan, Jason, Against Democracy. Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Juneja, Monica, and Christian Kravagna, “Understanding Transculturalisms,” in: Transcultural Modernisms. Berlin: Sternberg Pr., 2013, 22–33.
Sacher, Carina et al., “‘Unterricht ist politisch.’ Ein Interview mit der Schwarzen Bildungswissenschaftlerin und Aktivistin Amarachi Igboegwu,” in: Ruprecht, 22 (July 2020), www.ruprecht.de/2020/07/31/unterricht-ist-politisch/. Last accessed: 9.11.2020.
Welsch, Wolfgang, “Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today,” in: Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. Eds. Mike Featherstone und Scott Lash. London: SAGE, 1999.