May 25, 2012

Dr. Seuss and Assimilation


A few weeks after I came from Germany to Utah colleagues in ministry at one of our monthly meetings kept referring to “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss” and I had no clue what they were talking about. I was even too embarrassed to ask.
Asaad al-Saleh is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature working for the Department of Languages and Literature and the Middle East Center at the University of Utah and he also experienced his Dr. Seuss moment, actually only a couple of miles away from where I had mine:

“Everything was going fine until one of my students told me that she was going to write about Dr. Seuss. I asked her who Dr. Seuss was, and the student, as well as the rest of the class, thought I was joking. But I was serious! Neither during my childhood nor during my first year had I heard about what I later realized to be the most famous author for children. When I look back now at that incident I realize that both my students and I had a mutual cultural shock; they could not believe that I did not know Dr. Seuss. Hardly could they believe that the only person who did not know anything about a certain cultural topic (or icon) was the teacher. One can imagine how hard it was to be that teacher!
I call it Dr. Seuss’s incident, and every time I reflect on this incident I realize that it was one of the turning points in my teaching career. Dr. Seuss‟s incident showed me that a teacher can be reduced to a humble learner by the same people he teaches. Dr. Seuss‟s incident exposed the huge gaps between students and their teachers who are from a different culture. These gaps cannot be measured or filled in a methodical or organized way as long as we keep silent about them. Dr. Seuss‟s incident gave me the insight that I was new to my students‟ culture, and they were obviously new to mine. Their knowledge of my culture was mere stereotypes and images of ‘otherness.'”

In his paper “Composition Teachers from Different Cultures: Where is Pedagogy?” Al-Saleh also reflects on his name:

“Coming from diverse foreign language backgrounds, international composition teachers like myself often find themselves unintentionally given names that fit the English spelling and pronunciation, compromising their original names either partially, if they come from European languages, or completely, if they come from Eastern languages, such as my native Arabic. More often than not, I personally feel that I am “bell hooked” as I am called by a name that does not sound like my real one.”

I have never looked at it this way but I also changed my name, when moving to America. All of a sudden the A in my first name sounded differently. I am no longer called by the name I grew up with, I was baptized with. It obviously has not had a huge impact on me so far but it is worth noticing, now that I am aware of it.

How has immigration shaped America?
Are we a melting pot or a salad bowl?

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1 Comment

  • I remember when my German exchange student first encountered Dr. Seuss. I had to explain to him that his English wasn’t lacking. Those just weren’t real words. We had a good laugh. He had an assignment to write something like Dr. Seuss. Poor kid. I KNOW that I wouldn’t be able to do that in another language.nnAs for working with the Iraqi refugee population, they totally butcher my name. I don’t mind because I know their hearts. I know they love me. They laugh hysterically when I butcher Arabic words. It’s actually a time of bonding when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other.

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