Class is In Session…And So Are Stereotypes

October 29, 2007 § Leave a comment

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I’ve been enrolled at courses at the University of Ghana for over two months now and as expected I’ve noticed some differences between higher education here and higher education at my home institution back in America. The workload is not as heavy and many of the classes are pretty laid-back, meaning that some students can still successfully pass their classes without always coming to class. The teaching style relies heavily on the lecture. Students take notes, many times writing down the professors’ lecture word-for-word. Class discussions are minimal and at times nonexistent.

Usually one will find his or herself listening to the professor lecture every week and then at the culmination of the semester a final exam will be administered. However, even I have enough sense to recognize that each professor is different and that what is expected of students in one class differs from the next. Which is why I was absolutely appalled by the generalizations one of my African-American literature professors made who is a visiting professor from an Ivy League institution in the U.S.

Before getting to what she said, I’ll explain the dynamics of the class on that Monday afternoon. The class was assigned several texts to read from Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Unlike most of my courses, this particular course is comprised of mostly international students. Now I’m not sure whether or not my colleagues were unaware there was an assignment or if they just assumed they could wing it. Whatever the case was, as soon as the professor announced that we would be having a class discussion on the readings that day, about 5 or 6 American students abruptly left the classroom. Their excuse: they didn’t read and therefore weren’t prepared to participate in the discussion. Now of course, my professor had briefly left the room so she did not see them leave.

When the professor returned to the classroom to begin class she asked the remaining handful of students, “where is everyone today? It looks like there are a lot of American students out today.” No one said a word. I for one wasn’t going to because I’ve never been one to rat anyone out.

We started class and the professor asked a Ghanaian male student a question about Hurston’s work. The student looked puzzled and couldn’t answer the question. “Have you done the reading?” the professor asked the student. Still no response from the student. “Look, it’s a yes or no question. Have you read or not?” the professor said in a condescending tone. The student finally responded, saying he hadn’t read the assignment. “You see how easy that was. Now you’re not wasting our time,” she said crossly. Embarrassed, the student sulked in his seat and was silent for the remainder of the class. She continued calling on different students to see if they had read. In this particular case it turned out that most of the American students had read and the Ghanaian students hadn’t.

Clearly the professor was annoyed that so many of her students weren’t prepared for her class, which is understandable. But, the statements she made next were what I had a problem with. “So have any of you actually done the reading? I know what the problem is. I know the Ghanaian students aren’t used to actually being expected to do their assignments. You’re used to having the lecturer lecture and that is all. Well, in America we are expected to complete our reading assignments and as a matter of fact we have something in America called pop quizzes and if I want to, I can give the class one next time to make sure that you’re reading. That’s true isn’t it that Ghanaian professors don’t ever call on students because they don’t expect them to have read, is that right.”

Clearly the professor was implying that it wasn’t a coincidence that all the Ghanaian students weren’t prepared for class that day. Apparently, Ghanaian students are used to having lower academic expectations. They’re not expected to work hard, the professor thought.

As the class continued, she referred Changes, by Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian author. She asked if anyone had read the novel before. I was the only one in the class that had read the book. And this was in my opinion an coincidence. I had only read the book because I had taken a global women writer’s literature course back in America. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have come across it otherwise. Some of the Ghanaian students told the professor that they were familiar with some of Aidoo’s poetry, but not the novels. The professor made it seem as if they should have read the book, especially since they are Ghanaian. “How could you have not read that novel. I’m really surprised at that! So when will you get to that,” she said in a sarcastic tone.

In reading this one may not think what the professor said was bad at all, but if one thinks about it one will realize that she was making generalizations about Ghanaian students, which is unacceptable and offensive. Imagine I am a student from an HBCU who is studying for a semester a predominantly white college. I am the only student who hasn’t read the assignment and the professor decides to attribute that to my HBCU education for which I’ve always been given low expectations (which isn’t true of course, but nevertheless what some people assume). I feel as though many people, my professor included would cry racism if this scenario unfolded. And they’d be right, wouldn’t they?

The professor insinuated that Ghanaian students were used to lower expectations in the classroom, which is definitely a generalization. What bothered me the most about the situation was that the professor had no idea that just minutes before her tirade, American students cut the class because they weren’t prepared. So this whole time she is putting American students on a pedestal and talking down to Ghanaian students as if they are somehow naturally used to not taking the classroom seriously. If the American students who were unprepared had stayed in the class, instead of cutting, the professor would have realized that being unprepared for class is not a Ghanaian thing at all. It’s a personal thing. Some students choose to do their work, some don’t. Some don’t show up for class at all. It’s that simple. It really is.

Now I’m pretty sure the professor didn’t think even for a second that she was out of line with the statements she made. Not only were her comments hurtful to Ghanaian students, but they also placed American students in a superior light, which should not be the case. American students are no more studious or conscientious than Ghanaian students.

Students no matter where they hail are all different and should be judged individually, not as a group. Generalizing groups of people should never be tolerated, especially in an academic environment. And this particular generalization coming from an American just further confirms the stereotype that Americans think they are better than everyone else, which is a stereotype we as Americans shouldn’t want to fulfill.


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