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Thursday, April 16, 2009

How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (2)


by Ann Abbott

I was on Windsor Avenue, in the fast lane, driving to work one recent morning when the car in front of me suddenly slowed down. I thought that was odd, but simply steered into the right lane. From there, I saw the cause of the slow-down: a hearse with a long line of cars behind it. The cars had their headlights on and small flags had been affixed to show that they were part of the procession. I slowed down to keep a respectable distance.

What made me put my foot on the brake? Culture.

Some cars in the opposite lanes slowed down, some pulled to the shoulder, and some came speeding past. Even though I was in a hurry to get to work, as soon as I saw the funeral procession my emotions switched from “rushed” to “respect.” When I saw that other drivers didn’t even slow down, that upset me. I’m not prone to road-rage at all, but I wanted to tell them—“Hey, slow it down; show some respect to the family.”

What pulled that emotional trigger? Cultural conflict.

Since I was slowed down anyway, I took a minute to think about what I was observing. Why did some people stop, some slowed down, and others did nothing? How did I know what I was supposed to do? I live in a university town with people from all different countries; were the speeders simply unaware of US cultural practices regarding funeral processions? Were the people who slowed down but didn’t stop caught between old-fashioned cultural norms (stop) and contemporary ones (rush, rush, rush)? I’m originally from a very rural area; are things done differently in a town the size of Champaign-Urbana versus my town whose only traffic signal was a flashing red light?

What fueled my questions? Cultural analysis.

Up ahead, the hearse turned left through a red light and the other cars followed.

What prevented accidents from happening? Luck.

This story may seem disconnected from this blog’s topic of Spanish community service learning. But what I want to emphasize is the process of recognizing and analyzing culture—our own and others. It happens to us all. And it happens to our students when they work in the community. Our job is to help them go through that process more deeply and completely. In the posts that follow I will share some ideas for how we can address cultural analysis in our Spanish service learning curricula. I’d also love to hear your ideas! Please leave a comment.

Other posts in this series:
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (1)
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (3): Re-brand Culture
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (4): Culture is everything, everything is culture.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (5): Analyze your emotions.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (6): Wrestle with shadows.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (7): Develop skills of observation. How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (8): An example.

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