“Surrounded by all these contradictions”: every day culture shock in culturally diverse post-secondary classrooms
Friesen, Helen Irma Lepp
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Using a phenomenological approach, this study examined the lived experiences of students and instructors in relation to culturally diverse classrooms in an urban Canadian post-secondary institution, and what meanings they ascribed to those experiences. Data were collected through individual interviews with nine students and seven instructors, who had experienced the phenomenon. Findings revealed that first, all participants, students and instructors, were keenly aware of differences in how they personally differed and how they observed differences in those around them. Second, participants’ social location impacted how they experienced differences. Third, in their fears and hopes, participants expressed a range of emotional responses to differences. Both students and instructors seemed to have similar hopes and fears. Emotional responses were dependent upon the nature of the critical events pertaining to difference which, in turn, prompted participants to adopt strategies to deal with these events. Fourth, the discussion about cultural diversity exposed a paradox and irony between what participants said and what they actually experienced. Although participants enthusiastically attested to the richness of diversity, when looking beneath the façade, a dystopian utopia emerged where participants were “surrounded by all these contradictions.” Participants experienced a form of every day culture shock every time they entered a university classroom, and they uniformly talked about valuing difference, but practice often demonstrated the opposite. This became evident when participants talked about the pressure to fit in and about wanting to belong. Fifth, most participants evidenced varying levels of ambiguity about their personal and public identity, demonstrated in seemingly self-deprecating language. Sixth, although the traditional academic system illustrated evidence of nontraditional methods, at times the impression of openness seemed paradoxical. The distinctive nature of this study revealed that when using Freire’s critical pedagogy and Mezirow’s transformative learning as theoretical frameworks, results showed a continuum on the spectrum of power sharing with some instructors still seeing themselves as vessel fillers, to instructors on the other side of the spectrum, willing to reevaluate traditional models. Such a study is important because cross-cultural competency and sensitivity, as Street (1984) says, are essential components in today’s culturally diverse work, academic, and social environment.