Monday, November 08, 2010

The dreaded assignment, college version

Bad news for adoptive parents who are thinking the hurtful family tree and baby picture type assignments end with lower education. My daughter has a college assignment now that has her in tears: She's to give an oral presentation on her family's cultural heritage, with suggested questions like "Where were you born? How did your parents decide to give you the name they did? When did members of your family come to this country? How do you celebrate your cultural heritage?"

Well. That's some loaded territory for an international adoptee, isn't it? Also, I'd think, for a kid raised in foster care, or an abusive home, or any sort of background in which you might not want to be talking to a roomful of peers about your family history. It's not even a sociology class or psychology class or anything in which roots would be relevant. It's Introduction to the College Experience. And I think the teacher is considering meeting people of different cultures part of the college experience, and rah rah multiculturism, okay, I get it. But wow, does this professor ever for a moment consider that for some kids, it's complicated? One's cultural background can be a source of pride, but that is not a universal experience.

It's not that my daughter is ashamed of being Russian. It's just that she doesn't relate to it at all. And talking about heritage, heritage, heritage makes her start to feel blue about not knowing her birthparents, and she's afraid that if she gets up and starts talking about being Russian, she is going to cry. We communicate well about her adoption issues and try to give her a positive personal narrative about her background and culture, as much as possible given her language and learning difficulties. Adoption is pretty abstract, and she doesn't do abstract.

Really, though, we're a family that doesn't do culture, in the sense of obsessing about where your ancestors came from. My husband is purebred Italian and grew up with an Italian-speaking grandmother in the house and plenty of Italian culture, but he's had zero interest in making that part of our family story. My own upbringing was about as processed-cheese-food suburban American as you can get, and my parents worked hard to make that happen. That's our cultural background: American. That's what my daughter identifies with, what my husband and I proclaim. But I don't think that's what this professor is looking for. Wave the Italian flag! Send in some of my grandmother's Manischewitz soup!

Whatever. If my daughter was younger, I'd have a word with the teacher about this, just to make sure he was sensitive to her sensitivity. As the parent of a college student, I don't seem to be allowed that, and frankly, I'd probably just embarrass her more. As it is, I'm unsure how to proceed. The project does have enough wiggle room that she might be able to just focus on our family's mongrel-like mix of heritages and not accentuate her own. But I kind of wonder if this isn't a good opportunity to work on that pride-in-her-Russian-heritage thing. It's a neat thing about her. It's a neat thing about our family. I kind of hate to hide that light beneath a bushel, though of course, it's her light to do with as she wishes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm coming a little late to your comment here, but I had to say something.

I work in a university in a student support office. The students I work with are different than most, and one of the things I try and teach them is how to advocate for themselves in an appropriate way in the educational environment.

The good news is that college professors are often must more flexible then people assume.

Can your daughter work with you to come up with a way to ask for some changes? What can you suggest to meet the professor's theme -- understanding that people are different and learning something about other parts of the world -- that doesn't require a strict focus on her own background?

I don't know a faculty member at my university who would refuse a reasonable request to "tweak" an assignment like this if a student explained that they find it uncomfortable to discuss the topic for whatever reason.

But it's your daughter's turn to do that for herself. You can help her practice, but she should contact the professor (via email or at office hours) by herself.