A scholar has urged his fellow academics to take the ideals of multicultural education more seriously.
Damian Spiteri is now a lecturer in social work at the University of York. But his new book, Multiculturalism, Higher Education and Intercultural Communication: Developing Strengths-Based Narratives for Teaching and Learning, was triggered by his experiences at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, where a number of his students were African asylum seekers.
Somewhat naively, he writes, he assumed that “the Maltese students would appreciate the cultural and racial differences of the newcomers automatically and that the newcomers would integrate naturally into the Maltese social context without having problems in the process”.
Yet this could happen, Dr Spiteri says now, only once he was “ready to accept that some of the students were afraid of the asylum seekers and [afraid] to engage with them in dialogue. I had to become an active part of the class.”
“The rules have changed for people who have come here from abroad,” he continues. “Students from some backgrounds may find it difficult to speak up in class or challenge the lecturer. I invite them to think about things differently, acknowledge the issue of deference to authority but make it clear there are many different ways of doing things.
“If there are young women who come from backgrounds where they are not encouraged to speak up, it is up to the lecturer to find ways of helping them do so, perhaps by putting them into small groups. I would also try and get other students to reflect on how some people have been encouraged to speak up or not speak up.”
Dr Spiteri’s book builds on these insights to describe a form of education that uses “strengths-based narratives…focused on what people can do rather than on what they cannot do” and that “enable[s] students to view concepts, events and issues from the perspective of diverse groups of people and to thereby foster intercultural sensitivity”.
So what is the core advice he would offer new lecturers having to teach students from backgrounds very different from their own?
First, replies Dr Spiteri, he would “encourage them to interact with people from different cultures”. Yet if they know they are going to be teaching Somali students, for example, they should start by looking on YouTube to get “a sense of what life is like in Somalia”.
Although this may provide only superficial information, it can still be used as a basis for “speaking with the students, showing interest and creating dialogue, which in turn leads to another layer of understanding. The lecturer is responsible for shaping the curriculum, developing it as he or she goes along, and so has to be open to other visions of reality.”
Damian Spiteri’s Multiculturalism, Higher Education and Intercultural Communication: Developing Strengths-Based Narratives for Teaching and Learning has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.