Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Reflections Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy

by Maria Kaliambou

Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers me an opportunity to reflect not only on my role as an active citizen, but mostly on my role as a well-informed educator. My field of European Ethnology theoretically equips the scholar for the understanding of “The Other” (the notion “Self vs. Other” is one of the standard theoretical discussions at any introductory course in Greece and in Germany where I studied). However, when I started teaching in the United States, I still did not feel adequately prepared to tackle racial issues in the classroom.

When I first taught the undergraduate literature seminar “Folktales and Fairy Tales” at Yale University, in 2008, I had a shivering experience which was a catalyst for me. The classroom activity involved a discussion of standard evil characters in Greek folktales, which among others include the blackamoor (ο αράπης) or an ugly black woman (η αραπίνα). When we were discussing the stories in class, an African American student, very kindly, pointed out the discriminatory elements revealed by those characters. She indicated that these characters demonize black people as an evil other. I tried to talk about the role of stereotypes, the rhetorical conventions in oral narratives, the unfortunate translation of racial terms and whatever else came to my mind to overcome my cold sweat. It was the first time I had to talk about the meaning of Greek folktales in a context different than their cultural and historical setting. I realized how often we fall into the trap of analyzing stories without truly reflecting on their meaning or impact on diverse audiences. For all the previous years of my studies, I have never encountered the Other in her eyes and a challenge from her perspective. This was an epiphany for me.

Similarly, in my teaching of Modern Greek language I encountered several occasions where Greek phrases could be hurtful to students of a different demographic. For instance, phrases using the metaphor black to denote a negative state of being (e.g. “you blackened my soul,” “μου μαύρισες την ψυχή”), or depicting nationalities (e.g. “he became Turk out of his rage,” “έγινε Τούρκος από το κακό του”), or describing ethnic groups (Pontian, Vlachs) in a derogatory manner among many others need a different teaching approach.

This experience prompted me to start rethinking my pedagogy. I thought, how can I teach my material, folktales or Greek language, to students who might be offended by reading it, without being able to fully anticipate the specific offense? Which are the most appropriate teaching strategies toward an open classroom which tackles controversial representations which are harmful to others?

Martin Luther King Jr’s. vision of education guided me toward a better pedagogy. In his words, “the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” I started being proactive and better prepared for classroom discussions of difficult topics. After these shocking but formative experiences in teaching, I try through liberating pedagogical methods to create an inclusive classroom. Basically, I encourage my students to think critically about representations that may appear “innocent” or have become naturalized in certain contexts. I also invite them to share their own experiences as they relate to the teaching material. For instance, when we talk about Greek customs, everyone brings their own personal cultural knowledge while trying to understand the thinking and practices of the others. It is my aspiration that besides honing their critical thinking and intelligence, students will develop the character ethics of respecting differences, as Martin Luther King Jr. had wished.

I now work with this paradigm so that my diverse student demographic can textualize and understand better the sensitive issues in the teaching material. Moreover, I hope that my classes function as a safe space for all my students to share personal stories as well as express their personal challenges related to racial, political, religious or sexual issues and family conflicts.

Maria Kaliambou is Senior Lector at the Hellenic Studies Program at Yale University.