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Building bridges to understanding

Navita James learned early how to live in two different worlds. "I grew up in a black community," she says, "went to a black church, a black Y, a lot of things that were predominantly black. Then I hit junior high school and went to an all-white junior high. Except for my cousin, who was in some of my classes with me, I was the only black student."

She stayed with those classmates through six years of school, and naturally, they became friends. But she also kept friends from the old neighborhood. Listening to one set of friends talk about the other, it struck her that neither world understood the other particularly well.

So a career _ and a way of looking at life _ began.

"It's really very sappy and Pollyannish," laughs James, now an associate professor of communication at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa. "But at an early age I really felt that if people could understand each other, a lot of our conflict, and a lot of our hate, would go away."

James, an award-winning teacher at USF, recently was named interim director of African and Afro-American studies, a program that has seen its share of conflict in recent months.

After years of decline, the program lost its longtime director this spring. Only one full-time professor remained. Black students protested in frustration, while some conservative white students wondered aloud why a minority group ought to claim a special place in the curriculum at all.

Still two different worlds, and James finds herself once again in the thick of things.

Students and fellow professors say she is well-suited to the challenge. Popular among students, James is widely known for her views on multicultural values and the importance of teaching. Arts and Sciences Dean Rollin Richmond says she also has distinguished herself in a number of faculty administrative assignments, and she seems to have both the diplomacy and political savvy to work her way through tight budgets and conflicting personalities.

Though she is welcome to apply for the permanent directorship, James says her primary task will be to find temporary professors to fill the fall schedule. In addition to hiring adjuncts, or part-timers, she wants to bring in new courses from the fine arts and humanities to complement those in history and political science. She will also help a search committee recruit the best possible candidates for the permanent job.

Meanwhile, she plans to stay active in her own discipline, which focuses on how people react to various forms of communication and media.

"Switching codes'

As an undergraduate, James found herself swooning over the rhetoric of people such as Frederick Douglass. Since then, she has learned that it takes more than just the right words to solve problems.

Just the same, her research and personal experience have taught her that words, and how they are used, make a difference. Black people and white people (and men and women for that matter) use words differently, she says. Therein lies a handle on some of their problems with interaction.

Researchers have shown, for example, that black people who succeed in both white and black worlds learn to "switch codes," to change conversational styles, depending on whether they're talking to black people or white people. Black people who don't change their style when talking to white people often come across as pushy or argumentative. White people, on the other hand, often strike black people as wishy-washy or hard to pin down.

"They don't appreciate each other's styles," James says, "so in a confrontation they don't get anywhere. And they probably walk away hating each other because they mistrust each other. They're judging each other based upon the cues they would use in their own cultures, not realizing that their way of doing it is not the only way."

Last semester, James taught a course that analyzed differences in communication styles by gender and race. James says her students told her it opened their ears so they could better understand people who are different.

"Suddenly things fall into place that you never understood," she says. "We've pretended that gender doesn't make a difference. Well, of course it makes a difference. We've pretended that race doesn't make a difference. Of course it makes a difference."

Imposing views

If learning various communication styles is helpful, then so is learning about differences in culture, James says. So it wasn't much of a leap for her to be interested in African and Afro-American studies.

African-Americans naturally want to learn more about their backgrounds, just as European-Americans do. But the program's importance is broader than that, she says.

All students, not just black students, need to understand the different streams of history and culture that flow into present society. Learning only about your own background, whatever it is, leaves you ignorant, she says.

James realizes her viewpoint puts her solidly in the camp of the multicultural activists, a movement in academia and elsewhere that has increasingly been lampooned by George Bush, George Will and others as "politically correct."

But James says the lampooners distort what multicultural awareness is about; it is they who want to impose their narrow views on everyone else, she says.

"One of the things that is so unfair in their portrayals is that they tend to present everything as either/or: "Either you have Shakespeare or you have Alice Walker.' And there are many of us who are saying, "What's wrong with both?'

"If the goal of a liberal arts education is to help us understand the diversity of the human experience, then we have to realize that diversity is much more than (the views and experiences of) white males.

.

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. You can choose to be ignorant, but I have a responsibility as an educator to let my students know and be aware of the multiple voices that are out there."

James denies that she is indoctrinating her students.

"I'm giving them an alternative frame of reference, an alternative way of thinking. I'm not telling them to throw their other perspectives out. I just want them to add this to their repertoire, and take from it what they can. If they find it totally useless, at least they'll have sound arguments for why they find it totally useless.

"I think the argument of indoctrination can be turned on the other group," she adds. "Why is that you don't want these other voices to be heard? Why do you want to indoctrinate people only with the views of white males?

"That's more of an indoctrination than what I'm talking about."

Continuing debate

When she isn't teaching or studying at USF, James is active in several professional associations. The mother of two children, she also supervises the Sunday school at one of Tampa's multiracial churches, the Episcopal House of Prayer.

James says she looks forward to the continuing debate on race and gender at USF because she thinks the arguments, if openly and honestly expressed, are good for both professors and students.

But as a veteran of living in two different cultures, she thinks she understands people's resistance to the subject:

"It challenges their world view. It makes them uncomfortable. But education is not supposed to make people comfortable. It's supposed to make them think."

That's not so bad in the long run, she says.

"I think one of the advantages of having grown up in the environment I did is that I delight in people's differences. It doesn't threaten me. When you're different, I want to know more about you."

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