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So I put the high-school students from Scholars Latino Initiative together with their JMU mentors, and we all watched the movie “The Kite Runner.”  They had all already read the book.  We then had great a seminar discussion about differences between the book and movie.  Sometimes, I’ll ask a high school student a question and they reply, ‘I don’t know,” but our JMU students always seem to say to them, “You can do this, man! You can do this! This idea of ‘I don’t know’ is not going to allow you to succeed in a college classroom, and we’re all going to stay on you until you believe that you belong in college.”

Dr. Carlos Aleman

Do you like teaching JMU undergraduates?

Yes. The students at JMU have truly good hearts. A transition between the heart and the head can sometimes be a difficult one. But their comments are authentic. Their interest is authentic and genuine. Their work is genuine. What’s good about all this is that, as a professor, you often get to meet a person. Not a student, but a person. That is all the more rewarding as faculty, that idea that you are not teaching a student, but instead you are working with and learning from a person.

So I put the high-school students from Scholars Latino Initiative together with their JMU mentors, and we all watched the movie “The Kite Runner.”  They had all already read the book.  We then had great a seminar discussion about differences between the book and movie.  Sometimes, I’ll ask a high school student a question and they reply, ‘I don’t know,” but our JMU students always seem to say to them, “You can do this, man! You can do this! This idea of ‘I don’t know’ is not going to allow you to succeed in a college classroom, and we’re all going to stay on you until you believe that you belong in college.”

Do you enjoy teaching in the field of communication?

It’s interesting. People assume communication is simply common sense; it’s just speaking and listening. But when you hit students right around their sophomore year, when they start to be open about their family and their friends, that’s when you really learn how they are actually in tune with issues of relationships, diversity and politics – which most people tend to discount. That is different here in communication studies, where we encourage students to listen to themselves as they talk about and avoid talking with others about issues. If you listen carefully and the student knows that you are listening carefully, then most students will step up and rise to the challenge regarding discussions about diversity and lots of other issues.

Can you offer an example?

I had two students — David Lafferty and Blake Hughes — do a project on advocacy as part of my advocacy and inter-cultural communications class. They wanted to talk about black and white relationships. They were like, “You know, it seems kind of strange. People always ask us about our friendship.” So I asked them, “Why do you think that is strange?” They said, “Well, you know, it isn’t like in the past. We’re living in today and now, and sometimes people will still ask us, ‘Are you really friends with that guy?’ ’’ So I asked them, “What’s going on there? What’s the challenge?” And they thought about it a little and said, “We think people are stuck with old ways of talking about these kinds of things.” And I said, “OK, so what’s the new way of talking about it?” And so they came up with this language where they used the metaphor of being culturally ambidextrous.

That sounds interesting.

They said if you’re an ambidextrous athlete, nobody says that’s a bad thing. That makes you that much more skilled and that much better than others. And in some way, we like to say that our friendships are ambidextrous. We both have friends who are white and black. Now we’re not saying that we live in a perfect world where all of our friends intermix — we’re not that naïve — but we know how to move between our friendships in a way that actually makes our friends comfortable. I could hear them trying to figure out the way it is that their professors are talking about black and white relationships, and how their friends are talking about black and white relationships, and then how they talk about their own relationship and how it differs from these other conversations.

It sounds as if they figured some things out.

For their class project, they came up with this great website called “A Forum for the Ethnically Ambidextrous” that was really cool, using that metaphor of being ambidextrous and not necessarily saying that every student needs to live in the perfectly integrated world, but rather that sometimes our worlds are integrated, sometimes our worlds are separated, and that to manage it all and to learn to be competent is to learn to be ambidextrous — to learn to live in all these different worlds. Their message resonated well with their friends who were asking them questions about their relationship, but who I am guessing were also trying to learn different ways of talking about racial and ethnic identities. So in an interesting way, these students are changing the little world around them, which is really how all change begins.

Relationships and Identity that you teach sounds like an interesting class.

It’s a 300-level class. I always tell students that you have two parts to your name. When you talk about your first name, you’re mostly talking about your personal identity. Your last name is connected with your family, and your family is the first place where you learn to feel a sense of community and experience culture as something that surrounds you, that you belong to, and therefore something that belongs to you. So you can’t tell me that you never really think about cultural identity, because every time you write your name you’re thinking about cultural identity. So then you need to ask yourself, “What does this thing mean to me?” Sometimes females get that sooner than males do because women are already often thinking about the possibility of getting married and all the cultural identity changes that take place when their last name changes. And that’s the nature of cultural identity, this tension between wanting to be a part of something and yet at the same time — at least in American macro-culture — the encouragement of separation from that kind of belonging.

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Dr. Carlos Aleman

Highlights: Communications Studies professor; loves teaching JMU undergraduates; teaches a course called Relationships and Identity; another of his courses is Advocacy and Inter-cultural Communications; is passionate about helping Latino children explore the possibilities of higher education.

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