Exploring the Lines Between Cultures

Line drawingStudents in Humanities instructor Cynthia West's fall 2009 First Year Seminar, “Cultivating the Cross-Cultural Mind,” used ink and brush to "explore line inspired by the Arabic written language and visual arts," and to learn more about culture and communication. Using themes suggested by the JSC 2009 Common Book, How Does it Feel To Be A Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi, West encouraged her students to “recognize and appreciate diversity, understand other voices, and empathize with other cultures.”

One element of this project involved the students receiving some basic instruction in Arabic writing and pronunciation from JSC Humanities Professor N.E. Bou-Nacklie, who shared his knowledge of Arabic and helped the students learn how to pronounce the alphabet. Additionally, students received an Arabic transliteration of their names to practice writing themselves. By forcing the students to become estranged from something as personal as their name, says West, “my goal was to have them come as close as possible to seeing themselves as ‘the other.’”

This experience of “otherness” was then learned in a different way during a two-day art workshop facilitated by JSC fine arts instructor Carolyn Mecklosky.  The first step was to learn to use brush and ink and then to use those tools to create “sensory self-portraits” containing images and words written in both English and Arabic, and a reference to breath and/or anatomy. This required the students to think about themselves and how they appear from beyond a physical perspective.

Another art project involved students creating “blind contour drawings,” in which they looked at their faces in a mirror and then traced the contours of their faces without looking down at or lifting the pen from the paper. These drawings, explain West, have “a surreal quality that can capture the essence of a person.” Again, the students had the strange experience of seeing themselves differently than they were used to.

For Cynthia West, and for her students, these projects were an education not just about other cultures, but about themselves. “To be educated,” she says, “is not so much to be taught as it is to be awakened to who you really are.”