I am luckier than most university faculty when it comes to multicultural exposure in the work experience. I teach at Portland State University, a large urban university with more than 30,000 students. Many of our students are returning adults, many are ex-military, many come from disadvantaged neighborhoods. As a city, Portland is not very ethnically diverse, but it does harbor an incredibly diverse collection of lifestyles and backgrounds, and that is apparent everytime I walk onto Portland State’s campus.
And for seven years I taught at the most diverse university in the country – one oft-invoked slogan at Temple University is “We’re the Diversity University” – and I never had a class where multiple ethnicities, nationalities, social and economic classes, and lifestyle choices weren’t represented. Because I found it endlessly fascinating, I did an internal count every semester, and my record was six nationalities in a class of twenty students. It’s not uncommon at Temple to see a full-blooded Italian working with a Chinese student, or a privileged student from the affluent suburbs conferring with a student from one of Philadelphia’s most dangerous inner-city neighborhoods. In one semester, in one small class, I consulted on a large-scale music production project produced by two physically disabled students, supervised a longform documentary by an Ethiopian student, and taught a transgender student, a passionately right-wing Republican, and a student whose religion informed every ounce of his creative work.
I’m also lucky because I teach in a creative course of study. All of my courses are built on fostering creativity, and studies have shown for ages that creativity is greatly enhanced by multicultural exposure. In both the writing and production courses I teach, students are encouraged to share their stories, and to learn from each other. I am always amazed at the willingness of my students to share their lives, even as I pride myself on running a classroom in which they should feel comfortable to do so. I am excited by the potential of always-evolving digital media technologies to allow people who would otherwise never have the means to tell their stories to do so, and have those stories seen by wide audiences. At Temple I guided a project that explored the many ways in which the arts enables such disparate groups of people as migraine sufferers, cancer patients, children with spinal cord injuries, and at-risk urban youth to tell their life stories. I also oversaw a project called “The DiverCity,” for which I had students documenting neighborhoods of Philadelphia that rarely receive any attention from the popular media outside of crime reporting. At Portland State, I mentored a transgender student in the development of a screenplay based on her experience of grappling with gender identity through the process of becoming a successful roller derby player.
My own work is distinctly multicultural, and it has had an enormous impact on my life as an educator. For many years now I have been writing on, shooting photos of, and producing videos about the people of Ireland, where my ancestors are from. My work has explored Irish gender inequality, the rift between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the growing divide between the nation’s youth and its older, more conservative generations. I’ve made films about immigration and prejudice, religion and the economy, and the dramatic gap between the haves and have-nots in the Irish social class system.
My passion for all issues Irish led to my appointment as the Director of Temple’s Study Abroad Program in Dublin. In that position, I spent each summer taking a typically diverse group of Temple students to Dublin to study Irish culture and intercultural communication. I’ve also taught documentary filmmaking in Armagh, a gritty village in Northern Ireland that was the seat of the Troubles in the 1970s, and multimedia production and writing in London, England. Most recently, I directed the University of Oregon’s cinema-focused summer program in Dublin. The programs I have designed for Dublin are not the tourist’s vision of the city. I take students to some of the most run-down, formerly dangerous parts of the city – areas that were until recently controlled by druglords and organized crime, areas full of the working poor, and recent immigrants from third-world nations. My students leave Ireland with an understanding of the diversity and working everyday life of the nation. And hopefully they return home as travelers in their own cities, with open eyes and attentive minds. Hopefully, they return with the knowledge of how to claim their place as responsible global citizens. With the changing faces of global communication and business and with new technologies making the distances between nations ever smaller, I believe it is important now more than ever that students learn to function as effective communicators in a global setting.