Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Paper #2

Kismet's picture

In the two weeks that I’ve been living at Bryn Mawr, I’ve grown a lot as an individual. This is largely due to the nature of the college; it is an institution that challenges students to exit their comfort zone in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. This challenge applies to academic and social situations. The student body is gloriously complex and diverse, in a way that is entirely alien to me. As I have previously explained, I have come to Bryn Mawr from a very politically conservative and racially homogenous place. This was part of what motivated me to enroll at this college, as I strive to become more socially aware and understanding. In her article, Arts of the Contact Zone, Mary Louise Pratt describes how she and other professors at her university taught a class that was designed to help students understand other cultures and values. This class, as described by Pratt, parallels what I am looking for (and so far, finding) in my education at Bryn Mawr. Pratt would likely recognize this college as a contact zone of its own. By her definition, contact zones are, “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power…” (Pratt 34). However, Pratt would probably note that at Bryn Mawr, relations of power are generally more symmetrical than they are outside of the college. Take, for example, the contact zone where I was raised; non-Christians and people of color, especially immigrants of color, were so oppressed that they were forced to the outskirts of town. If people thought that a Hasidic Jewish family was going to buy a house down the street, they would be so outraged that some would even relocate themselves. Essentially, Howell was a contact zone where white Christians clashed with all other cultures. This type of contact zone, where relations of power are extremely asymmetrical, is fueled largely by ethnocentrism. Pratt would probably attribute the contact zone in Howell to the prevalence of white supremacy. I mention clear signs of this in my previous essay. The homogeneity of the population is especially evident considering the Confederate symbolism that was so openly expressed for decades by the local high school. The town’s celebration of Columbus day as a holiday, although more subtle and common, also exemplifies this ethnocentrism. Despite this example, contact zones are not always bad, as Pratt explains in her article. The nature of each contact zone depends on the symmetry of power. Contact zones that are more symmetrical can be areas that generate cultural understanding. In her university’s course titled Cultures, Ideas, Values, Pratt works to even the scales of power through the exploration of different cultural histories, including triumphs and shameful wrongs. She describes how in class discussions, “...all the students experienced face-to-face the ignorance and incomprehension, and occasionally the hostility, of others.” (Pratt 39). This description reminds me of many of the discussions I’ve participated in at Bryn Mawr, both in and out of the classroom. Specifically, it reminds me of my dorm’s meeting with our Community Diversity Assistant, in which we were prompted to discuss privilege and how to acknowledge it. We discussed how we all have different types and levels of privilege, and I realized that my experiences in the contact zone of my hometown had done little to prepare me for such conversations. This was one of the first times that I, like Pratt’s students, came face to face with my ignorance and incomprehension, as well as the hostility of others. Pratt would recognize my attempts to understand other identities that I detailed in my last essay. Oftentimes, I find myself overwhelmed by “rage, incomprehension, and pain” as she would expect (Pratt 39). This is not unusual for someone in my position. Yet, I sometimes find “exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom--the joys of the contact zone” (Pratt 39). These joys, although generally less abundant, relieve the stress of this learning process. In Pratt’s classroom, “No one was excluded, and no one was safe” (Pratt 39). This is the ideal contact zone, where growth occurs the most. Pratt teaches that in an environment where the playing field is entirely even, we can see each other best. This is why I have abandoned my comfort zone; to search for a place where I can grow to understand others. I believe I have found this place at Bryn Mawr. Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in Profession. N.p.: Modern Language Association, 1991. 33-40. Web.