First Person: What’s in Your Culture Box?

Issue Date: 
September 19, 2016

(Abdesalam Soudi is a lecturer in sociolinguistics at Pitt.)

Returning to school after a long summer can be difficult. I have been teaching for more than a decade, and I still get back-to-school-jitters. So this year, I decided to try an activity to make everyone’s re-entry into my linguistics classroom as smooth, safe, and inclusive as possible.

Abdesalam SoudiI emailed my students a welcome note and presented an overview of the topics we would cover in class: discussions about language, society, identity, variation, culture, and interaction. But I said that I would like to use our first week as an opportunity to learn about each other’s culture and worldview—and to learn to appreciate diversity. I suggested a culture box discussion as a starting point. A culture box is a collection of random objects that define us or our social identities. Such identities might include race, religion, gender, ethnicity, social status, sexual orientation, family groups, or perhaps none of these. But the goal of the culture box is to help others understand our life story and who we are today.

I assured my students that the exercise was to be fun, adding that their culture box items didn’t have to be physical or material items such as photos or jewels. Instead, the items could be quotes, family stories, important narratives, jokes, experiences, favorite expressions or words, or anything else. Basically, the “items” could include anything the students value or anything that holds an important place in their lives.

I proceeded with my own preparations, and I grabbed a shoebox. I put in a necklace with a Koran verse that I carry in my pocket to protect against the evil eye. I also brought a Hand of Fatima, which usually hangs on the door to my house, to protect our home. Additionally, I brought prayer beads, which I use to focus my thoughts and prayers. These things represent the culture in which I grew up and which still shapes how I view and interact with the world today. A picture of my mom wearing her favorite headscarf—in royal blue—also went into my box. So did an Irish good luck charm that my wife and I received when we became engaged in Ireland. And lastly, I brought a photo of my almost two-year-old daughter. These last two items represent my new family and ties that I have made since coming to Pittsburgh. I was also going to share with the class important stories from my childhood in Morocco.

Combined, the physical and verbal items in my culture box show that I have not left my values and family behind to go meet new people. Rather, I am bringing them along with me and creating space for them in my interaction with this new group.

Students shared a wide variety of items from their culture boxes. Many showed photos or told stories about pets or family members. One brought a cross that he keeps in his car for protection, while another student brought a photo of the gear she wears as a fencer. A student from a mixed religious background displayed symbols of both his parents’ religions. Several relayed stories of family trips or unfurled maps to represent places they had traveled or their own heritage. One shared a partially destroyed book, as she used to get in trouble for reading all the time. Another student brought a piece of crochet given to her in the hospital by a roommate when she was ill.

Culture has long been compared to an iceberg; what is visible is both supported and dwarfed by that which is unseen. A culture box allows us to discuss these essential elements and to share things that may never be made visible. Though I have been at Pitt for several years, very few people know that I carry the necklace from my culture box in my pocket, or that I occasionally carry salt wrapped in paper when facing big tasks at work. The culture box discussion allowed me to reveal important values to my students, and vice versa. 

The classes I teach are linguistics courses. In our second meeting, I personalized many aspects of sociolinguistics, the interaction of language and society, and what that means to me as a Moroccan-American citizen.

In five or 10 years, my students may not remember the finer details of linguistics content unless they become linguists themselves. But what I hope they do take away from my class is an understanding of how to think critically and an appreciation for linguistic and cultural diversity.