In Conversation: Cristina Serverius on Teaching and Translation

It is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings.

As a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law, and Society, Cristina Serverius continues her lifelong quest to “understand humans, understand the self, and understand community,” while promoting educational environments that encourage all its participants to thrive. Native to Belgium, she earned an M.Ed in Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches from SFU and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. Cristina currently works as an educational consultant. Asymptote for Educators Lindsay Semel interviews her about the questions driving her interdisciplinary inquiries and how they manifest in the classroom.

LS: From the perspective of a border-crossing scholar (in terms of discipline, country, and language), can you speak about the extent to which education is or isn’t a field/practice rooted in place? How does your foreignness impact your relationships within the schools?

CS: I think it is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings. We do children (and the environment!) a great disservice by denying them an intimate knowledge of their surroundings in favor of studying the world “at arm’s length,” as physicist Arthur Zajonc calls the learning enforced in many schools, which adhere to a rigid barrier between self and object of study. How are we supposed to learn to care for a neighbor or a local marshland when we are taught in a context of separation; how can we examine the far-away before we explore that which is close by? In Belgium, we call secondary school “humaniora,” a place where one becomes a human. Most schools, for a variety of structural, systemic, and societal reasons, have forgotten their role in this process and have been reduced to places where (a certain kind of) knowledge transfer either happens or, frustratingly, doesn’t happen.

Obviously, when looking at place-based education, we have to consider that places (and the communities that inhabit them) change over time. Place-based education in Belgium, for example, must include exploration of the large Maghrebi communities; the village church and the mosque are both opportunities for place-based learning. As such, it is representative of contemporary society for Canadian schools to have staff who did not attend Canadian elementary or secondary schools, and a great deal of the children attending school now are first-generation Canadians. Bringing in staff who do not have a Canadian background can lay bare and put up for debate some of the things we do “because they’ve always been done this way,” and that can only be healthy for any organization. My (or any other foreigner’s) learning about the school system starts a conversation that necessarily leads to self-reflection for those who have been embedded (in this case) in the Canadian system. Those are wonderful conversations that advance learning for both parties.

LS: The lesson you wrote in May for the Teach This series approaches Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s A Dhow Crosses the Sea, from the Summer 2017 issue, as “always situated between two cultures,” and within a tradition of oral storytelling. I’m curious if you’ve implemented lessons like this in classrooms, that intentionally introduce students to unfamiliar cultural traditions through literature. If so, what sorts of responses have you seen? Do you tend to offer literature to students as one of the many lenses through which to try to understand humans?

CS: At times, this kind of introduction to foreign cultures happens as an inevitable side-product of teaching world literature in translation, always with the knowledge that one can only explore a part of the culture through reading a single text from a specific time period, social setting, gender perspective, etc. There lies a potentially dangerous arrogance in thinking we can understand a certain culture by reading one novel from its literary production, but keeping that caveat in mind, such reading can broaden horizons. Additionally, in world literature, we’re always debating whether to only teach what we intimately know (in a language that we’ve mastered), or to occasionally teach something we are incapable of reading in its original language. Without reducing the latter kind of study to the trite notion that “people are the same everywhere,” I see value in teaching human stories from a part of the world with which the instructor may not be intimately familiar, obviously not without providing some context. For example, I have taught Sulayman Al-Bassam’s play The Al-Hamlet Summit, an Iraqi adaptation of Hamlet, a couple of times in different contexts. If students had to wait for an expert in Iraqi literature, or even an Arabist, to guide them through this play, they would have never read it. Additionally, a reading of this play in the context of a course on Hamlet adaptations, translation/adaptation theory, or contemporary Iraqi literary production will result in three very different discussions, all of which, I believe, are valuable.

LS: You’ve described your current research fellowship as “a story-based evaluation of a whole-school ethic of care model.” Can you explain this project in more detail? To start, what is a whole-school ethic of care model?

CS: Ethic of care is a model theorized by Nel Noddings, to whose ideas I was introduced during my M.Ed. One of the main aspects of the theory/practice that struck me was the assertion that, if the person you are caring for does not feel cared for, care did not happen. It helps shift the focus from the caregiver to the care-receiver. A great example of what this looks like in practice is the Holistic Life Foundation. While their intent is to bring yoga to often under-serviced schools to help children develop coping skills, they don’t blindly implement an action plan, but instead, they acknowledge the broader hierarchy of needs of the students they serve. Sometimes, the kids they work with just need a place to wash their clothes, or a sandwich, or deodorant, or someone to listen to their story, and yoga practice as such may not be a priority in those moments. An ethic of care approach implies that care precedes learning. A learning environment needs to be created, that relationships need to be built first.

The school I am currently working with is dual accredited as a special needs schools and a mental health and addiction center. It provides for all needs in one place. Though the ultimate goal is still to help students graduate from high school, the focus is on well-being first and foremost.

LS: Especially considering your interest in the ethic of care model, how do you (or could one) marry the goals of caring for the individual and fostering empathetic awareness of the other in the classroom? I think on some level, to find this balance is a goal inherent to all educational contexts, but I wonder how you approach it given the “urge to understand humans, understand the self, and understand community” that has driven your career.

CS: The individual is never outside a community context; whether we like it or not, we cannot escape others. And humans thrive in community. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche living communities, writes in Becoming Human that strong communities offer sufficient freedom to the individual to explore themselves, their interests and values, but always within the support of the community. It’s such a simple, yet powerful way of looking at humans in society: a thriving life exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum bookended by the dread of extreme individuality in isolation and the dread of homogeneity and loss of self in a community that imposes excessive uniformity. Individuals who feel secure in their community’s support as they self-explore are more likely to have the mental space and capacity for empathetic awareness of others. So much violence (both directed inward and outward) arises from feelings (whether real or perceived) of incapacity or disempowerment. A secure and supported individual can offer that support to others, and broaden their perceived community to include ever more others. I believe most of our societal ills stem from a false sense of separation: we feel people in other regions or socio-economic circumstances are different from us, and likewise we feel that our backyard is separate from the environment, etc. We want to make sure our friends and family are happy and healthy, and we clean up our houses and backyards, but often don’t look any further at the impact of our actions as we do this. Even the smallest individual action has a string of complex consequences. Examining these trails and changing behavior patterns that cause damage is a matter of social justice. All of this to say that truly caring for the individual is caring for the community and the environment.

LS: Though you are pursuing translation rights to your favorite Belgian-Moroccan author, you don’t consider yourself a translator. Who is it, why them, and how does literary translation figure into the mosaic of your other interests?

CS: The author is Fikry El Azzouzi, whose work is beautiful in its harshness. He tells stories that are relatable in their mundane detail, through which he explores the radicalization of Muslim youth in Western Europe, but often in the margins of a beautifully human story. He never seems to be explicitly writing about radicalization, and he doesn’t push for a clear cause-and-effect narrative of it either. He presents it both in a very subtle way and perhaps as a somewhat random occurrence, which makes his writing reflective of the direction a person’s life takes, as opposed to the mapped-out itinerary of a literary character. For me, personally, there is some nostalgia at work as well, since I grew up in the same area in East Flanders where the stories are set.

LS: What is it that you’d like to offer to the world of education that you think isn’t being offered yet, or what exists that you’d like to build on, and how?

CS: I’m not quite sure. I feel like I am still very much a student of so many things—perhaps the cure/blessing of anyone in an interdisciplinary field. Especially as an education scholar, I feel like I know so little because it is such a vast field. I think teachers in many countries are not given the right circumstances within which to excel, mostly due to excessively large class sizes and an enduring focus on normative content imposed from above. This is detrimental to both students and teachers; teachers feel like they are putting out fires all day long, and many children don’t receive the support and attention they need. There is not enough time/space to build relationships and thus create an environment conducive to deep learning and exploration for all.

Cristina Serverius is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Education, Law, and Society at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She holds graduate degrees from Belgium, the US, and Canada, including a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Brown University and an M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction from Simon Fraser University. She is currently conducting a story-based evaluation of a whole-school ethic of care model, and is trying to secure the English translation rights to her favorite Belgian-Moroccan author.

Lindsay Semel is the Assistant Director of Asymptote for Educators, an initiative that provides resources for educators who’d like to use Asymptote content in the classroom. She recently earned a BA in Comparative Literature and Arabic Language and Literature, and works alternately in education, sustainable agriculture, and freelance editing. She also enjoys yoga.


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