Liminality is essential to the theme of this issue. Any consideration of how global musics are organized and experienced in non-Western ways must also grapple with pieces and modes of understanding that inhabit the liminal spaces between the "Western" and "non-Western" identity boundaries. But just as pieces and modes of understanding can resist this dichotomy, so can people in the classroom.
In this essay, I consider the liminal space that is inhabited by foreign-born teachers, who from this point forward I shall refer to as "internationals." I draw on personal experience as a Singapore-born Chinese who has studied and taught in America to complement existing calls for greater diversity in music education and theory (DeLorenzo and Silverman 2016, Robinson 2016, Niknafs 2017, Everett 2021, Ewell 2020), and to allow America-born educators to better understand international peers. I also write to support internationals in meeting teaching challenges. Unlike in English-language pedagogy, where there has been substantial research on differences between native and non-native English-speaking teachers in the classroom, most resources that support diversity in music education are written for America-born teachers (for example, Kelly-McHale 2016). They do not address challenges that internationals face when trying to engage students, such as language barriers and cultural differences that engender mismatched expectations. By writing about these challenges, I recognize their existence in music pedagogy and suggest solutions.
Three sections follow. In the first, I describe liminality as solitude, which is a state that can impede the connections that are important for effective pedagogy. In the second section, I address language barriers that affect teaching—written versus verbal English fluency, and speaking with an accent. In the last section, I seek solutions to the solitude inherent in liminality by reframing it as a universal condition with the power to unite rather than divide.
Liminality as solitude
When I first came to America, I was not aware of diversity or identity issues. In Singapore, I belonged to the dominant race. Ethnic Chinese make up more than three-quarters of the country's citizens and legal residents and dominate positions of power in commerce and politics. So while I had Malay, Indian, and Eurasian friends in school, I never experienced life from a minority perspective. Like many teachers, I also enjoyed privileges growing up due to academic success, which in my case came from being part of Singapore's Gifted Education Programme. The opportunities, challenges, and affirmations that the GEP afforded me gave me the confidence to stray from the beaten path when opportunity came my way, and find my own means to study music in America.
When I first arrived in America, like many immigrants, I was fortified with a will to succeed and mentally prepared for the struggles that come with moving to a new place alone. I did not mind explaining repeatedly that Singapore was not part of China, and that caning (which came to many Americans' attention through the case of Michael Fay) was not a common punishment. I even felt that my cultural stereotype as a hardworking and undemanding Asian good at mathematics worked in my favor with teachers and supervisors at campus jobs.
The longer I stayed, however, the more I began to feel out of place in America. As I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees and started teaching, I found less and less diversity at each subsequent institution, which made it harder to find friends with similar life experiences. It did not help that I continually felt socially awkward. Though humor is often a way to handle discomfort and build connections, that option felt unavailable because of my poor knowledge of American popular music, literature, films, and sports. I also tired of the Asian stereotype and fretted about what others expected of me.
My name, too, was a reminder that I did not fit into American society. The "first-, middle-, last-name" format that appears on so many forms is not universal. Chinese names have no middle-name component, although some people have names besides their legal names that they use more frequently. Brazilian names, a colleague tells me, have extra components that are likewise difficult to translate. Besides missing or extra components, order in international names also sometimes conflicts with their American labels. East Asian names, for instance, begin with surnames and end with given names, although this order is not always observed by Western media. Born in multilingual Singapore, my birth certificate records my legal name as "Eng Sher Ling, Clare," with the comma separating my Chinese name from my English given name. This function of the comma, well-understood in Singapore, is atypical in America, and has given me trouble. One time, an immigration officer told me that my name was printed wrong on my passport. "The comma should be after 'Eng.' Where it is now says that your last name is 'Eng Sher Ling.'" My explanation of what the comma meant was unpersuasive, since the officer knew Chinese-Americans who did not have the same problem.
At the same time, I could no longer feel a full sense of belonging in Singapore. People and places change over time, and as my absence lengthened, I was no longer part of those changes. Particularly difficult was my separation from changes that involved family or friends, such as weddings, mental and physical declines, and funerals. When friends or family made plans during my summer visits, I would wince because those were plans I could not be part of.
Reading Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture for a graduate seminar was an epiphany. Bhabha wrote eloquently about aspects of my international experience that troubled me, and by so doing, validated them and gave them a name: liminality. I found the metaphor of liminal spaces as stairwells, which Bhabha borrowed from African-American artist Renée Green, particularly compelling. Most people use stairwells only as conduits. Stairwells are not themselves significant, except to those who are stuck in them—connected to places of significance but never part of them.
My experience of liminality was marked by emotional conflict between pride, guilt and regret. As I accumulated achievements in America, I was plagued by guilt because my family did not all regard what I was doing with the same pride. I felt bad for leaving my widowed mother and grandmother behind, and for ceasing to contribute towards household expenses for many years. My mother might not have agreed with my choice to come to America, but she did not object. My grandmother, on the other hand, questioned what she saw as my decision to walk away from family and a career in safe and stable Singapore to chase an impractical dream in America, land of gun violence and civil unrest. Every summer while she was alive, she would say, "Are you still studying? When will you get a real job? You must not abandon your mother." Her words were all the more wrenching because they were never spoken in anger, but in a sing-song voice ringing with resignation.
I regret missing out on things in Singapore. As I married an American and started working full-time, my summer visits to Singapore were first shortened and then spaced out, happening every two or three years instead of annually. I missed National Day parades in August, and ethnic festivals like Deepavali, Vesak Day, and Hari Raya Haji/Puasa. Now that I have children, I regret not being able to let them experience communal and extended Chinese New Year celebrations firsthand. I wish they had more company when we walk our neighborhood with lanterns under the harvest moon for Mid-Autumn.
Such conflicts sustain liminality. While pride in American achievements draws me towards assimilation, this is held back by guilt about what I have left behind in Singapore. Regret reinforces this stalemate, since the international nature of my family means that someone will always be missing out, whether we are in America or Singapore. Liminality in this sense is profound solitude.
Language barriers in teaching
As teachers, the responsibility to be clear and engaging to students exacerbates the language barriers felt by every international. Yet language is far from a monolithic issue. There are many types of language barriers that vary in terms of impact, and not every international with the same barrier suffers to the same extent. I discuss two barriers: verbal fluency and accent.
It is not unusual for internationals in academia to have perfectly fluent written English but weaker verbal fluency. While such instructors may be able to give opinions or instructions to a class—and may even make fairer decisions—weaker verbal fluency makes it more difficult to communicate spontaneously in ways that build rapport with America-born students and peers. This is because rapport-building often relies on means like historical or pop-culture references, slang, or sporting metaphors, which tend not to occur as easily to internationals.
Related to spontaneous speech is the problem of time loss during translation. For multilinguals, translation is a constant activity, and sometimes it takes a while to realize that certain thoughts lie beyond translation. In a society that rewards rapid response, it is frustrating to feel that your spontaneous expression is always a step behind that of native English speakers. The fear of appearing slow when that does not reflect your internal state of mind is also particularly strong in academia.
Dealing with verbal fluency in the classroom, the strategies that I have found most useful give me extra time for linguistic processing without pausing in-class activity. They reduce the need for spontaneous speech from me by allowing others to take center stage, or by lessening the pressure of addressing a large group. Examples include taking advantage of university resources (such as guest lectures, Writing Center workshops, and library staff presentations), designing small-group activities, and creating projects with a student presentation component (which also increases empathy by helping students better realize the challenges of public speaking).
Accents are a complicated problem, a fact that is particularly clear to me because of my experience with various accents. As a student in Singapore, I had a professor with a thick Indian accent whose lectures I struggled to understand. After I came to America, I discovered other accents, such as Black English, the Long Island 'Tawk,' and Southern American English.
Although some people might note accents to reinforce (exclusionary) group boundaries, negative reactions to accents are not always about prejudice. Since research has shown that accents pose real cognitive challenges (Lev-Ari and Keysar 2010), it is best to tackle accents in teaching as communication issues. The difficulty of understanding associated with accents varies in severity from person to person, so strategies to address this problem benefit from redundancy and not trying to find a "one-size-fits-all" solution.
In my classroom, I employ a variety of strategies. Some, like slowing down when making key points and using supporting text or graphics, are generic and can be used by anyone. Others, like making sure to articulate ending consonants and reiterating important information using different words, address speech characteristics that are specific to me. Since it is challenging to self-diagnose communication problems that arise from one's own accent, I have often used feedback as an aid. But I find that my receptivity to feedback hinges on its context and the perceived spirit in which it is given. The same criticism given by someone with professional authority over me has a different effect when given by another with whom I have a relationship that leads me to believe that they have my best interests at heart.
In graduate school, I received mostly minor comments on my accent. A professor with whom I rehearsed a conference presentation noted that my speech sounded different from 'standard' (Midwestern) American, but said that he did not find my accent an impediment to understanding. Instead, my accent projected a positive impression due to its similarities with British English. A peer with whom I rehearsed the same paper suggested that I change my pronunciation of certain words to improve clarity, but again did not note major problems with comprehensibility.
As I began teaching at less-diverse universities located in less-diverse cities, my accent became a greater problem. In a course evaluation, one student questioned the university's decision to hire me, since I could not 'get' American students. Although accent was not mentioned, I speculate that it was a significant factor in the student's perception of my otherness, since speech has an outsize role in in-person instruction. (Subtirelu 2015 is a related study about students' evaluations of Asian mathematics professors.) I was lucky, however, to have supportive colleagues. My department chair assured me that most instructors receive rough evaluations when they first join the university. "When you've been here longer than any student in your classes, you'll see a change in your evaluations," he said, and his prediction proved uncannily accurate. This might be because my teaching actually improved, or because students who enroll in my classes are now self-selecting based on what they hear from peers. Either way, it is not because my accent has changed significantly.
Even though my course evaluations have improved, I still provide supporting text whenever I create speech-based resources. When I post audio of significant length to my LMS, I always attach a transcript. Doing this does not require additional outlay of time, since I always prepare scripts before recording audio lectures. Before posting videos, I create closed captions. To expedite this task, I begin by importing automatic captions in Panopto. I still have to edit the automatic captions carefully, however, to avoid distracting errors like analyses of "Bach corrals," and sentences like "Good counterpoint should have good continence treatment, realized as a preference to begin and end in perfect continence and a preference for imperfect consequences."
Another excellent piece of advice I received was to openly acknowledge my otherness, so that students could calibrate their expectations of me. It was difficult at first to do this without awkwardness, but as my experience and confidence grew, I found ways that work for me. I point out my accent on the first day of class, and make it part of my introduction when I explain that I was born and raised outside America. I try to minimize frustration by communicating my expectations through multiple means, including handouts, discussion, and assignment design. I create low-stakes opportunities for students to check if they are meeting my expectations before turning in high-stakes assessments (in-class sharing of project drafts and proposals). I reduce the centrality of my persona through student-led discussions.
The cumulative effect of these strategies is that students' impressions of a course are as much influenced by experiences with peers and other faculty/staff as by impressions of me. My courses are more a set of diverse learning experiences than a tour of topics led by a charismatic guide, for a charismatic guide I am not.
I also embrace feedback as a means of countering my otherness. I request peer reviews of my teaching every semester. I conduct mid-semester surveys of students so that they can tell me what they think while I have a chance to respond or consider doing something differently. Feedback does not guarantee positive course evaluations or performance reviews, but over time, feedback has helped me adapt, allowing me to better understand how I come across to others.
Liminality as solidarity
Earlier, I described my experience of liminality as one marked by a sense of not fitting in and emotional conflict. Over the years, however, experiences evolve, and I now realize that liminality is not necessarily a state of solitude that impedes connection. By changing the boundaries of liminality, internationals can make better connections with America-born peers and students. Changing the boundaries might seem oxymoronic, since liminality is a response to exclusionary boundaries set by more powerful groups. However, I urge minorities to assert more control over how their liminal spaces are defined. To connect and engage, both of which are skills that are important in the classroom, teachers in liminal spaces must either step out from the metaphorical stairwell or invite more people in.
Neither of these choices destroys the integrity of our identity; rather, they ask us to recognize our agency over that identity. Liminality can enable connection if we recognize that the identity of any individual (as opposed to that of a group) is essentially liminal, in that we define who we are relative to who we perceive others to be. When we see someone as supportive of us, we draw boundaries that enclose us in a shared space, creating inclusion and connection.
Stepping out of the stairwell means finding ways to connect with America-born persons by focusing on common ground beyond how we look and sound and where we were born. Many options in this category involve creating opportunities for common experiences. Some ideas include joining a religious group, becoming part of a secular support or service group, or striving for change through a political or activist organization. Within our professional circles and on campus, we can participate in mentoring, discussion, and community or service events—activities that bring us together with peers and students, and let us get to know them beyond their (academic) work. For life is more than work, and where internationals struggle most is in areas beyond work, since it is often academic success that allowed us to be in America in the first place. For instance, I have noticed a positive correlation between my attendance at university concerts and the quality of students' engagement in my courses. Even though these two things might not seem related, my attendance probably communicates to students my support of them, which in turn inspires better engagement because we feel more connected.
Inviting more people into our metaphorical stairwell means recognizing that liminality is not exclusive to internationals. Feeling that one does not belong is something that many Americans can identify with, if not every day then at some point in life. America is much more diverse when it comes to individuals than what her systems, leaders, and institutions suggest. In any place and on any subject, we can find persons who feel that they do not belong, or are marginalized by dominant or polarized voices. These individuals afford opportunities for solidarity; even if the specific boundaries that define their liminalities do not coincide with ours, we share feelings of displacement or invisibility. For example, we can support or organize campus or neighborhood events that celebrate Martin Luther King Day or other minority groups. In the classroom, we can keep our eyes and mind open to other liminalities. With first year students, we can point out parallels between their move to a new city and our move to America. When students come to class wearing symbols associated with minority or marginality, such as the Human Rights Campaign logo, a hijab, turban, or a shirt that celebrates Cinco de Mayo, we can acknowledge it with respect.
Connections that international teachers make outside of the classroom can have in-class benefits by expanding the types of references or anecdotes that we use to support instruction. Besides acknowledging our foreign origin to students, which asks them to refine their expectations of us based on our 'otherness,' we can balance it with references or anecdotes that demonstrate our present connections to the America that our students live and work in. I rationalize serial matrices by comparing a matrix to a locality map, and by noting that I drive with less fear of getting lost when I know not only the specific route for a trip, but also its geographic context. I speak of my spouse's struggles to comprehend instruction manuals for home repair when I ask students to read complicated texts. I borrow ideas from my daughter's elementary school teachers, such as the OREO acronym when discussing analyses as persuasive writing. My anecdotes often involve my nuclear family, and I avoid subjects like politics or religion to minimize distraction from course content. But different choices can work for different teachers.
By pushing our individual boundaries, we can recognize liminality as a universal condition, one with the power to draw us to others rather than to divide. Liminality in this sense is solidarity. While I do not suggest that we can permanently experience liminality as solidarity instead of solitude, I suggest that a balance is both desirable and achievable.
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