Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A brilliant thought that just occurred to me ... a note on culture

As a public health professional, I have been indoctrinated to continually consider culture and heritage as a part of interventions. We should, our professors say, carefully examine the normative values immanent in our target populations. We should analyze and plan and really, really think about not only what we say, but how we say it, and how we act when we do so. It's all about sensitivity.

I was thinking the other day, then, about the classroom environment and different teaching styles, and how professors should really be applying these same principles of cultural sensitivity to their students. We are, as master's students, existing in our own culture. We have specific norms and values, specialized language that describes our experiences, and certain socioeconomic concerns (i.e., we're generally poorer than poor). We have arguably created our own subset of society here in our public health school.

Why do I get the impression, though, that some ostensibly enlightened educators are contradicting their own teaching by refusing to understand students' viewpoints? I wouldn't necessarily call it hypocrisy, but I just don't understand how students at SRPH don't constitute a population that deserves consideration on par with needy community members. We're a group of people with specialized interests, and we ought to receive "interventions" (in this case, education) that has the same quality of the interventions we are designing in our courses. We don't berate or belittle people for doing things "wrong" in a health setting; why would we do this to students, who occupy an analogous social realm?

I'm going to bust out an old cliche: Practice what you preach! That's an imperative that is imposed on all of us that are in the health and wellness industries. Like it or not, people are unlikely to trust a nutritionist who only eats cupcakes, a doctor who smokes, or a public health professor who doesn't attempt to understand students' very legitimate cultural norms.

This is what we are called to do, thinking outside of the box. Cultural sensitivity isn't only good for understanding life in the colonias or in other countries, it's important right here in your own backyard. Learn how to apply it in your immediate surroundings, and you're certain to succeed when the tough situations arise.

I've come to the conclusion that being proficient at public health is really just being proficient at life. Here are the basic tenets of our profession, as I interpret them:

  • Ask people what they want and need,
  • Be nice,
  • Try to understand people that are different from you,
  • Admit that you don't know everything,
  • Admit that you sometimes break things,
  • Don't lie,
  • Don't waste money or resources,
  • Make sure what you're doing is working,
  • Don't hurt anyone,
  • One size does not fit all.
Were I a public health professor, I would give my students this list and then turn them loose to study whatever health topic they found interesting. I would give them the freedom to intuitively create interventions and then provide constructive feedback. This field isn't about following a formula to achieve a prescribed end. It's about engaging people and showing them that they can change their own health status and maybe even that of their community. It's about coming up with effective, exciting, and innovative ways to get things done.

It'd be great if that started at the institutional level, but I'm running out of faith that academicians can deliver what people really need. If they can't even get it right in the classroom, how can they get it right in the real world? Tough questions.

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