The purpose of this action teaching assignment is to understand the life stories of people from misunderstood or stereotyped groups within the framework of Introduction to Psychology. By hearing real-life stories, students can identify and critically analyze the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination faced by people who are considered outside social norms. The learning goals of this assignment are to enhance students' critical thinking, cultural competency, and attitudes towards groups of difference. Empirical assessments early and late in the semester suggest that the assignment effectively achieves these goals.
Part I: Finding the Voices (Interviews)
Students in my Introduction to Psychology course worked in pairs to interview people from groups that are often misunderstood or stereotyped. To generate a list of groups for purposes of the assignment, students completed a rating sheet during the first week of class identifying groups toward which they had very positive or negative attitudes and a high or low degree of familiarity. Based on these ratings, I assigned each student to a group toward which they had a negative attitude or lack of familiarity. For the assignment, students interviewed a person from one of the following groups: Asian Americans, African Americans, people in poverty, Hispanics, Muslims, people with AIDS, people with obesity, women, or gay males/lesbians.
Students met with their interviewee three times, which allowed enough interaction to begin building a relationship. The interviews focused on concepts from social psychology, including experiences of stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination that interviewees may have encountered in their life, intergroup dynamics, and identification of how their characteristic of "difference" had affected the way others perceived and treated them, and how they felt about themselves. Each pair developed its own set of interview questions to gather information and connect the interview topics with course material. This process was intended to foster critical thinking skills.
Students also attended a "cultural" event to promote an understanding of group values, rituals, norms, and/or community (e.g., Indian dance performance, AIDS art exhibit, Hispanic food event, visiting a lesbian couple's house to experience an "alternative" family).
Part II: Sharing the Voices (Storytelling)
Based on the interviews, students each wrote a five-page autobiography of their interviewee's life from the first-person perspective highlighting themes of "difference" in the person's life. By using the word "I" to represent the interviewee, students were placed in a proximal relationship with their interviewee's point of view, thereby increasing students' empathy for the person's experience. This narrative approach is considered "a powerful medium of learning, development, and transformation" (Jarmon, Brunson, & Lampl, 2007, p. 36). Students shared their interviews in class throughout the semester, which enabled others to learn about, and compare, stereotypes and prejudice across groups. This course-embedded approach gave the project relevance and a platform for dissemination.
In addition to being shared in the classroom, the "voices" of these stories were disseminated to the campus and community in a staged reading performance (all interviewees signed an informed consent form giving permission for their stories to be read in a public forum). To transform the stories into a cohesive program, I assembled a writing team of three faculty (two English professors and one History professor) to join me in identifying themes across all the stories and adapting them into readable monologues. For example, the monologue "Emma" was an integration of two students' autobiography of a homeless woman they interviewed. Here is an excerpt:
"I was born into a working, middle class family. My dad was an alcoholic and mom was into drugs, but according to them they didn't have a problem. With my father there was some fondling that everyone kept swept under the rug. If we tried to tell our mom, it would just be brushed aside.
At the age of 14, I got a terrible toothache. After the surgery, my mother gave me these pills that she had. That's when all my problems started. I loved the way the drugs made me feel. When my mom stopped giving them to me, I began to help myself. I would take them out of the medicine cabinet or my mom's purse to get my fix.
My kids are some of the most precious things that I have gotten out of this life, and I just simply walked out on them and let them be taken away. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and have children and a family. I never saw myself having four kids and not being able to see them anymore. Even if they were still with me now, I would not be able to provide properly for them. That is what hurts me most about my past."
The monologue entitled "Fear Factor" consisted of a montage in which multiple interviewees described their experiences being the target of prejudice and discrimination:
Man with AIDS
The script included 10 scenes that reflected the stories of all 14 inteviewees as written by the students. Nineteen people -- including students, staff, faculty, deans, and community members -- read the script to an audience of 325 people at the end of the semester. Many interviewees attended the performance and hugged me after the show, stating that they were so glad to have others hear about their life experiences. The event also received coverage in the campus newspaper and local community newspaper.
"If my softball friends said anything discriminating about AIDS, they did not say it to my face. Although they probably talked about my disease behind my back, I'm glad that they never said anything to me directly. I would not have wanted to know how they really felt. A year after I was diagnosed, I was hanging out with a friend of mine... We were listening to the radio, and a commercial for an AIDS walk came on. After the commercial, my friend's band member said, 'We should just take all the homosexuals and people with AIDS and put them on an island and just blow it up. That would solve this problem.' He had no idea that a man with AIDS was standing right next to him."
Muslim College Student
"I also have a job just like any other college student; I work at a clothing store. This is where I experienced my first form of discrimination. One day while the store was very busy, I was helping a customer when I heard a man yell, 'Hey, why don't you take that tablecloth off your head so you can hear me!' I simply turned to the man and calmly responded, 'No thank you, I would rather keep it on.' After an older woman heard the man say this to me, she walked over, looked me in the face, and said, 'I think you look beautiful!' While the man was leaving the store, I saw a look of embarrassment come across his son's face. I didn't let it get to me because it doesn't matter to me what others think about my hijab or my religion; it is my decision, nobody else's."
Part III: Assessing Learning Outcomes
I used self-report and coding methods to assess the outcomes of critical thinking, cultural competency, and attitudes toward the interviewee groups. During the first and last week of the semester, students completed surveys assessing their stereotypes and prejudice toward the groups in the project. The surveys integrated psychometrically sound attitude measures toward each group. Students also wrote a five-page paper during the second week and last week of class. A team of five students used critical thinking and cultural competency rubrics to code each paper, with two students coding each paper as a reliability check.
Results from paired samples t-tests indicated that students significantly increased in critical thinking (p < .003) and cultural competency (p < .016) across the semester. Students also showed significant decreases in stereotypes and prejudice towards Muslims (p < .000), people in poverty (p < .001), lesbians (p < .034), people with AIDS (p < .020), people with obesity (p < .037), Asian Americans (p < .024), and Hispanics (p < .002).
This narrative framework of interviewing, story writing, and storytelling can be applied in a wide variety of settings. For instance, it can be used in courses such as Psychopathology or Health Psychology as a means for understanding the emotional and personal aspects of mental or physical illness. It is also suitable for conflict resolution, anger management, or positive psychology themes (e.g., forgiveness, happiness) to structure an exchange of information and perspective taking.
The success of this project was facilitated by institutional support from administrative, student, and academic domains. I was fortunate to receive assistance from our service learning and diversity offices to help find and contact the interviewees. I networked with relevant student service offices to ask for their help bringing students to the program, and I solicited readers for the program at faculty and staff meetings so that the "voices" would be represented by a wide variety of constituents on campus. Conducting this project with first-semester students was challenging, because many of them needed logistical assistance to complete the project. However, the end result was extremely gratifying, and I am current planning a second installment next fall focusing on the theme of disability.
Jarmon, B., Brunson, D. A., & Lampl, L. L. (2007). The power of narratives in the process of teaching and learning about diversity. In D. A. Brunson, B. Jarmon, & L. L. Lampl (Eds.), Letters from the Future: Linking Students and Teaching with the Diversity of Everyday Life. Stylus: Sterling, VA.