My teaching philosophy is based on the idea that students learn best through experience. I practice this philosophy by implementing a cultural learning assignment in my undergraduate class on Race and Racism. The central goal of the project is to reduce prejudice through cultural understanding. Although a majority of my 280 students are enrolled in the course as a general requirement, by the end of the academic term, many report that this assignment helped them grow as individuals and changed their outlook on life.
The assignment requires that students produce a paper in which they comment on their experience: (1) taking an online bias assessment test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT); (2) immersing themselves in an unfamiliar cultural setting; and (3) interviewing people from a racial, ethnic, or cultural group toward whom they harbor negative biases. In addition to describing their experience with these activities, students are also asked to relate the information to course concepts and theories.
Prior to participating in the cultural learning assignment, students are first exposed to concepts and theories that help explain racism in multiethnic societies. They also learn about the history of different ethnic groups. Through course lectures and readings, they learn that it's normal to have personal biases, but that by becoming aware of our biases, we can minimize their effect on our thoughts and actions. After learning about core concepts and theories, students complete one of the online bias assessments available on the IAT web site:
Students are asked to take a test that they believe might reveal a personal bias related to race or ethnicity. As part of their paper, they must critically evaluate the IAT as an assessment tool and describe the extent to which they agree or disagree with their results. They are also asked to comment on their reasons for selecting that particular IAT and to consider why they may have developed their bias(es). Most students indicate that implicit and explicit messages received from family members contributed to their bias formation. They also describe specific experiences that may have shaped their current schemas. In addition to their written reflections, students turn in their printed IAT results.
The second step of the project is to challenge their bias by immersing themselves in a cultural setting that allows for interaction with members of the group they have chosen. In most cases, students focus on a group that is different from their own ethnic or cultural group. In some instances, however, students come to realize that they hold a bias toward their own group (e.g., as a result of being socialized in a biased community, or indeed, a biased society). In such cases I point out that it can be valuable to focus on one's own group because these biases can lead to self-hatred if not challenged.
As part of their immersion experience, I encourage students to attend an event to learn about their chosen group (if they they're unsure whether a particular event would be appropriate, I ask them to consult with me in advance). For this part of the assignment, students have attended events such as Chinese New Year celebrations, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, African American church services, Islamic mosque services, and Native American pow wows. Some students post messages on our online class forum expressing interest in learning about a certain group. In response, classmates have invited them into their homes for traditional dinners or even welcomed them to attend ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms. In their papers, students then describe how they felt in the unfamiliar cultural setting and what they learned from the experience. Students must also provide contact information for a person who can confirm their participation.
The third phase of the project involves conducting interviews with one or two members of the selected group (Note: Students only qualify for an "A" if they conduct two interviews). Each student must ask their interviewees the same set of questions:
- What does it mean to you to be a member of this cultural or ethnic group?
- When and how did you become aware of your membership in this cultural or ethnic group?
- Do you believe there are stereotypes associated with your group? If so, what are these stereotypes, and when did you become aware of them?
- Have you been personally affected by prejudice and/or racism?
- What suggestions can you offer to encourage mutual respect among various cultural groups?
- What would you like others to know about being a member of your cultural group?
Students are provided with guidelines on how to conduct the interviews in a respectful manner. For example, they are told to listen and think before they speak, to imagine that a camera is recording their actions (would the recording portray them as humble, respectful, and empathic?), and to project kindness onto their interviewee. I model this interaction style throughout the course and discuss it frequently so students feel prepared for their interviews. Students summarize the interview responses in their papers, and they're also required to provide contact information for their interviewees.
At the end of this experience, students turn in a typed report at least three pages in length. I provide a guideline of three pages because the class size (N = 280) does not allow for longer papers to be graded efficiently. However, most students turn in a paper that exceeds three pages (Mean = 6 pages; Range = 3-15 pages). I do not penalize students for going over the suggested length, and they're informed of this policy in advance. For a sample paper (slightly condensed and corrected for typographic errors) by one of my students, Andrea Baty, click here:
Some students supplement their papers with photos, brochures, and items from their events, and students often ask me to show their photos to the class (e.g., pictures of them wearing hijab at a Muslim service, making menudo soup and tamales with a Mexican-American family). My office contains several objects students have given me from their events, including a Chinese good luck charm and a Native American dream catcher. In the concluding portion of their papers, students are asked to describe what they learned about themselves from this project. They are also asked to indicate how they'll continue to challenge their biases and learn about different groups in the future.
There are two pitfalls I have encountered with the implementation of this assignment. The first occurs when students do not read the syllabus or have been absent from class and choose to focus on a group unrelated to ethnicity or race (e.g., LGTB populations). Because my Race and Racism class is focused exclusively on ethnicity and race, I deduct points when students focus on an unrelated group.
The second pitfall occurs when students do not select a good event for challenging their bias. For example, they might attend a campus lecture or museum with exhibits related to race. Although such events and settings are informative, I prefer that students are more actively engaged in their event and interact with members of their chosen group.
Variations and Extensions
Instructors may wish to alter this project based on the size and topic of their class. For example, in smaller classes, and especially for graduate level classes, professors may want to increase the recommended pages and require a literature review as part of the paper. The literature review can provide an in-depth examination of the chosen cultural group.
Alternatively, if a literature review isn't feasible, students can opt to read a book. Sample biographies that would help meet the goal of this assignment (i.e., to reduce prejudice through cultural understanding) include: Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years (African American), The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (bicultural, European-African American), Yell-Oh Girls (Asian American), All Over But the Shoutin' (European American), and Rain of Gold (Latina/o American).
If time and finances permit, the cultural immersion could be conducted as a group (i.e., professor and students) or even include a study abroad experience that lasts anywhere from one week to a full academic term.
Finally, if the class is focused on age, gender, sexual orientation, or other social categories, the project can be modified to include learning experiences related to any of these characteristics. In such cases, the choice of bias tests, cultural settings, and interviews can all be changed to match the class topic.
Student reactions to this assignment have been extremely positive as reflected in student papers, course evaluations, and email messages. Listed below are comments that I've received by email (to protect student identities, only initials are used). These comments were unsolicited, so I consider them particularly meaningful.
"I never mentioned it in class, but I have deep rooted racism in my family that goes back generations. Taking this class definitely taught me that I do not want my future children growing up with hate in their hearts for others, like I have. While I cannot erase everything that has been taught to me by my parents and relatives about other races, I can choose to let it stop at me. Thanks for helping me realize that." (J.D.R.)
"Learning about all the other ethnicities has helped me better understand where other people are coming from. To be honest, I'm not a very sympathetic or empathetic person, but I'm doing my best to change that and really listen to what people have to say. I will take everything I have learned from your class and do my best to make a difference in this world :)" (K.A.)
"This is one of the dreaded required classes that I needed before graduation, but it was truly a learning experience for me. I have been on campus 12 years now and didn't think I had much to learn; I was definitely wrong." (R.L.)
"This was the first class of its kind that offered solutions to the... racism that affects our society. The other classes I've taken have been 'Bash the White guy.' You had a class that was unified to eliminate racism and I, as well as others, appreciated the class." (W.F.)
"I learned so much from your class and I will always remember my visit to the Islamic Mosque. Thank you for the priceless teachings. I'm forever a changed woman." (V.R.)
"I have seen deep within myself and am WAY better for it, on levels you may never know. The challenges issued took true character and discipline to be successful. Everything you have recommended, I have tried to implement into my environment. I know that even after this class is over, YOU have helped me learn to walk with a different beat, a beat of excitement and wonder." (J.V.)
Bragg, R. (1997). All over but the shoutin'. New York: Random House.
Delaney, S. L., Delaney, A. E., & Delaney, A. H. (1993). Having our say: The Delaney sisters' first 100 years. New York: Dell Publishing.
McBride, I. (1997). The color of water: A Black man's tribute to his White mother. New York: Riverhead Books.
Nam, V. (2001). YELL-Oh girls! Emerging voices explore culture, identity, and growing up Asian American. New York: HarperCollins.
Peacock, J., (2004). Questions for panelists in race and racism. Unpublished syllabus, California State University, San Bernardino.
Villasenor, V. E. (1991). Rain of gold. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press.