Social psychology lends itself well to action teaching because many of its central themes relate to societal issues. In that regard, I developed an action teaching assignment for my undergraduate social psychology class to help students experience firsthand the power of simple human interactions in fostering a culture of acceptance and understanding—a goal for the good of humanity, not just a good grade.
I was inspired to develop the "Humans of Northeast Pennsylvania Project" as an assignment for my social psychology class after following the "Humans of New York" photography blog created by Brandon Stanton. Originally intended to be a photographic census of New York City, Stanton's project evolved to become more about people's stories than about numeric results. As a social psychologist, the idea of a photographic blog of strangers screamed opportunity to inspire tolerance in my students and teach them the value of embracing and accepting our differences, while recognizing how alike we are at the same time. What I saw in Stanton's photographic blog was a well-defined illustration of the fundamental core that connects us as social beings. With only a few questions, Stanton was able to elicit a story or quote that reminds us of our common humanity.
Description of the Assignment
For this assignment, students can work alone or with a partner. They venture out into a community or metropolitan area near our college and become amateur street photographers. Students are asked to find five people, couples, or families whom they consider to be different than themselves or somehow outside the norm in society and who are willing to allow the students to take their picture and ask them a few questions. Students then join a Facebook group I created for the assignment and post the photos for the class to see. Like the Humans of New York project, they also add a caption to each photograph that best represents the interaction. Most often this caption is in the form of a quote from the subject of the photograph. Some sample questions include:
- "What is the meaning of life?"
- "When was the saddest moment of your life?"
- "What is the biggest struggle you face?"
- "If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?"
There are no specific guidelines for the photographs, except that they must be original photographs taken by the students for purposes of the assignment, and the subject can't be someone students know. I emphasize that students will not be graded on their photography or journalism skills (with the exception of basic writing mechanics), but rather, on the amount of thought, effort, and creativity they bring to the project.
Students also write a reflection paper in which they comment on their thoughts about the assignment in general (e.g., biggest fear, challenges faced), their actual experience on the streets (e.g., plan for approaching strangers, chosen location), and the specific connections they made to social psychology as a result of completing the assignment (e.g., challenging stereotypes and prejudice, breaking social norms, using the contact hypothesis, avoiding the fundamental attribution error, increasing cultural awareness).
I ask students to comment on their classmates' posts on Facebook and provide support throughout the semester. Though initially apprehensive, once students begin to see the posts of their classmates and a norm is established, posts begin to pop up rapidly. This is one of the most exciting parts of the assignment because I see their engagement in the assignment and the course. Because most students are regular users of Facebook, I know they're getting a daily "kick" of social psychology, as well as exposure to the stories of diverse strangers straight from their own backyard, in a medium that is both enjoyable and easy for them to use.
The Grand Finale: A Photobook
For many students, the icing on this project's cake is the grand finale. At the end of the semester, I take the best photograph and caption from each student and use the services of Shutterfly.com to turn the project into a hardcover photo book for the class. Students are then invited to sign the inside cover, and the book is displayed on campus for a limited time. I also give students the option of buying their own paperback copy of the book for around $20, which many class members do. Students are proud of their contribution to the book and are delighted to see the project come together as an organized whole in a tangible form.
Student Reactions and Effectiveness
The assignment was assessed quantitatively and qualitatively. Students completed the Intercultural Sensitivity Scale (Chen & Starosta, 2000) and the Gratitude Questionnaire (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2001). Consistent with the learning objectives of the assignment, students significantly increased in "cultural interaction engagement" (p < .003) across the semester. When interacting with people from diverse backgrounds, students increased in reported enjoyment of the interaction, ability to wait before forming an impression, open-mindedness, giving positive responses and using nonverbal cues to show understanding, not avoiding situations with diverse populations, and feelings of enjoyment toward differences. Students also showed a marginal increase in their ability to find things they're grateful for in their life (p < .06).
Students agreed that the project made them "more aware of the diversity around them" (M = 6.33, SD = 1.1), helped them feel "more connected to strangers" (M = 5.55, SD = 1.4), "more comfortable talking to strangers" (M = 5.7, SD = 1.2), have "more empathy for strangers" (M = 5.8, SD = 1.2), enhanced their "understanding of the fundamental attribution error" (M = 6.2, SD = 1.0), and helped them "better see social psychology in the world" (M = 6.1, SD = 0.9).
Qualitatively, students reported:
- "I thought it was so beautiful when someone chose to tell me something very personal and sad; me, a complete stranger. That is what made me feel so close to them. We all experience hardships in life, we all know pain, and we can relate to each other's pain."
- "They taught me that everyone is different and diversity is a great thing, but if people place too much importance on what makes people different they ignore all of the things that people have in common."
- "The groups I interviewed taught me a lot about the human race in general. We all want to love and feel loved. Period."
- "I believe you should never judge a book by its cover. Always get to know the person before you make any type of remark because you are never aware of what that person is going through."
Tips on Implementation
You, too, can create your own "Humans of (your city name here) Project"! Once you get the students on board, it's a painless and enjoyable project to manage. As is to be expected with any project that's outside the box, students are both excited and nervous about the project when I first bring it up. Thus, I spend a great deal of time in class explaining the assignment to students, including introducing them to the "Humans of New York" blog, and give students ample opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns. Students who spend time following the New York project tend to have a better understanding of how to approach the assignment.
I've found that most student apprehension stems from not knowing how to talk to strangers. We talk about the importance of this communication skill, such as how it can create a sense of community in public spaces, how it can help us hone gracefulness, and how it can actually bring us networking opportunities. I acknowledge that it will sometimes seem uncomfortable at first—approaching a stranger and developing a conversation with someone students know nothing about. All of this seems to help get students on board with the project. I feel that the college environment is the perfect place for students to address this much-needed, but rarely taught, life skill.
I also stress the importance of safety, and I counsel students to visit only familiar locations during daylight hours. Many students choose to work with a partner, which I would encourage in large urban locations. In addition, I give students several of my business cards. Students feel better knowing that if they run into a person who questions their motives, they can have the person contact me. One of the most important tips I can offer is to do the assignment yourself before you ask your students to do it. You will not only see how scary the task can be, but you'll be able to talk to your students on a more personal level about the experience. Students will respect the fact that you "walk the talk" and are not asking them to do something that you wouldn't do.
This assignment is easy to adapt for a range of courses and personal teaching styles. For example, creating a Facebook group is not a necessary component to the assignment, although it does allow for students to see what their peers are doing throughout the semester. In place of Facebook, you could have students email you photographs and create a slideshow for the class at the end of the semester. There's even potential for holding a campus or community event to showcase the best photographs and stories.
There's also potential for this project to be cross-disciplinary. Teaming up students with their peers from the art department (specifically, photography students) or from a communications department would be beneficial from many angles. Finally, if you're concerned about student safety off campus, you could restrict the assignment to your campus and focus on students learning about their peers. Our campus is not particularly diverse, nor is our surrounding area dangerous, so students in my class benefited more from not being allowed to photograph people on campus.