Lessons Learned From the National Video Diversity Project

Mary Childers
Dartmouth College
March 1997

In October 1995, representatives from 11 colleges and universities met at a retreat center in North Carolina to learn more about "-ISM (N.)"--a project they had become part of by successfully responding to an intriguing Request for Proposals from the Institute for Public Media Arts. We were a diverse group by design: a multiracial gathering of 33 professors, video artists, counselors, administrators, and community organizers. We had committed to teaching in teams of three at institutions as different as the Community College of Denver, Dartmouth, Maryland College Park, North Carolina Central, Pitzer, and Southwest Texas State. What we learned during this intense weekend was that we were part of a work-in-progress and that we were going to be engaged in as much risk-taking as the students.

By the time we met again in May 1996 at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin--this time with some students as well--most of us were wryly triumphant that we had survived a semester of teaching about diversity using a structure designed primarily by the Institute for Public Media Arts, an entrepreneurial, utopian group of relatively young educators and community organizers. This structure resulted in a series of adventures in adversity and diversity that turned out to be a unique, creative way of reminding us of the challenges and rewards involved when we ask students to address issues college educators themselves puzzle over.

Distinctively named to remind us of a politically significant suffix that is also a noun, -ISM (N.) was the first national education and video documentary project focused on college students and diversity that put video cameras in the hands of students, enabling them to tell their own stories about diversity. The -ISM (N.) project's goals resonate for many faculty and administrators concerned about community and diversity on college campuses. They include:

  • addressing diversity issues in new ways using the video documentary process as an educational tool;
  • helping students become more reflective about their attitudes toward diversity and how it fits into their self-interest;
  • creating constructive public dialogue on diversity issues and building better student relations in this time of heightened tension on college campuses; and
  • strengthening teaching related to diversity.

The project's long-term objective is for the students in these classes (and their teachers) to become more adept at negotiating differences associated with sex, race, class, sexual orientation, and body image, as well as other issues. By requiring that students practice civic skills inside and outside of the classroom and by giving them the creative outlet of video, the -ISM (N.) project intends to foster a generosity and complexity too often missing when identity politics dominate the classroom.

In order to share the course's goals with others, individual campuses have held--or are planning--events that will encourage campuswide discussion of the remarkable work produced by numerous students. There are tentative plans for a nationally televised documentary based on the work of selected -ISM (N.) students.

But the video work only partially reflects what students achieved in these classes. Many have testified that they benefited significantly from two opportunities that are more rare than they should be in college: they got to explain something about themselves to other students by creating and sharing personal video diaries, and they got to work intensively with other students on a final group video project.

Depending on the school, students were encouraged--or obliged--to work in diverse groups of three to five so that they would have to get to know and rely on people whose fundamental concerns and self-interests were not the same as their own. Based on the knowledge that it is common for students to form groups automatically with students most like themselves for collaborative projects, the -ISM (N.) project was designed to make something else happen. What took place in these classes was definitely something else for most of the participants--both students and instructors.

After the semester, participating faculty were required by the -ISM (N.) project to assess carefully the courses they had taught. Although the experiences they reflected on in the assessment process certainly are not unique to teaching about diversity, courses such as this one may heighten both productive and disruptive passions among students, between teachers and students, and among faculty. Since it is rare that faculty from such different institutions get a chance to communicate with one another about pedagogical issues, this article features primarily the voices of faculty informing the -ISM (N.) project directors--and one another--about the course's challenges.

Virtually every instructor in the project has expressed amazed appreciation at what students were able to accomplish using video. Marsha Houston of Tulane University summarized a common response to the classes: "My greatest insight is that video--in the form of the video diaries--is a much more powerful medium than print for students to share their own identities with other members of the class."

The video diaries became tools not only for self-expression, but also for community-building. It turns out that the initial empathy one student experiences while watching another's video diary can inspire interest in other cultures that some students might not experience as readily in another way. Individual stories told with particularity can transcend ideological disagreements. These personal video diaries, which communicated both the joys and the disenfranchisement of minority life in the United States, encouraged awareness rather than premature political judgment.

As a result, in some cases, skeptical students not only were able to be more openly curious about subcultures that have experienced ongoing subjugation, but had an opportunity to convince others that their reservations about multiculturalism or feminism were not necessarily based in racism or sexism. Quite notably, students who previously had been preoccupied solely with the history of their groups' oppression became more concerned about the interconnected history of other groups.

One beneficial aspect of the assertive individualism that characterizes so many U.S. youths is that, whatever their politics, many can approach the classroom eager to get along with other students as individuals. Student services administrators frequently orchestrate circumstances in which one group of students meets with another to improve intergroup relations on campus; the -ISM (N.) project demonstrated that the classroom more often can be a place where students' interest in each other can develop into interest in groups and subcultures. Although some instructors found themselves acutely aware that it is difficult to maintain high academic standards while encouraging students to speak freely to one another, for the most part the students' responses assured them that what students accomplished through the courses justified some of the risks, discomforts, and uneven academic quality.

Learning about one another and how to represent oneself to the class certainly were among the most successful aspects of many of the courses, as was confirmed in an extensive evaluation produced by Simmons, Boyle & Associates. The preliminary evaluation report quotes one anonymous student who said what many of us had hoped to hear: "There were people in the beginning of the class that I didn't like, (that) by the end of the class I had completely different impressions of. You meet people and you hear them talk and you think, `Well, that person is that way, this person is that way.' And then at the end I was happy to find out that I was wrong. This person wasn't the kind of person I thought."

Similarly, Jennifer Phang, a student at Pomona College, explained that during her course she grew not only from learning how to produce a video but also by developing her understanding of the conditions under which it is possible for more people to learn to be productive together: "I personally found the entire semester a success story in that, while there were heated disputes and convoluted discussions that never reached a consensus, the students involved always knew they could put aside their disagreements and allow for relationships to develop. I became good friends with someone whose viewpoints were completely different from mine. This person is someone who I originally found frustrating and ignorant. But we ended up on the same group project, and after a week of late nights in the editing room, we became close and shared a lot of personal experiences. and I finally saw him as a friend."

Many faculty members were delighted to witness the kind of engagement students display when they know that their academic and personal goals are being met simultaneously. In a project report, Steven May of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted, "I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the students and their willingness to engage the material and the assignments....Students do seem to be somewhat more open to discuss difficult questions/issues--and in a respectful and tolerant manner. Not surprisingly, they are more committed to the course than the typical undergraduate student, so that helps. They have a vested interest in articulating their perspectives and/or voice."

It may be that the energy level remained so high because this particular professor was also comfortable with the students more or less controlling the class. He went on to say, "The dynamic is always unpredictable and often difficult to manage. I m more likely to let the students dictate the tone and direction of the course, which is somewhat different from my other undergraduate courses."

Midway through her course at Southwest Texas State, Leticia Garza-Falcon reported, "I feel something so electric, stirring, and life-changing going on in this class....This may be the first time the students confront their identity....'their' realities in an academic setting....Today, for instance, spoke about how her birth certificate was falsified because of the fear that she would not be adopted if the prospective parents knew she was part black...."

This particular faculty member was neither hesitant about, nor surprised by, the strong emotional presence of students in a class that allowed room for the experiential. Some instructors elsewhere, like Ann Robinson at Oregon State University, were a little surprised that personal expression was so compatible with other classroom expectations. Robinson said she "saw that academic readings and factual background information could be juxtaposed with personal experiences of students and faculty to give both the intellectual and emotional understanding of diversity issues." As a result, she and her colleagues were successful in practicing "a balancing act between making the course academically rigorous and having it appear like a sensitivity workshop with a political agenda."

Elizabeth Lozano of Loyola was particularly eloquent in describing the challenge of self-consciously managing a class that made student experience part of its substance: "I am also constantly thinking about intellectual and affective `dialogue'; trying to learn when to participate as a teacher-- guiding the content of an intellectual conversation--and when to participate as a mediator, pointing out the meta-discourses or dynamics of the conversation, without intervening in its content."

She found that her class worked best when discussing students' video diaries:

Much insight was gained from students' discussing peers' work, and from the faculty participating in the discussion about implied assumptions, aesthetic and narrative choices, technical aspects, and videos' relevance from an ethnographic and multicultural perspective. Students realized that their diaries were not only personal statements, but also ethnographic documents in which their ideas, cultural attitudes, and implied ideological positions were revealed in unexpected and powerful ways.

Not all of us, however, were convinced that the combination of the personal and the academic was working. Tulane's Marsha Houston voiced a complaint that was echoed elsewhere.

"Not until the end of the course," she said, "did I realize that several (many?) students' selective perceptions resulted in their not comprehending that this was more than an opportunity for producing self-indulgent statements about diversity, informed solely by their (limited, adolescent) experiences, and uninformed by course readings and content or by a semester of listening to the experiences of classmates from other cultural groups." By the middle of her course, a professor from North Carolina Central University, Fran Jackson, also had confronted this problem and acknowledged, "I would like to see them refer to readings more during class discussion and in their journals."

Some instructors--perhaps those of us who had the biggest reservations about the role of the experiential in the classroom--were concerned that too many students were reluctant to be analytical about their personal experience. Many students pointed out that it was hard to find time to think about assigned readings because video production is so labor-intensive and fraught with time-consuming mistakes due to students' being complete novices. Although the time constraints were real, they perhaps were cited so often because they were easier to express than some of the other obstacles to intellectual quality in class discussions. The very process of watching a number of videos may have lulled some of the students into expecting all class subject matter to be readily accessible. More significantly, the relative novelty of speaking freely about oneself in the classroom may have increased resistance to thinking about the rhetoric, implications, and complexity of that speaking.

Loyola's Elizabeth Lozano, like some other instructors, found students reluctant to do much critical thinking about the terms that were flying around their class: "It is important to critically examine...truisms of our daily rhetoric--such as equality, tolerance, fairness, diversity, democracy, or plurality. Each one of these concepts is heavily loaded with taken-for-granted assumptions. Without addressing these assumptions, we are not arriving at the fundamental issues and paradoxes that the serious consideration of multiculturalism implies."

The deficiencies of classroom discussion that surfaced in some courses cannot be attributed solely to the uneasy fit of experiential and intellectual discussion. "As the course progressed, and many issues on multiculturalism were discussed," Lozano noted, "I came to the realization that students stood far more apart than their overt statements or behavior would have allowed one to anticipate."

Such silence and evasion witnessed in a small number of the classes may have had some benign causes. Not only did some students not know exactly what they wanted to say to one another, but their silence may have expressed a positive attitude in that they just wanted to be kind to one another. They felt an admirable--although paralyzing--desire to avoid challenging one another. No doubt some of them were as frustrated as some faculty that even the supposedly alternative classroom is occasionally already scripted and weighed down by what is actually, or assumed to be, undiscussable. How does a tentative student ask questions of a rhetorically powerful student? How could anyone come to multiculturalism without an attitude?

While most of the faculty were glad that they had joined this experiment, not all came away feeling that they had achieved a serious consideration of multiculturalism. The Dartmouth teaching team was struck by the contrast between how students conducted themselves in class and in their video work. There was a lot of silence in class, but when there was conversation--in addition to significant repetition--there was dramatic oscillation between compliance and defiance directed toward one another and the faculty.

Considerable resistance was provoked when faculty questioned students about some of their statements or asked "intellectual" questions about student videos. It may be that anxiety about being accused of political correctness led the Dartmouth team to compensate by being repressively--rather than helpfully--intellectual. A number of the students were certainly distrustful, as though every idea a faculty member suggested was actually an attempt to tell them specifically what to think about such issues as problems on Indian reservations or the place of recognizing biracial identities in campus discussions of race.

Some of this resistance had to do with students already having mastered appropriate classroom behavior and feeling profoundly suspicious of what would happen if they behaved differently. Would they violate some taboo and get slammed with a low grade if they said what they really thought? If they said what they thought and were questioned, did that mean that the professor had no respect for their identities?

Most significantly, in following the -ISM (N.) suggestion that classroom discussion be videotaped (with the permission of the students), the Dartmouth team ended up strangling conversation. At the end of the class several students protested that they felt they were being manipulated for the sake of good video footage at the same time that the class emphasis on civil conversation made them fearful of passionately disagreeing with one another. And yet, with all of the difficulty in classroom discussion, the students worked together extremely well outside of class. Many of them reported developing friendships with people they would not have met otherwise. Students' willingness, while developing their technical skills, to stay up late and meet for long hours after class to shoot and edit footage led to some videos that vibrated with clarity of expression, courage, a sense of joy, and experimentation.

It was not only political fear, fear of grades, and concern about politeness to one another that muffled the communication in some classes at times. Introducing the possibility of confessing one's own flaws added tension--as well as possibility--to the classes. Oregon State's Ann Robinson described one ideal "teachable" moment "when one black woman admitted to having made racist remarks to two white women at a party because the women were with black men." These moments were not completely rare, as Robinson pointed out: "There were other times both in and out of class when students had to encounter their own superficial reactions to things that required greater thought."

But not all confessions increased class solidarity. At one school a student was socially ostracized after responding honestly in class about a student-made video of a gay wedding. She admitted that she recoiled from the picture of two men kissing and described how some of her friendships in the past had changed when she realized people were gay or lesbian. One student in the room who had experienced her remarks as rejection was very upset and didn't think the student deserved to be supported for admitting her negative reactions to gays and lesbians.

The faculty suggested that it was courageous of students to face the contradictions and pulsations of bias in their own psyches--particularly when confession is not associated with exoneration. What the faculty did not know is that outside the class, the student who spoke so candidly was severely punished by teasing and mockery. Her experience made other students in the class aware that it was dangerous to speak in a way that was not politically correct, that some other students would not honor the class rule of confidentiality. As this example shows, when you unite academic and student affairs, you become particularly aware that the classroom is an artificial island in the midst of a college community that buffets it.

The instructors who were disappointed occasionally or frequently by the quality of classroom discussion are still considering just how discouraged they should feel about what was not accomplished, when so much worked quite well. Since most of us know how hard it is to genuinely discuss diversity--even with our colleagues--we shouldn't be surprised that our students may stumble and stomp when we ask them to rise to the challenge of thinking simultaneously about their own cultural identities, the identities of others, and the contexts in which personal identity should not be of paramount concern.

We shouldn't be surprised at how hard it is to cultivate attentive listening and honest articulation based on careful thinking, rather than reactive rhetoric. We should be willing, however, to let students continue to teach us about the conditions under which they can learn to unite their personal and political concerns with intellectual challenges that dislodge unexamined assumptions. Fortunately, as we discover again and again in teaching, the road we take that may fail to reach some specific goal often leads us through a landscape filled with surprises and detours into learning that we cannot anticipate or fully assess.

Just as conflict can emerge among students, it can erupt among people teaching together. For some instructors, the team teaching was a salvation; for others, it exacerbated the intermittent difficulties of the class. Team teaching exposes very different attitudes toward evaluating performance, negotiating with students, and professional standards. Both students and instructors had to grapple with deciding when conflict was caused by individual personalities and when it was symptomatic of cross-cultural problems. All difficulties in diverse groups are not caused by diversity, nor are they unique to diverse groups. But as soon as we focus on differences, there is a danger that we will grant too much salience to them.

One of the many wise organizational features of the -ISM (N.) project was that it deliberately brought faculty from all the schools together to discuss, among other things, their own "power dynamics." Because that discussion was itself instructively tense at times, one white instructor wrote in her evaluation, "I concluded that there were a number among us leading students in a community-building educational program designed to teach tolerance and activism, who were unable to model that tolerance. They told me if I was not a part of the solution, I was a part of the problem--and then they told me that because of the color of my skin, I could not team with them as a part of the solution."

Most of us, however, did not echo this sentiment. Instead, the majority agreed that the two large meetings we attended gave us a rare opportunity to engage openly in a multiracial setting in which it was assumed that we were all caring, committed people--whatever our differences.

Edgar Beckham of the Ford Foundation, one of the project's funders, contributed to a particular discussion at our Wingspread Conference Center gathering in a way that exemplified how our faculty conversations frequently moved. In response to the often-heard protest from some people of color that they are "tired of teaching white people," he said that he had been struggling for quite some time to fully understand why that statement troubled him even though he understood and respected the sources of the frustration. He pointed out that all of us in this multiracial group had talked continuously about how much we learn from teaching, especially when we open ourselves to experiments such as the -ISM (N.) project.

He concluded that what bothered him about the statement "I'm tired of teaching" is that "it suggests something really frightening--that `I'm tired of learning.' And so the urgency that I attach to this is how important it is to continue to define and refine and develop the much more subtle paradigm for teaching/learning. You have to say those words so fast that they become one word."

The -ISM (N.) project embodies the possibility of teaching/learning occurring simultaneously for instructors and students in ways that are especially imperative for multicultural teaching. Too often such teaching has been interrupted by political partisanship that rules out teaching/learning. It is crucial that people on both the left and the right in the academy understand that it is possible to be a skeptical participant in, and advocate of, multiculturalism. Otherwise, participation is ceded entirely to impassioned advocates who may not entertain dialectically the range of critiques of multiculturalism and thus improve its practice. Even worse, if only "believers" participate, then people on the outside remain uninformed about what it is really all about.

The academic stance of skepticism is one we should applaud when it involves the possibility of cooperative participation. Skepticism that always entails withdrawal from the possibility of participation in new educational practices guarantees stasis in the academy or institutional rifts between standardized practices and barely tolerated--but needed and promising--practices.

It is because the -ISM (N.) project included so many opportunities for faculty and students to learn that many of the participants are delighted by the continuation of the program. Funding from the Ford Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and Philip Morris Companies makes it possible for the -ISM (N.) staff to allocate some small grants and to continue providing significant guidance to schools interested in using video as a tool for practicing and teaching about diversity. Based on a serious evaluation project and ongoing discussion with the participants--both students and teaching teams--the -ISM (N.) staff will issue a "Multimedia Tool-Kit and Course Planning Guide" for the next round of participating schools so that their teaching will benefit from what others have learned.

It can be anticipated that the next cycle of courses shepherded by the -ISM (N.) group will lead to more vital classes, encourage more collaborative work among students and faculty, and inspire more faculty dialogue about how to increase the number and quality of college courses that address diversity directly.

Further information about the Institute for Public Media Arts and the -ISM (N.) project is available from

IPMA 115 Market Street Durham, NC 27701
Phone: (919) 688-0332
E-mail: ismproject@publicmedia.org
WWW: http://www.publicmedia.org/ism


Mary Childers is Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Assistant to the President at Dartmouth College, where she is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor. She has taught at several colleges and has published articles on various equity issues as well as English Literature and feminism. Her most recent essay appears in The Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Left to Right, ed. Alexis Jetter, Annette Orleck, and Diana Taylor. Originally published in Change Magazine: The Magazine of Higher Learning, March/April 1997, Vol. 29 Issue 2.

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