Oppression, Power, Inequality: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Delores E. B. C. Cleary PhD
Central Washington University
Sociology Department


There are at least two preferred outcomes for students taking courses within Sociology that deal with race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The first of the desirable outcomes is that the awareness of the issues surrounding -isms(n) is heightened and, second, that the understanding of the dynamics of such issues is increased. Both outcomes stimulate an active engagement with the structures and institutions of society. All too often, however, student-response to such courses encompasses feelings of apathy, cynicism, and helplessness. Our strategy to resolve this problem is to structure an interdisciplinary course using not only a Sociological paradigm, but also paradigms of English and of Art. This year-long course develops the individual student's ability (1) to recognize and generate a deep appreciation of multiple perspectives [including her own] and (2) to cultivate the acquisition of skills of critical assessment. An array of resources promotes knowledge of the process of resistance and change while establishing an understanding of the existence of, and reasons for, inequality in American society. Included in this battery of resources are readings, mainstream and alternative video media, Internet exchanges, student-produced videos, issue-oriented student writing, and class discussions.


Some of the most formidable teaching tasks within sociology surface when issues of inequality are addressed. Several of the barriers that arise when dealing with such issues inhibit student learning. One of the most daunting is the pessimism and apathy that overtakes students when discussing these issues. While the present political, economic and social climate contributes to this phenomena, the larger component may be that many students are unfamiliar with the long history of inequality in this country and are unaware of the struggles against inequality within American society. The challenge of a sociology class addressing issues of inequality is to bring students beyond their own stereotypical beliefs about those different from themselves and to motivate these students to question their own underlying assumptions while, at the same time, forestalling their distancing themselves from the subject.

In this article, we discuss an interdisciplinary course1that provides the structure from which it is possible for students to view the sources and consequences of inequality from diverse perspectives (Cohen, 1991). This course is part of a national education and video documentary project, the Curricular and Faculty Development Project, that partners with six other colleges and universities throughout the country. The task was to develop a year-long, team-taught course, within the humanitites or social sciences, about diversity that uses video and experiential education. The -ISM (N.) Project was inspired by the progressive trends in education that have occurred in response to the call for diversity education and was fostered by the movement toward strengthening of links between the "real world" and the classroom. Although many of the techniques used in this course, with the exception of video production, would be effective in a semester- or a quarter-long course, we chose to institute a year-long course--not only because of the technical nature of the use of video production techniques, but also because we wanted to insure the establishment of a secure environment from within which students could be open with their feelings regarding inequality issues. In classes that focus on issues of inequality, it is often the case that students do not progress beyond feelings of guilt and anger. By instituting a year-long course we were able to help students move beyond feelings of uncomfortableness so that they were able to engage the material in a more productive way.

An experiential pedagogy is well-suited to learning about diversity and eases cognitive dissonance. The gap between the knowledge gained by the student and any perceived necessity to change behavior (Hutchings & Wutzdorff, 1988) often results in tension. This tension occurs as a consequence of students being exposed to information that is contrary both to their view of self and to their understanding of how they relate to the society in which they live.

Through the use of the paradigms from English, Art, and Sociology, this course encourages students to develop an understanding of the social constructions of "the self" and "the other" in American society. This broadening of perspectives informs students through encounters with divergent viewpoints and nurtures increasing awareness of the subjectivity of their information about themselves and others. The result of this experience is that the students examine the institutions, constructs, and ideologies that shape their sense of "the self" and "the other." The multiple paradigm presentation, through praxis2, gives students assistance in reducing cognitive dissonance.

The Value of Multiple Paradigms

The study of American inequalities--race, class, gender, and sexual orientation--introduces students to the various assumptions and debates about human behavior. The basic arguments are not constrained by the traditional disciplinary boundaries. These arguments include theoretical concerns, practical concerns, and epistemological concerns about the social processes, the social structure, and the dynamics of social change.

A result of coming to appreciate the pervasive nature of inequality, i.e., as students begin to learn about the power of inequality and to internalize this knowledge, is that students begin to believe that nothing can be done to change American society--because the power structures are too embedded in the social structure of society (Moulder, 1997). By integrating the various perspectives, students are able to recognize the power that each discipline brings to the investigation of inequality in American society and to the issues of social change. Students begin to understand that their sense of "the self" and "the other" does not occur in a vacuum but takes place within the contexts of institutions and culture. There are, therefore, cultural and societal implications that include issues of power. Racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism are valued differentially by society and, as a result, some groups have the prerogative to define reality and to justify and reinforce institutions, ideologies, policies, and practices that reflect dominant group interests.

Students are able to synthesize their skills and knowledge from several disciplines and to apply such skills and knowledge to concrete issues from within the society in which they live (Garkovich, 1982). The concepts of power, oppression, and the social construction of meaning have a similar basis in Sociology, English, and Art. The common themes that run through these disciplines is the investigation of subjectivity and the critical analysis of information. In addition, each of the disciplines carefully scrutinizes the implications of the common themes on the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological levels. The combination of Sociology, Rhetoric, and Media Criticism allows for the examination of both the historical and the contemporary representations of various groups of people which provides students with a socio-historical context for diversity issues. Exposing students to the various disciplines' paradigms and methods enables students to understand diversity issues as products of interdependent institutions and ideologies, which includes a requirement of awareness of the academy itself. This awareness consists of identifying the academy as part of an interdependent system directed by particular interests which influences public policy, public dialogues, and our individual understanding of ourselves and others.

The interplay between the humanities and social sciences provides students with the opportunity to reflect with a deeper understanding on the interplay of their own ideas about diversity and the disciplines they encounter. White middle-class students who have had little experience of diversity have difficulty identifying racism and issues of inequality and, therefore, fail to grasp its impact on them (Bohmer and Briggs, 1991). Students in this class have hands-on experience, which helps them to discover how inequality plays a role in their lives. Through group interaction, students are able to develop an intellectual basis for investigating diversity issues and cogently expressing their own observations.

The Sociological Paradigm

The sociological paradigm is central to the issue of inequality and is embedded in the course. Students begin, in this course, to step outside their own social mileau and examine their own assumptions about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Students critically analyze the structure of American society as it impacts race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and examines the force this structure has on life chances. Finally, students work in teams to develop an issue-based and sociologically-based video project--from drafting the proposal to producing the finished product. Students are evaluated at each step of the process, which includes a concept paper and other intermediary assignments leading to the production of video text. Students are encouraged to see the video as a mechanism for social change and as instrumental in expanding the discourse developed in the diversity class by presenting their video products, written texts, and sociology projects to multiple audiences, including other ISM(N) projects,3 the World Wide Web, the university community, the local community, and the larger community.

The English Paradigm

Much sociologically relevant material is found in literature. Tindle (1996) found that students who were exposed to sociological concepts through the use of literature are better able to use higher-order thinking skills in the areas of evaluation and comparison. In addition, through literature a student may gain an insight into the life experiences of those who are members of minority groups in society. Essentially, literature helps students to develop and use their sociological imagination (Hendershott and Wright, 1993; Brooker-Gross, 1991). This is especially important when students are, in the main, from a homogenous group. Most students at Central Washington University are of traditional college age, are similar in terms of social class, race and ethnic background and have very little experience with sexism, racism, classism, or heterosexism. The English component of the course also provides mechanisms by which the students gain experience in critically assessing multiple texts by establishing, expressing, and using criteria to examine the authors' assumptions, arguments, and biases regarding inequality in American society. Writing is central to this course, through writing students develop the ability to synthesize ideas, improve their reading ability, and communicate their ideas effectively through a variety of texts (LeFevre and Larkin, 1983).

The Art Paradigm

The relationship of mass media to the inequalities in American society is well documented. The media continues to provide images that support stereotypes (Johansen, 1987). The social criticism perspective enables students to critically read visual texts examining the assumptions, arguments, and biases regarding inequality within the media. Art becomes a visual tool used by students to develop a social construction paradigm4, to develop critical uses of visual tools, and to assess others' use of visual tools (Hyerle, 1996). By using video, both mainstream and alternative, students were able to consider alternative perspectives regarding racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism (Groce, 1992). The students in the diversity course were able to better understand issues of inequality when they could identify with those in the media representations. The ability to critically view the media supports the dispelling of the stereotypes often held by students. The art criticism portion of the course makes students aware of the techniques and methods used by media to construct society's awareness of inequality. Students also utilize video as a medium for analyzing the social construction of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and to record the transformation of their thinking as they experience the course.

The students at Central Washington University are between the ages of 18-24, this is the generation that gets much of its information from visual media, particularly information about differences and about power. Requiring students to use video promotes the engagement of a sociological imagination (Mills, 1995) and encourages making connections between broader social issues and personal experiences.

Broad Benefits of this Approach

Central Washington University established "A people of Color Participation and Diversity Plan" in 1993. The plan identified goals and strategies designed to increase the representation of students of color and to address curriculum, retention and climate issues. Diversity in the curriculum has been ably addressed through this course, which combines three general education requirements.

Increasing student and faculty diversity on campus enriches all students, regardless of cultural background. This course was constructed to include as diverse a student body as possible in order to encourage a broad range of interests and a multiplicity of approaches to issues of diversity. Christianson (1989) argues that working in diverse groups allows students to increase the proficiency with which they interact with someone of a differing background exemplifying authenticity, respect, openness, and acceptance. Although this particular course included students from diverse backgrounds, the same goals can be accomplished with a homogenous group through the increased use of minority biographies, media, group interaction, and guest speakers (much of the work in the course included small group interactions).

To provide the students with a foundational basis in the sociological study of inequality, discrimination, and racism, in combination with key approaches to rhetoric and social criticism, the focus is on the central concepts of power and oppression and their place in social construction theory. Students apply these concepts to constructs of race and ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Students are able to apply a social construction perspective and recognize how those who are members of the group in power are able to construct appropriate role behavior in society, as well as, to define the structure of society, including the rewards and punishments. Throughout the year we concentrate on how we define ourselves and the other, how and why individuals experience multiple identities in American society differentially, and how we can produce social change in institutions as a result of power differentials.

Nature of the Course

The course is organized to meet two days a week for a two and one-half hour block of time, fall quarter, winter quarter, and spring quarter. Each meeting consists of mini-lectures, collaborative learning exercises, media analysis, journal response writing, and construction of video diaries (see appendix A). The video diaries are used to refute, modify, and/or confirm the validity of information as it relates to their personal experiences.

The first quarter we concentrate on how the self concept is developed in relation to others and how the self concept influences society. There is a strong focus on interlocking identities, i.e., race, class, and gender, that result in oppression. McIntosh (1992) and Lucal (1996) argue that ignoring multiple identities, and the consequences thereof, results in neglecting to address the advantages that some individuals gain merely as a result of their location in the structural hierarchy. By addressing issues of identity, students can more easily recognize the privileges and disadvantages that individuals experience as a result of membership in a particular social group. Many students have not reflected on issues of identity and how identity impacts their own behavior-- particularly their reactions, stereotypes, and assumptions about people not like themselves. By focusing on issues of identity and its relationship to inequality, students are encouraged to look beyond individualism and to consider how their own social position impacts opportunities (Stoller and Gibson, 1994). Experiential learning has been found to provide students with concrete, hands-on experience and, as a result, students are better able grasp complex issues, internalize them, and be able to apply them to the world around them. Group interaction serves as an effective tool in engaging the reality of diversity. Brynes (1988) argues that when learners (a) are organized into heterogenous teams, (b) are given tasks that require group cooperation, and (c) are provided with structured activities so that the group members can experience success, that this, then, is an effective mechanism for enhancing relationships among group members-- particularly when the contact is frequent and sustained. Engaging in this collaborative process may pose a risk for the students because they bring deeply-held beliefs and behaviors to the process, and this often increases tension for the students. As a result, the members of the group often recognize their own dynamics and power shifts through reviewing their decision making process, the communication patterns, the relationships, and the end product.

Media literacy has been defined by Aufderheide (1993) as the "ability of a citizen to access, analyze and produce information for specific outcomes." Our students are given the opportunity to become more conscious of the role that subjectivity plays in media representations and to become more discerning about the media. Students are encouraged to ask questions about the role that ideology, economics, politics, and race, class, ethnicity, and gender play in the construction of meaning by the media. Understanding the function of media in the creation of reality is an effective component of the course. Students become aware of the technical features of video which are harnessed in order to create a particular impression, thus highlighting the power relationships between the media and the powerful groups of society. The power of the visual text in defining "whom you are" give students the tools to plan a video of self-representation. This is an effective way for students to understand the complex nature of the self concept, which encompasses all of the individual=s motives, cognitions, and emotions (Rosenberg, 1990), and portrays those aspects of identity that are more salient to them and to which they are most committed.

Each student prepares a video diary, which includes a reflection on identity and personal experience that serves to push students to see themselves in terms of diversity. Students are able to construct a message, and, therefore, begin to deconstruct, their own image. The students are then able to share their videos and become peer teachers providing new and different perspectives for each other. In addition, responding to their classmates' videos provides incentive for the class to build a sense of community. Often, students are very empathetic while watching each others' videos and are able to openly question some cultures. The video diaries set up a frame of comparison for later in the course. Students have complete control over their video diaries, however, when they produce their group video projects throughout winter and spring quarters, students will have to vocalize their own interests while negotiating and sharing power.

The second quarter of the year is devoted to addressing the experience of those who occupy a devalued status in American society. The course includes collaborative learning exercises, lectures, writing assignments, reading assignments, and preparation for group videos directly relating to some aspect of the inequalities addressed. The primary purpose of this section of the course is to address minority experience in American society. Students are given the opportunity to become familiar with the life-experiences of a member of an oppressed social group and to become acquainted with the importance race, class, gender, and sexual orientation play in life chances5 (Fitzgerald, 1992 ; Anderson and Collins, 1995). This primarily occurs through the requirement that students read a novel that deals with some aspect of oppression (See appendix B for reading list).

Often, as a consequence of the focus on inequality and the consequences of inequality, students become apathetic (Moulder, 1997). The third and final quarter of this course directly addresses issues of social change and the mechanisms students can use to produce social change. Students are encouraged to identify resistance to social change, the various techniques of resistance used by those in power, and mechanisms to overcome the resistance (Ryan, 1997).

The final project is a group video project which addresses the diversity issue at the campus or local level and the students place themselves within this particular context. Essentially, the group video is the capstone of the course and provides students with the opportunity to create their own media images. Aspects of video production require negotiation and creative decision-making. In preparation for the group video, students work within collaborative learning groups to develop, direct, shoot, edit, and produce a final project. The benefits of collaborative learning are well known (Rau and Heyl, 1990; McKinney and Grahm-Buxton, 1993). In the process of producing their group videos students are encouraged to critically assess the features of their particular subject matter. Students assess how their own viewpoints are reflected in that subject matter, assess the group process of video production, their sources of information and how the conveyance of that information is constructed. In addition, assessment also includes how the time limitations, economics, intended audience, and the extent of university support impacts their video production. The students then are able to show their final projects on campus to fellow students, staff, and faculty, as well as, on community television. Student videos also become part of the National -ISM(N) program developed by the Institute of Public Media Arts.


This interdisciplinary approach to teaching is effective for students, faculty, and society. Student skills are increased and the faculty members are energized. This approach is most effective when addressing, in a structural way, inequality from the perspectives of a variety of disciplines (Hepner, 1996).

Promising Student Outcomes and Lasting Effects

Students who have taken this course have done well in other courses that address issues of inequality. Seventy-five percent of these students have minored in the Ethnic Studies program. Many of these students have become activists in the university and local community. Lastly, these students have become better social scientists and were able to assess the adequacy of the theoretical and empirical arguments dealing with issues of inequality. The evidence is that 90 percent of the students that took this course have received 4.0 grades in other courses dealing with issues of inequality. The students played an active role in their own learning throughout the course and developed the ability to use many different methods of transmitting their knowledge to others, through visual text, written text, and verbal skills,

Specifically we have been able to ascertain that students were able to identify the relationship between social class, gender, race, and sexual orientation and inequities within the larger social structure. Through videos, discussions, presentations, and writing they demonstrated basic sociological and rhetorical concepts and identified the place that media criticism plays in issues of diversity. Students have been able to go beyond pointing out racist, sexist, or homophobic stereotypes on television and in films and have become skillful in acknowledging and articulating their own subjectivity in the creation of meaning. Such outcomes have the power to lead to more effective communication at the interpersonal and institutional levels.

It is important to acknowledge student interest and excitement in the course as it has proceeded through the year. Students were able to discuss the course with the Director of the ISM(N) Project, Jeffery Land from the Institute of Public Media Arts. In addition, they were excited about being part of a national program with five other schools in the United States. They received exceptionally positive responses from the presentation of their individual identity videos. A few of the students felt as if they had worked too hard with all the writing, readings, and video production. Students were unable to drop the course between winter and spring quarters without receiving an incomplete for the winter course, a provision of which they had been made aware at the time of enrollment. Students have already mentioned that the information that this course has provided them is what they came to college to learn and suggested that the course be instituted into the university as a requirement fulfilling Central Washington University's diversity initiative. Students have discussed the final video project as the most central piece of work in their college career. Students have been very open to interdisciplinary course work and to address issues of inequality in the United States.

Problematic Areas

A year long interdisciplinary course at a university on a quarter system does present some problems. Although most students were enthusiastic throughout the year, we had four students drop between the first quarter and second quarter. This was primarily a result of class conflicts but also a result of reluctance to come to terms with one's whiteness. One particular student had a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with institutional racism and its impact on attitudes. This student felt very guilty, attacked for whiteness, and approached issues of discrimination negatively. The student expressed her concerns in class and indicated that she was considering dropping the course. The other students rallied around her and eased some of her fears, convincing her to stay in the class. Such students as she are most important to reach. Because of the strength of the learning community6 we had developed, we were able to address feelings of personal guilt and move toward making institutional changes.

Faculty Development

The interdisciplinary team of the faculty gained considerably from this course. Much of our team work occurred before the course started, we shared articles, films, videos, and other material that we thought beneficial to the course. In addition, we met weekly to review and assess the prior week and brief one another on the week ahead. This allowed us to give consistent information to the students regarding assignments and expectations. As a team we were able to make better use of our skills, develop integrated strategies for dealing with students, and create a better learning environment using a variety of techniques (Clark and Clark, 1997). We benefitted from working together and were able to make connections between different fields and recognize the commonalities and differences between them and the ability to make each perspective stronger.

All interdisciplinary team members were present in each class and coordinated the section that was pertinent to our area of expertise and, as a result, the students were exposed to diverse approaches to the study of inequality and social change. At the same time, particularly when the subject becomes uncomfortable for students, there is a tendency on the part of students for them to look to the white male professor for support in challenging the professors who are women of color. Sandler (1986) argues that students and fellow faculty often make inappropriate challenges to most women. Simone's (1987) research establishes that when women teach courses that address gender issues they are seen as biased. This is also the case with the attribute of race. When professors from racial/ethnic minority groups teach courses about minorities they are seen as pedagologically incompetent (Reyes and Halcon, 1988). There were times, as recognized by students, that the white male professor inappropriately challenged the professional authority of the minority women professors. For example, during mini-lectures, which were used by each of us to explain discipline-specific ideas, if white students became uncomfortable, the white male professor would challenge the information the female faculty of color was relating to the students. Students of color in the class picked up on this quickly and mentioned to the female faculty members that the white male faculty member was challenging the female faculty member. This provided support for those students who were uncomfortable with the subject matter to dismiss the theoretical paradigm. It may be the case that these challenges were not a result of deliberate prejudices, but as suggested by Moore (1996) the result of the inability to step out of one's social mileau and move beyond categories of race, ethnicity, and gender. This may have been the result of the failure of the teaching team to acknowledge the power differentials that impacted the team. We may have been able to avoid this aspect of our team teaching if we had acknowledged diversity and power differentials within our own group.


There is a need to systematically follow up with these students and discover if, and how, the diversity course impacted other courses they have taken. Several of the students in the diversity course have subsequently taken sociology courses and a few have graduated. Many of the students that have taken subsequent classes have been very successful at stepping out of their own social milieu and critically looking at the world around them. One of my colleagues commented that a student she had in her course was very exceptional in terms of group processes and when she asked her where she had leaned that she told her "I learned it in the best course I have taken at the University, The Emergent Self."

Some of the strategies used in this course that could benefit other professors in their efforts to enhance students' struggles with inequality issues, even in a semester- or quarter-long course, are: experiential education, which allows for reflection and an awareness of new knowledge and new meanings. Also, students benefit when they interact within groups in which they can engage in the reality of diversity on some level. Students benefit when instructors give them the room to interject personal experiences and perspectives into a larger socio-historical context. Finally, instructors should include various formats in their courses about inequality. Such formats include small group work, student-led mini lectures, journals, writing assignments and quizzes. Using multiple formats will increase the likelihood for praxis, which in turn will enhance student engagement.


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1 Funded by the Institute of Public Media Arts in Durham, North Carolina as a faculty development project. The Institute of Public Media Arts is an independent educational non-profit organization supporting innovative diversity issues through video and group projects. Central Washington University and eleven other colleges and universities have partnered with the Institute of Public Media Arts to explore issues of inequality through video, internet, and active learning.

2 A continuous, reiterative process of planning, action/interaction, reflection and re-planning.

3 Five other schools were funded by the Institute of Public Media Arts.

4 Social Construction theory focuses on the construction of reality as a process by which human-created ideas become so firmly accepted that those ideas are not even questioned. People=s reaction toward one another is based on their definitions of reality and is learned from interactions with those around them.

5 Life chances are the probabilities concerning the fate an individual may expect in life.

6 For more information on the benefit of learning communities see Tinto, Vincent. 1997. "Enhancing Learning Via Community" Thought and Action Vol 13 n1 p53-58.

Index of faculty articles

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