"The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom," ( hooks, 1994, p.207).
Practicing education as an act of freedom in the university involves learning and unlearning. Students minds and hearts are often crammed with information and knowledge, the remembered bits of content of their years of education and varying degrees of understanding of how to study, research, and write. Stuffed in between the fragments of history and literature and math is the information and misinformation they have learned about race, gender, class, and sexual orientation; their understanding of their own identity, place and history and their understanding of the "other"; groups or individuals who are different from them.
At its best, education as the practice of freedom allows both teachers and students to do exactly what bell hooks (1994, p.207) describes "...to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries..." This education does not mean replacing one set of information with another, nor replacing conservative values with liberal values nor moving from the politically incorrect to the politically correct. To teach in a way that is liberating for students and teacher alike requires teaching and learning how to think independently, assess information, and reevaluate what has previously been taught and learned. The freedom to make our own decisions about beliefs, values, attitudes, behavior, and knowledge about diversity can be liberating, even exhilarating.
During the 1997-98 academic year two colleagues and I received a grant from the national -ISM (N.) curriculum project to teach a two semester course using experiential learning, social and historical theories, and video as a basis to teach and learn about personal identity and diversity. -ISM (N.) is a national diversity education and civic participation project of the Institute for Public Media Arts that focuses on faculty and curricula development, co-curricula community educational activities, and student leadership within secondary and post-secondary education. This particular course and the six others that were supported through this project were evaluated by an external evaluator at Columbia University (Petrides,1998).
The collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching and the blend of teaching methods used in this course helped sharpen a multi-layered teaching process that will be described in this article. The course itself and the teaching methodology are both designed to understand diversity and oppression in relation to:
- personal experience and identity
- the content and process of formal education
- visual media
Central to this teaching methodology is a process that guides students to make connections between what they and we have been formally and informally, explicitly and implicitly taught about people who are different from us, how justice works or doesn't work in U.S. society, and how this adds up to a thorough socialization about diversity and oppression. This involves teaching students three key sources of information that work together to create an understanding of our own identity and beliefs about individuals and groups that are different from us. These three sources of information are:
- formal learning in schools, religious organizations and other organized institutions
- informal learning from parents, peers, and other key people in our lives
- the messages we receive from visual media in the form of television and film
This method of teaching challenges students and teachers to engage the material and each other both personally and theoretically in order to revisit and rethink what we have been taught, what we have absorbed and what we have resisted. Students were asked to examine how this socialization has impacted their understanding of knowledge and the way that shapes their values, beliefs, and behavior. After considering and reevaluating what they were taught in these three ways, students were offered new information and theories and were invited to make their own independent decisions and choices regarding their beliefs, values and behavior.
A central assumption of this approach to teaching and learning is the conviction that all education, knowledge, and information is value based. In this course we asked students to detect the ideology and values underpinning what they have learned in the past and in what they were learning in the -ISM(N.) course. This is a methodology that embodies the essence of social justice education in that it does not simply replace one set of ideas and practices with another--but pushes students to become conscious of the process and impact of their own socialization and most importantly to learn to make independent choices.
For this method to be successful, our team found that as teachers we needed to engage ourselves thoroughly and personally in the process. We let students know that we would not ask them to disclose or explore anything that we were not personally willing to uncover and discuss with them. We asked students to prepare a written autobiography which began their journey of understanding their own framework and context for deciphering diversity and oppression. When they shared elements of this autobiography in class, we did the same. In order to foster independent thinking, it was important for the students to understand that their teachers were also socialized to interpret life in particular ways and were still rethinking, relearning, and "unlearning",
I used this methodology at Webster University in St. Louis in team-teaching the -ISM (N.) supported course, "Lift Every Voice", with Kathy Corley, Video Professor and Chair of the Department of Photographic and Electronic Media and Colette Cummings, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. The three of us brought different disciplines, skills, and life experiences to the course. Kathy Corley teaches film and video theory and is an award-winning producer of video documentaries. Colette Cummings is a student services professional with an extensive background in diversity training both in the academy and in other settings. I chair the Department of Communications and Journalism and am an anti-racist activist and trainer with academic background in media theory and media literacy.
Our combined experience in creating a different kind of university course, teaching collaboratively, and working with the students to develop an intentional learning community had some extraordinary results. This article reports on the theory, application, and results of this teaching method as applied in the -ISM (N.) course which we called "Lift Every Voice".
Content of the course
The course syllabus began with the following description: "'Lift Every Voice' is designed to explore the voices of oppressed groups by examining personal and group identity, heritage, and responsibility of both targeted and dominant groups and individuals. The course is a part of a national project called the '-ISM (N.) Project'. We joined with six other universities around the country to explore identity and oppression by race, gender, class, and sexual orientation through the use of praxis. Praxis is a method which blends theory, experience and in this course the use of video to explore the content on both a personal and academic level. This course invites both students and instructors to become fully engaged in this journey" (unpublished manuscript, Corley, Cummings, and Holtzman, 1997).
The content of the course included identity development and oppression theory and history regarding race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. The course was taught using experiential learning and reflection in the form of interactive workshop-style exercises and autobiographical writing and discussion on these topics. As part of their assignments students produced video diaries which explored one aspect of each student's identity and a final small group documentary which probed the impact of one of the diversity issues in the Webster University community. Students and faculty participated in two overnight retreats, one at the begining and one at the end of the year long course.
The -ISM (N.) course invited students to think outside the conventions and constructs they had been taught and to expand the boundaries of both their experience and intellect. In order to establish credibility and authenticity, this required a different kind of position for the three faculty members.
There were three key elements of the teacher's position in the development and implementation of this course. First, we explored the boundaries between the three of us as teachers. During the summer of 1997 we spent many hours planning the course together. We met in each other's homes, meeting each other's families and significant others, and having meals together. We did all the standard things to prepare for a new course. We studied, we exchanged reading materials, we developed the syllabus, we prepared lectures, discussions, and lesson plans.
With the understanding of the journey we were asking our students to embark upon, we decided to begin that process together. We initiated a process of exploring our own identities and discussing them with each other. We explored what we had learned about our own class and gender and race and sexual orientation. As we learned more about each other we were able to use that as another "text" and a basis for discussion in the classroom.
Secondly, we had to explore the traditional boundaries between teacher and student. This required clarity among ourselves and with our students. The nature of the course, the self-disclosure, and the interaction at the retreats meant that a personal kind of relationship was formed between students and teachers and a sense of intimacy evolved. While students had strong input into the course, the course design and structure and the grading were ultimately our responsibility. While the boundaries were different than in traditional college courses, there were still boundaries and it was our responsibility to make those clear. Because part of the content of the course was to understand the dynamics of power and its interaction with oppression and discrimination, it was important to be explicit about what power individual students held, the power of the group, and the power of the teachers. Early in the course, teachers and students created the ground rules and expectations of the learning community we were developing. This list was compiled collectively by students and faculty of the St. Louis -ISM (N.) project following the fall retreat. The group discussed the need for guidelines in this uncharted academic journey and students and faculty developed this document collectively. It is a list that was added to throughout the course.
Elements of a Learning Community
- Sitting in the circle is symbolic of an environment where everyone, students and faculty, learn from each other.
- It is relaxed, there are fewer traditional boundaries and there is freer expression from members of the learning community.
- There is a group decision-making process that is established.
- Each individual is responsible for raising concerns, suggestions, issues and problems to the group.
- The group is responsible for listening to and addressing these concerns, suggestions, issues and problems.
- Conflict is addressed by the whole community; it is not simply one or two individuals' responsibility to address.
- It is less institutionalized.
- Alternative structure and expectations are not the same as no structure nor
- There are high standards for participation in the process and for producing
(Corley, Cummings, and Holtzman, 1997)
- Students are expected to participate at a high level and have strong input into the process and content of the course.
- Faculty is expected to participate in all experiential exercises and assignments.
- Learning and teaching is expected to go from teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student .
- Individuals are expected to learn conflict resolution, communication and negotiation skills.
- There is an expectation to pay attention to individuals and individualized needs
- There is an expectation to balance the learning needs of the individual with the needs of the community.
- Everyone has a responsibility for attendance--if either students or faculty will be late or absent, they are committed to notifying their partner.
A third element of the teacher's position in this course was a commitment to retain clarity that the purpose of the course was to open minds and explore new materials and new ways of thinking --not to enforce our own beliefs and values. This was based on the assumption of the limits of most traditional education. What we learn as American history is a collection of stories that has been told by our history books and teachers and is characterized with contradictions that include true historical information, misinformation, and the absence of the collective stories that are part of the larger American story. We were often presenting theories and history that were not simply new, but often contradicted beliefs that were based on information that students had been previously taught. We adopted three principles of teaching any materials that challenged the deeply held beliefs that were based on past learning:
- The person presenting the material must be in a relationship of reciprocal trust and respect with the students;
- The material and information presented must be credible; and
- The students need to understand that they are never required to change their beliefs.
The content of the course and the teacher's position combined with the teaching methodology to actively engage students in the exploration of how they see themselves and others through personal experience, reconstructing knowledge, and visual media. These three components are inextricably linked. They add up to the primary forces that shape who we are and how we think, act and see the world around us and how we construct meaning about the "other", people who are different from us. Examples of how this teaching and learning construct was applied in the -ISM (N.) course are described below. As teachers, it was always our challenge to create classroom experiences that were designed to allow for the practice of freedom within the academy and to encourage independent thought.
The application of personal experience in teaching about diversity, oppression, and entertainment media is critical to the development of students' understanding of their own identity and socialization process. We used all of our life experiences as "text" in this course. This expanded the notion of what constitutes a source of information and allowed us to deepen our understanding of how our personal experiences shape us.
Key to the utilization of personal experience in the course was the constant work of bridging; linking our own stories to that of history. Part of our work as teachers was to help students see at what point their stories were exclusively personal and individual and at what point their stories were collective and part of a larger U.S. history, regardless of whether that larger story had been officially told.
Students were guided to take a close look at their own lives and informal education in order to understand the information and misinformation they received about gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. In this way they began to understand how they were taught to construct meaning about themselves and the "other".
Through in-class exercises and written assignments, students were invited to examine, write about, and discuss what they learned about various social and ethnic groups from family, friends, and religious organizations. Experiential exercises were designed to offer thoughtful processes for reflection regarding this informal education. This element of teaching and learning was applied throughout the course as students began to consider the meaning and impact of various forms of formal education and visual media. Writing about and/or discussing this experience was often a stunning eye opener for students.
As our team prepared the syllabus and course material to explore social and economic class we recognized three barriers to learning about this topic. Based on our research, our personal life experiences and previous interactions, and classroom experiences with students we recognized that many of us are socialized in the U.S. to believe that we live in a classless society, that the American Dream of no barriers to financial and political success is true, and that talking about money is taboo. Our goals were to create an experience which encouraged students to recognize these three issues as invisible assumptions they and we often make in our lives and to offer another set of experiences that challenge these invisible beliefs. We modified an exercise called "Horatio Algier" or "The Level Playing Field" created by Joan Olsen of Cultural Bridges ( Olsen, personal communication, August, 1996).
Students were asked to stand side by side holding hands facing a wall 15-20 feet away. Essential to the exercise was the instruction that they were to hold onto each other's hands as long as possible as they were directed to move forward or backward according to their answer to each question. Through the course of the questions, we asked students to remain silent and to periodically look around and notice where they were in relation to their classmates. Kathy Corley led this exercise and Colette Cummings and I participated.
If you were raised in a two parent family take a step forward.
If you had your own car when you were 16 take a step forward.
If there was an adult library of more than 50 books and 20 children's books take a step forward.
If you shared a bedroom take a step backward.
If you or your family have traveled internationally, take a step forward.
If you have ever had need based financial aid, take a step backward.
If you have ever worked at a fast food restaurant, take a step backward.
If your family owned their own home, take a step forward.
If your family lived in a rented apartment, take a step backward.
If you lived in a single parent home with one income take a step backward.
If you have ever a had a trust fund or owned stocks and bonds, take a step forward.
If you have ever had a credit card that your parents paid for, take a step forward.
If you had a phone in your room as a teenager take a step forward.
If you had to work for financial reasons as a teenager take a step backward.
If your family ever experienced economic difficulty, setback or crisis take a step backward.
If your parents are paying for your entire college education take a step forward.
If you ever had to forego camp or activities that your friends participated in because of finances take a step backward.
If you had all of the clothes you wanted as a teenager take a step forward.
As the questions were being asked, many participants were forced to drop hands in order to continue to move forward or backward according to their answers to the questions. The line was no longer a line but a scattering of people, some still holding hands in pairs or small groups and some isolated far in front or far in back of the room. The student who was at the front was less than a foot away from the wall.
When all of the questions had been asked, the participants were told to race as quickly as they could to the wall. We then asked the following questions: Depending on how close you were to the wall, how fast did you run to try and win the race? Did anyone think they were a shoe-in to win the race? Did anyone think that it was hopeless to try? What were your thoughts and feelings as you remained close to some of the other participants or as you moved farther away, either up or back? Were you surprised where you were in relation to the other participants? Had you ever thought about your family's economic position in relation to the other people you know? What does this exercise teach about the impact of the inequality in financial resources? What thoughts do you have about economic divisions in the U.S.?
The students were eager to talk. The student who had ended up a short distance from the wall talked about her sense of guilt and embarrassment for having had such high access to resources in her life. She said it was hard to talk about something that gave her so much advantage over other people. One of the students who had grown up working class with a single parent talked about how she had never considered the difficulty of her economic situation because everyone she grew up with was in the same position. One of the older students who had grown up poor and was currently working full-time to support herself discussed her current economic difficulty and her envy of students who could go to school full-time and rely economically on their parents.
The debriefing of this exercise led to a discussion of the assumptions of the so-called classless society, the belief in the American Dream, and the tradition of privacy and shame around disclosing income and economic struggle. Students began to see things differently. Many of them had seen their economic lives exclusively in the individual terms of their family's own fortune or struggles and not in a broader societal context. The exercise opened a door for them to begin to see economic status and barriers to success as political and structural. They were eager to learn some of the economic history of the U.S. and find out how fluid upward mobility truly was and is. They were interested in understanding more about the meaning and history and the impact of the ideology of the American Dream. While a few of the students were overwhelmed and frustrated, most of them were excited to break down some taboos of discussing class and economics and thirsty for more information. Later we screened the film Norma Rae (1979) which is the story of one woman's experience with organizing a union of textile workers in a small southern town.This added the depiction of class in film to our discussion. A few of the students were interested in what they could do to break down these barriers. As individuals and as a group they became increasingly open to understand the history, the barriers, and activism regarding social and economic class in the U.S.
The second component of our teaching methodology was reconstructing knowledge which invited students to examine the more formal methods and organizations that convey information (and again, misinformation) concerning gender, race, class and sexual orientation. This method of investigation involved analyzing explicit information students learned in school and other formal teaching organizations and presenting theories and information that were often omitted.
During this discussion of reconstructing knowledge we introduced the concept of hegemony. Hegemony is the process by which people in a particular society are socialized to accept certain behaviors, norms, and places in society through peaceful means. The hegemonic process involves what is taught in schools, by parents, religious organizations, etc. about the role each group plays in society. The process of hegemony allows people to take on even subordinated and discriminated roles in society without resistance or violence (Croteau and Hoynes, 1997). If people are effectively socialized to accept these roles as norms, as "right"; there is little need for authorities to enforce them. As teachers, we saw part of our role to uncover this hegemonic process.
An effective example of what is formally taught in schools involves the African slave trade. Most U.S. students were taught about the Civil War and Slavery but the majority of them were not taught about the 17th century slave trade and the Middle Passage. During the Middle Passage, the journey in which captured Africans were taken to the United States by white Americans and Europeans to become slaves, millions of Africans died at sea (Salzman, Smith, and West, 1996).
Using the methodology of reconstructing knowledge we asked students to consider critical questions about such an historic tragedy. Why is this piece of American history rarely included in high school history books? How has this missing information or misinformation contributed to what we believe to be true about African Americans and American history? Students were asked to consider the source of their information and beliefs as they reviewed what they had been taught and to place it into the context of reconstructing knowledge.
This aspect of the course elicited a wide variety of reactions from students. Students were asked to consider their responses in the context of the personal experience that they had already begun to explore through their written autobiographies and class discussion. One European American student became angry during this discussion of reconstructing knowledge and the Middle Passage. She said, "It's all well and good to learn different parts of history. But there's not enough time in high school to learn every little detail about every little group. We have to spend most of our time learning about the important parts of American history." When she referred to the "important parts of American history" she meant the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the Civil War and other events she was taught to think of as significant. We asked her to recall her autobiography and talk more about her personal experience. Where did she grow up? What was the racial and ethnic composition of her community and school? How did she learn about groups and individuals that were different from her? Some of these questions were asked in class and some were discussed in a private meeting with just the student and myself.
A critical component to successfully pursuing this conversation as a teacher is the firm conviction that as an individual and student she is entitled to believe whatever she chooses. As a teacher, I am obligated to teach her what I know and to respect her choices. It is in this environment that students feel safest to take emotional and personal risks, make shifts in deeply held beliefs, and be open to reconstructing knowledge.
This particular student had grown up in an all white, Christian, semi-rural community that was largely upper middle-class. In her early adolescence a few African American families moved into her community. Her parents did not allow her to socialize with the newcomers and told her that the reason that the neighborhood was beginning to deteriorate was because "these people" had invaded their community. As she began to rewind her experience, she also began to unwind and untangle what she had learned about race and its meaning. She said to me privately, "It's almost as if I've been brainwashed." Then, independently, she did a remarkable thing. She apologized to the class for her earlier comments and said that she understood things differently now.
Reconstructing knowledge involves reading, studying and discussing the histories of various social groups. It involves critical study of theories of liberation and oppression, of culture and social learning theory and other theories regarding socialization. The new information frequently bumps against the old information students have learned. Sometimes it matches and fits and sometimes it is a misfit, contradictory and confusing.
Reconstructing knowledge is an invitation to critical thinking and emotional autonomy. It invites students to review what they've learned about history and politics and current events and understand that there is almost always some combination of accurate information, misinformation and distortion. Reconstructing knowledge asks students to not simply believe everything they are told and taught, even by teachers and parents, even by our own teaching team; but rather implores them to carefully sift out truth from myth.
The Use of Video
Video was used in four ways throughout the -ISM (N.) course. First, we viewed and discussed feature films and television as another source of information about race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. For example, we looked at the role of women in television situation comedies over the last 30 years and how this medium conveyed messages regarding the role of women in the family and in society. From June Cleaver in the old "Leave it to Beaver" series, cleaning the house with pearls around her neck to Roseanne Barr in the more recent "Roseanne" series working in low paid jobs and struggling to make ends meet, we examined these images and their socializing impact on our views of gender.
Secondly, we offered some examples of the use of video as a vehicle for tackling tough issues and promoting social justice. Frances Reid's (1995) "Skin Deep" served as a powerful example of this. This video is a documentary of a process of a multiracial group of college students from around the country who came together for an intensive workshop and conversation about race. Our students saw the racism, the pain, the courage, the confusion, the hope and the transformation of their peers. As they watched this, it was almost as if there was no screen separating them from the students in the documentary and afterwards, several students of color cried as the real life drama in the video triggered their own pain about racism. This offered all of our students an extraordinary opportunity to talk about race to each other across racial boundaries and to learn and understand the impact of racism at a different level.
The third use of video was as instruction for the students as they began thinking about their own video production. Kathy Corley showed the class examples of video and film which featured techniques they could use in developing biographies and documentaries to create a mood and to visually convey information. Tony Deifell, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Media Arts, presented photographs that depicted the agony of poverty in rural Alabama during the Depression. He emphasized the selection process of the photographer or his or her editors and the tension involved in choosing images that reflect what they wanted to say, what the subject may want to say, and the authenticity of the situation.
The information regarding visual technique and integrity was critical to the final use of video in which our students produced their own videos. Each individual student was asked to script and produce their own autobiographical video diary to convey one aspect of their identity. To prepare for this assignment our students had several other video assignments. At our first overnight retreat they worked in pairs to interview each other about their ethnic and economic backgrounds in order to become increasingly comfortable with both technique and personal disclosure on camera. Later they were assigned to produce videos about Martin Luther King Day and created images that conveyed their sense about the day. Their projects ranged from displaying the hope in activism to the ignorance and apathy about the day. Then they began the process of creating their own video diaries.
One European American student with waist length black, curly hair used her video diary to document the process of cutting her hair to a close cropped haircut. There were images of her long flowing hair, the hair cutting process, and close ups of her face as she made the transition. There were conversations with her parents and their reactions and struggle to accept her decision to cut her hair and what it meant to them about their daughter's femininity. There was the student's own voice over the visual images narrating her journey with feminism and femininity.
Another student, an African American woman, also addressed hair in her video diary in a very different way. This student, who worked part time as a hair dresser used her diary to discuss the importance of hair for African American women. She demonstrated the hours that it takes to transform her natural, kinky-curly hair, into a sleek cap or a tumble of smooth curls so that she can conform to society's image of beauty. She conveyed the concept of the hierarchy of beauty in the black community according to whether or not one has "good hair". This young woman, who worked in a major corporation, used her video to discuss how corn rows or dreadlocks or even a short natural haircut are viewed as making a political statement which may be threatening in corporate America. Her video diary raised the question of how African American women can hold onto their authentic selves when there is so much pressure to change a fundamental part of themselves.
Still another student, multiracial and male, used his video diary to address his visual disability, his legal blindness. He used a light comic approach to examine how he is treated at times when people learn of his disability and to convey the "normalcy" in his life that people often miss when they get stuck in his disability. He used video to satirize the phenomenon of people's perceptions of his blindness by walking into walls. He discussed the question that people always ask him about how and what he actually can see while the camera blurred the picture to a fuzzy, shadowy focus that he said conveyed his vision. But he also used the video as an exuberant celebration of his off-beat sense of humor and approach to life that clearly portrayed him as defined by so much more than his disability.
The students' concepts for their video diaries began to develop as we worked our way through their personal experience and reconstructing knowledge about gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. They developed scripts which we discussed and critiqued in class. They brought in their raw footage and students and professors both gave them feedback on what worked and what didn't work. They screened their final work for each other and celebrated with applause and tears and hugs as we all were moved by what was said by these powerful visual images.
Many students began to understand the synthesis of personal experience, formal learning and knowledge, and media as a triumvirate in their socialization. What had previously been invisible socialization became visible and known. And once students' understanding of the socialization and hegemonic process became conscious they had the tools to understand what constitutes knowledge and and to make choices about their beliefs and behaviors. They were empowered by this knowledge and the sense that just as they have "learned" their values and beliefs, information and misinformation, they can choose to retain them or "unlearn" them and "relearn" others.
There was a sense of integration of the experiential, the theoretical, and the visual. There was a sense of hope, a belief in the possibilities of how study and visual art and activism could transform people and create more equity in the world.
"The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom," ( hooks,1994, 207).
Corley, K., Cummings, C., & Holtzman, L. (1997). Unpublished manuscript.
Corley, K., Cummings, C. & Holtzman, L. (1997). Unpublished manuscript.
Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (1997) . Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences. California: Pine Forge Press.
hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.
Petrides, Lisa (1998). Unpublished manuscript, Columbia University.
Reid, F. (1995). Skin Deep. San Francisco: Iris Films
Salzman, J., Smith, D.L., & West, C (eds.),(1996). Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Volume 5. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.
Index of faculty articles