Losing Control and Discovering Our Cultural Identities

Jeffrey D. Brake
Teresa Graham Brett
Charles F. Behling
University of Michigan
October 2, 1998

To study without reflection is useless; to reflect without study is dangerous. - Confucius

Sharing our lives with others is a critical developmental experience. We choose in each situation how much information about ourselves we will disclose. For some, sharing detailed information is easy and for others this involves taking tremendous risks. Intense sharing experiences especially around issues of cultural diversity often happen for the first time during the undergraduate experience. In the Fall semester 1997, this personal experience was shaped in an experimental class we offered to 19 undergraduate students in a seminar on prejudice and discrimination.

This class aimed at encouraging students to break down internal and external barriers centered around diversity in society. We assisted this process by providing structured class projects largely comprised of autobiography. One primary technique we utilized to do this was autobiographical video production. The class began with textbook readings about the lives of other undergraduate students. This assignment was followed with the creation of each individual student’s story in the form of personal journals and a personal identity paper. Students who did not feel comfortable submitting their identity paper, because of the intense nature of the disclosure, were asked to grade their own work. Following this written assignment, students chose one significant aspect of their identity upon which to base a video autobiography.

When students were asked to write about themselves, they were interested and excited about the prospect of exploring their own lives. The papers reflected insightful revelations, personal triumphs, and tragic memories. Each student was able to decide what level of disclosure s/he was willing to share in the assignment (which was only submitted to the instructors; they were not shared with the others students in the class).

As the students began to create their video diaries, tremendous levels of anxiety were expressed in every class session. Growing up in a television focused society, they were concerned with the technical proficiency of their projects. They were afraid of being misportrayed by the videos which would be seen by their peers and others around the country (the class was part of a nation-wide project sponsored by the Institute for Public Media Arts and would be submitted to that organization).

Producing a video in which you are the focus can be difficult. We are a very self-critical society. Students were concerned about how they looked on screen, how they sounded, their mannerisms, etc. The issue being raised is an issue of control. We cannot easily change how we look, sound, and act. In a paper, students are able to edit out phrases, change words, and shape the readers impressions. In video, all these things are also true. However, they are far more difficult. Most people have less experience creating impressions using pictures and sound. This creates a tension, because the producer cannot as easily control the reactions of the viewer. “You believe what you see” (anonymous student). The situation became very risky for some students.

There are several reasons why creating videos can cause these fears. First, the producer loses anonymity in many ways. Most significantly they are unable to be anonymous from themselves. When we write, we are more easily able to disassociate from what we have written. In video, we see ourselves and recognize that this is how others see us. Because of the self-critical nature of much of US society, we are even more apprehensive by seeing ourselves on screen. In addition the reaction time is much more immediate when viewing a video than it is when reading a paper. We have trained ourselves through years of schooling that reading is a critical thinking matter. When we watch something on TV we are more relaxed and our emotions are more easily aroused. Finally, when writing a personal autobiography the students were not present when others read about their lives. During the video screening students who produced a video were present with the entire class as their peers viewed their work. The tension in the room was palpable.

Because students were not able to censor their videos as easily, the finished products were candid views into the lives of students who often thought they were alike, but truly shared a wealth of diversity. Students were able to share aspects of themselves with their peer group and discuss them in a safe environment. Being members of an academic classroom allowed us to apply an analytical framework to discussion to encourage critical reflection. This process was an central part of the experience for the students in our class. The outcome of this activity thus integrating study and reflection.

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