I foresee a course like critical communication creating very uncomfortable conversations. However, I want my students to engage in these conversations, yet at the same time feel safe to extend their knowledge boundaries. This is not always easy to achieve. So I decided to begin the class with an exercise that will hopefully allow them to access their emotions, perceptions, and beliefs in a safe space.
I will be using a card sorting activity adapted from a workshop given by Kimberly Tanner from SEPAL at San Francisco State University.
Step 1: Personal Reflection
First I will ask students to think about how they would react to the following people if they were working alone late at a convenience store in their neighborhood. Students will not be asked to share their answers (or write them down), rather they will be asked to react and note their reactions mentally. My goal here is to begin the dialog about stereotyping and profiling in a non-judgmental way. As humans, we tend to categorize people by attributes, language, "otherness", and "likeness". Often these categories are based on values, perceptions, experience, and beliefs developed through personal experiences, our families, and our communities. These then create the patterns of perception, attitudes, and beliefs that are the basis of culture.
- A white professional middle aged woman with a dark complexioned young child
- A group of teenage boys of mixed race dressed in sports uniforms
- A group of black teenage girls dressed in hoodies
- A white middle aged policeman
- A dark complexioned man accompanied by a dark complexioned woman with a scarf
- A homeless man in his 40's
- A homeless woman with an accent in her 70's
- A man with dreadlocks (complexion non-descript) dressed in casual clothes
- A group of East Asian men with no English dressed in business suits
- Two latina women, in 20's and 40's. The younger speaks English, the elder does not.
- An ungroomed older man (60's) in a wheelchair with a younger care giver bi-racial man with dreadlocks.
- A group of teenage boys with tattoos and body piercings.
- A bald white middle aged man dressed in camouflage with a Ron Paul button.
- A middle aged woman wearing a sari with a cough.
- A group of teenage boys with body piercings and British accents.
Now I will break students up into groups. Some groups will be random, some will have commonalities (i.e. downstaters, foreign students, gender, major, language groups). I will then will give students cards with each of the groups listed above, one per card and ask them to sort the cards. The only directions will be there has to be at least 2 cards in each category and there has to be at least 2 categories. Students will be responsible for naming the categories into which they have sorted the cards. According to Dr. Tanner, categories tend to be superficial or based on simplistic visual cues for students that do not have a deep understanding of a topic. I expect that my students will sort according to physical attributes (age, race, fashion) or other easily recognizable attributes such as ability or accent. A more advanced student of intercultural communication might use other attributes (e.g. matriarchal, patriarchal, level of menace, distance from personal culture, approach in communication).
I was pleasantly surprised at the sophistication of categories my students created. One possibility could be the fact that my class is very diverse so when they were put randomly into groups (by counting off in class), there were different levels of expertise within the discussions. As a result, the discussion became more complex. Some of the categories included: in-group, outgroup, strangers (communication rings) and lifestyles (i.e. caregivers, no social ties, members of groups). The word "stereotypes" and "profiling" did come up in class and we agreed to put it aside to later class (I plan on using it in the socio-linguistics class planned in a couple of weeks as the term has become packed with social meaning due to its use in the media).
I look forward to some great discussions in my class although I am still a bit nervous about opening up what might be difficult conversations in the class. I will update this post with changes to the process based on the results from my class. I will also be replicating this activity the last class to see if student understanding changes over the course of the semester.