Last week, I offered some suggestions for how to prepare and manage discussions about racism and other difficult topics with students. Inspired by a conversation with Lillian Mina on Facebook this afternoon, I’m following up with a classroom activity with a real-world scenario that involves racism, rather than a fictional situation.
Naturally, there is plenty of room for fictional scenarios and the safety net they provide when we discuss these issues. I plan to share some fictional cases in the coming weeks, in fact. The problem is that those fictional scenarios sometimes feel a bit fake to me. Still, I recognize that they have a purpose. Students can maintain a certain distance when the scenario isn’t real, even though it is based on and likely similar to experiences that students have had, seen, or heard about. A real-world scenario, on the other hand, brings authenticity into the conversation and asks students to consider the real consequences of their discussion and their decisions.
This activity focuses on the scheduled CCCC Convention slated for Kansas City next March and the Update from CCCC on Kansas City, which was sent to CCCC members yesterday. For those not in the know, the Executive Committee of CCCC is searching for the best response to the NAACP travel advisory, warning against travel to and in the state of Missouri. The dilemma focuses on the safety of CCCC members attending the convention, the demands of some members to respect the travel advisory to protect members and protest the conditions that led to the advisory, and the significant financial impact that the association will face if the convention is canceled or relocated.
This situation serves as the backdrop for the activity, but it seems unfair to ask students to choose the best solution. The CCCC Executive Committee is struggling with the decision, and they have been working for weeks even though they have a thorough understanding of the issues at play. Students are unlikely to get beyond a gut-level response in the time devoted to the activity. That kind of superficial decision trivializes the situation and the underlying issues. For that reason, this activity focuses instead on analyzing and revising the Update from CCCC on Kansas City, following these steps:
- Ask students to read the document thoroughly prior to class, noting any places that they find confusing or that they have questions about.
- Begin the class session by asking students to discuss the situation described in the document and finding answers to any questions that they have. The goal of the conversation isn’t to find answers or weigh the options, but to ensure students have a strong understanding of the situation.
- Have students identify the audiences and goals of the document. To start, ask students to share what they can tell from their reading. Provide students additional information about the association, the people who attend the convention, and the reasons that they might attend. Encourage students to look for secondary and tertiary audiences and goals.
- Arrange students in small groups, and ask them to consider how the document design fits the goals and audiences for the document. If students need more structure for this conversation, provide these scenarios or similar ones patterned on the audiences and goals they identified:
- an untenured faculty member of CCCC who submitted a proposal to the convention and only a few minutes between classes to look at the message.
- a former member of the CCCC Executive Committee who sympathizes with the current members and wants to know how they are proceeding.
- a graduate student member of CCCC who is planning on going to the convention and wants a fast overview of the important details without having to read the full document in depth.
- a CCCC member who is concerned about safety at the convention and advocates respecting the travel advisory.
- a book publisher’s sales representative who is scheduled to exhibit books at the convention.
- Close the discussion session by asking student groups to share their conclusions and save notes for the next session.
- Begin the next class session by reviewing the information from the previous session, and introduce the revision project students are to undertake: Working in small groups, students are to rethink the document thoroughly and make changes to the document design that will help it better fit the needs of a particular audience. Emphasize that students should present the information from the original document with sensitivity to the issues it covers and attention to sharing the details accurately.
- You can leave this document design work open, or provide specific revision projects like these:
- Compose an abstract or executive summary that communicates the main points of the document to a reader who doesn’t have time to read the full document immediately.
- Chunk the document into an online-friendly series of pages (rather than one giant wall of text) that use document design to increase readability.
- Convert the document into a slideshow presentation, keeping in mind the TEDblog’s 10 tips on how to make slides that communicate your idea, or the information on slideshow presentations from your course textbook.
- Allow groups the remainder of the course session (and additional sessions as needed) to complete their document redesigns. Monitor groups and provide support as necessary.
- Once students’ redesigns are complete, have a presentation session, where each group shares the redesign student members have created with the class, explaining their goals and how they changed the document to meet them.
What I like about this activity is that students must engage with the racism, the potential for violence, and the concerns for safety that the document concentrates on. They cannot ignore the situation that brings the document into being, but they aren’t tasked with solving the problem. Instead, they must develop strategies to discuss racism with compassion, fairness, and honesty—and that’s something that the world needs right now.
Next week, I’ll return with some of those fictional scenarios that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Until then, if you have suggestions for talking about racism with students or resources to share, please add a comment below.
Credit: Detail from Kansas City by Dean Hochman on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.