Fred Bemak (George Mason University)
Rita Chi-Ying Chung (George Mason University)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To help students: (1) gain an understanding of the psychological and sociological factors related to social injustices; (2) acquire analytical and reflective thinking skills to assess and understand the context, history, and contemporary realities of social injustices; (3) understand the personal lives of those affected by social injustices; and (4) gain clinical and advocacy skills to challenge social injustices.
In this perspective taking exercise, developed for a 15-20 student seminar entitled "Counseling and Social Justice," the instructor assigns each student a different character who is experiencing some form of social injustice. These characters are based on real people and events from case studies and national news stories concerning issues of poverty, immigration, interpersonal violence, mental illness, ableism, ageism, and a variety of other factors. Once students have an assigned character, they spend four weeks researching the social justice dimensions of the character's situation. Students then give a class presentation in which they describe their character's life in a simulated first person narrative, oftentimes dressing for the part, and they answer questions from classmates and the professor while remaining in character. Through this experience, students gain a greater awareness of social justice issues and a deeper understanding of how these issues affect a wide variety of people.
Our world today faces numerous social injustices that strongly affect our society. To help counseling graduate students realize the extent and effect of social injustices, we designed an intensive student assignment and classroom activity in our Counseling and Social Justice Class. In a class of between 15 and 20 students, the professor assigns each student a different character who is experiencing some form of social injustice. Characters are based on real people and events from a wide range of case studies and national news stories, representing situations that happened or are happening. Each student is given a one-paragraph description of the character's life situation and experience of social injustice. Character situations stem from issues of poverty, health care, immigration, education, homophobia, gun violence, interpersonal violence, abuse, racism, HIV/AIDS, sexism, ableism, mental illness, ageism, incarceration, oppression, discrimination, delinquency, social welfare, and are intended to ensure that a broad range of social justice issues will be addressed in the classroom (Chung & Bemak, 2013).
For four weeks of class, students research the social justice issues their assigned character is facing, examining the historical and current context of the issues from multiple perspectives of power, cultural values, worldviews, sociopolitical dimensions, historical and ecological factors, socioeconomic status, racism, sexism, discrimination, stereotypes, privilege, conflicts, emotions, and ambiguity, all of which help construct a sense of self and identity. The research is used as a backdrop for the next phase of the assignment: the class presentation.
During the class presentation, students actually become their assigned character in class, oftentimes dressing for the part, presenting their character's life experiences and challenges through the shaping and dramatizing of factual evidence. The 10-15 minute character presentation is a simulated lifelike first person encounter with classmates; starting with a presentation of the character's life, followed by 30-40 minutes of intensive questions and challenges from classmates and the professor, all the while remaining in character. At the close of each class there is a debriefing session with feedback, discussion about the social injustices presented through the characters, the difficulty of the assignment, and the personal and professional impact of the activity.
The students' narratives consist of two major elements. The first element is to provide an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the social justice issues facing the character, including historical, sociopolitical, cultural, and ecological contributing factors. The second element is to describe the plot that brings the story alive. It is in this plotting, the spinning out of a detailed journey or tapestry of events, interpretations, and feelings, that the student narrator uses creative writing and storytelling skills (Czarniawska, 1998). To help students formulate their presentation, we give them "guideline questions" such as:
What have I learned from the research about my character’s life experiences and challenges? How can I demonstrate an understanding of the social justice issues for my character? Does the plot of the character's story have authenticity, balance, and flow? Is my representation of the injustices coherent and understandable? Am I painting a vivid picture that accurately describes the sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of this character? Does the story feel real? Are there unexplainable holes in the plot or too much detail about insignificant points? What ethical considerations must be considered? Is the story exclusively my interpretation, or is it based on research findings? Is there sufficient yet not overblown dramatic tension? Will my classmates be receptive to the story?
Introducing their character in the present tense helps students authentically portray their character. The research helps students understand the context and reality of the character's situation and similar circumstances of injustice—understanding that adds to the authenticity of the first person presentation. Furthermore, the month of conceptualizing, theorizing, and hypothesizing about the details of the character's life provides a mechanism to creatively synthesize complex and multiple sources of information into a presentation about a person living in oppressive, unfair, and/or unjust circumstances. The development of creative ways to portray the character has been described as evocative epistemology (Denzin, 1997) in which audiences (in this case, classmates) imaginatively feel the immediacy and vividness of the experiences being described by the narrator. This class activity incorporates a combination of mixed research methodologies, creativity, and analytical thinking that fosters intensive emotional classroom encounters with characters and issues coming alive through a simulated firsthand experience with each character. The presentation is a central component for the class and becomes a point of reference for the entire semester's discussions and lectures.
To illustrate, a graduate student named Hillard transformed himself into Laura, an 85-year-old White woman who was experiencing elder abuse. The following character description of Laura was given to Hillard: Laura misses her own house and family. She has been complaining to her children about how mean some of the staff are at the nursing home and that some of the staff do not like old people and make fun of the residents. Laura has become withdrawn, quiet, and extremely scared of any physical contact. Her daughter decided to take her to see a doctor outside of the nursing home. The doctor found that Laura had pneumonia and evidence of being raped and physically abused.
It should be noted that in order to successfully employ this technique, instructors must be sensitive and knowledgeable about social injustices, understanding the complexity of injustice and reflecting on their own biases, prejudices, and privilege before using this student assignment. Instructors must also ensure that students who haven't thought much about social justice avoid stereotyping or trivializing the challenges faced by their assigned character. We've found that by putting a face to the injustice—for example, by encouraging students to interview individuals who have experienced the injustice, and by sharing real-world experiences in classroom discussions—students are able to move beyond superficial stereotypes.
Students are overwhelmingly positive about this assignment and classroom activity. Remarkably, despite the number and intensity of presentations, there has never been fatigue, boredom, or monotony during this class activity. The key to maintaining complete and absorbed attention has been the diversity of issues presented and the subsequent uniqueness of each and every presentation. Here are some representative student reactions:
- "The assignment is really a stroke of genius… I learned so much more from the assignment than from a straight research paper."
- "This project impacted me more than any other… Not only did I learn a tremendous amount, but I had an opportunity to step into my character's [shoes]."
- "The assignments helped me question my contribution to inequality & made me realize my responsibility as a counselor towards injustice."
- "The assignment helped me to grow intellectually and emotionally."
- "This was definitely one of the most challenging assignments that I have had. It was also the one where I experienced the most growth."
In order to assess the impact of this student assignment and activity, a representative sample of 48 students were given an anonymous questionnaire. The results are as follows:
- Influenced personal and professional growth. Forty-seven students (98%) reported greater awareness and receptivity of social justice issues, a reexamination of their values, and a desire to take action.
- Learned about social justice issues encountered by people and their families. Forty-eight students (100%) reported that they gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the degree and extent of social injustices and a desire to learn more about social justice issues.
- Motivated to take action. Forty-five students (94%) reported feeling motivated to take action, having discovered their own capacity to effect change, and acquiring new skills to take action.
- Transformational experience. Forty-eight students (100%) felt the activity was transformational, moving them from passive learners to active seekers of facts, realities, and solutions.
In sum, although the activity was one of the most challenging assignments in their graduate training, many students reported that it was the one which had most influenced their growth.
There are three major challenges when implementing this activity. First, it's important that students are assigned characters who are different from their personal life experiences. As a safeguard, when students are assigned characters in the beginning of the semester, they're asked to inform the professor if their assigned character is "too close to home." Having a character who is too similar to oneself would mean that students lose the opportunity to understand and present the experience of someone different from them.
Second, presentations may trigger deeply rooted personal experiences of classmates. To address this challenge, the instructor must monitor the presentations and become the "inside voice" of characters, ensuring that presentations are done sensitively and respectively while also attending to and processing emotional reactions generated in the class during the discussion. In addition, we hold a debriefing session at the close of every class to address any strong feelings elicited through the character presentations.
Third, highly personal presentations require students to step out of their comfort zone. Forty students (83%) reported challenges in presenting their characters. Clear presentation guidelines distributed early in the semester can help students understand that they may be the character's "only voice" and can offer guidance on how to do justice to the character they're assigned. It's also important for anyone using this assignment to define social justice issues and subsequent characters within the local and regional context so that students see the issues as relevant.
This student activity has been shaped and reshaped over the past 12 years and is well suited for both undergraduate and graduate-level classes with 25 students or fewer. Students overwhelmingly regard the assignment as a transformative experience that fosters knowledge, awareness, skills, and a commitment to addressing social justice issues. The power of the assignment tends to affect students on both personal and professional levels, and we feel that it holds great promise for creating social change.
A more detailed description of the activity is available in an article by Chung and Bemak (2013). In addition, a DVD on this classroom activity is scheduled to become available from Alexander Street Press in Fall 2014.
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