Sociology jumps off the page

March 5, 2021two images - one is of dirty hands and the second is a person in a labcoat holding a brush-link implement and a tweezer-like implement working with a white piece of clay [View Image]Above: (Stereotype) "Dirty Foreigner, You know I heard in India they don’t even use toilet paper. They just wipe with their hands./ Dirty Foreigner, You seem like a really nice young man but I’m just worried about my daughter dating someone like you. I mean, what would your kids even look like?" Below: (Reality) "Our hands are bruised from pushing down walls put up by generations of racist Americans on our path to success./ Our hands are dirty from brushing off the slurs thrown at us every day ... Our hands have fixed your smiles./ They have cared for your sick./ Our hands have treated your ill."

This article is part of a series featuring innovative teaching practices in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The research paper is a staple in college syllabi. You know the drill: Eight to 12 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font. After all, college research papers allow students to investigate, organize, synthesize and craft well-thought out responses to the material they learn. But it’s not the only way. As some professors in the Department of Sociology have discovered, creative assignments allow their students to access the course material in a whole new way.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Gabriela Leon-Perez [View Image]Gabriela León-Pérez, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Gabriela León-Pérez, Ph.D., first learned about Photovoice in 2018 from the VCU Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. Photovoice, a research method typically used in community-based learning and activism, uses documentary photography to express the reality of a participant and/or community. “I felt that Photovoice would be an important strategy to implement for my Immigration and American Society class,” said León-Pérez. “While written papers are certainly useful methods of assessment, creative assignments (written or otherwise) can offer similar insights into student learning, as well as cultivate deeper engagement with the material.”

In the assignment, León-Pérez asked her students to take two photos, one that represented a commonly held stereotype about immigration and another that refuted that stereotype or that represented the real/true situation, and analyze their findings backed by the course reading. The results were revealing and moving.

“Some of the best projects tend to reflect a combination of engagement with the material, creativity and deep personal investment. For example, one student (who comes from an immigrant family) took a picture of someone with dirty hands and the write up was a poem that repeated common tropes about immigrants being dirty and untrustworthy. The second picture showed someone using their hands for a science experiment. The write-up was a poem written from the perspective of the immigrant and talking about how immigrant hands have helped build this country,” said León-Pérez. This assignment is now a staple in León-Pérez’s classes.

And while her students at first found the assignment challenging — “they are so used to writing papers” said León-Pérez — they ultimately recognize the value of creatively engaging with the material. “This creative assignment allowed me to view the topic through a lens that brought humanity to the immigrant experience rather than reducing the experience of immigrants down to numbers and quantitative data,” said junior Hannah Buchanan. “Sometimes traditional essays and research papers can feel too formulaic and structured. Creative assignments break that mold and allow students to express their distinct selves and experiences.”

“Students forge creative spaces to discuss emotionally-charged sociological topics, draw on their academic strengths and talents to demonstrate knowledge of course content and broaden their sociological imaginations as they integrate their own digital media into their final projects.”

- Gina Longo, Ph.D.

Delving into digital media

Gina Longo [View Image]Gina Longo, Ph.D.

For Digital Sociologist and Assistant Professor Gina Longo, Ph.D., a creative assignment just makes sense. “My research draws on the potential of digital tools and spaces to share sociological perspectives, self-expression, and reflection through public engagement, so I encourage students to also draw on these tools to reflect their understanding of course material and its relevance to their own experiences,” said Longo.

While many courses require a final research paper, Longo changed it up for her students. Her students can still write a final research paper if they choose, or they can creatively engage with the material by using digital media to craft their own project, accompanied by a brief write-up. Over the years, Longo has received some amazing projects. In Longo’s Sociology of Gender and Sexuality class, one student created a rap video about gender, which she publicly shared on YouTube. In her Sociology of Race and Ethnicity class, a student created a simple game where each player was provided with a minimum wage income and a background story. The goal of the game was to find a way to pay the bills and feed the family, something that ultimately ended up being impossible. Another student in the same class made a short film about colorblind racism based on his learning experiences in his childhood home.

The assignment was a hit with her students. “Students forge creative spaces to discuss emotionally-charged sociological topics, draw on their academic strengths and talents to demonstrate knowledge of course content and broaden their sociological imaginations as they integrate their own digital media into their final projects,” said Longo. And, Longo loves that each semester brings something new and exciting to grade.

Active learning strategies in the classroom

susan bodnar-deren [View Image]Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D.

No matter what class she teaches, Associate Professor Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., finds a way to tap into the creativity of her students. “My personal feeling is that western education and academia has socialized many of us to be less creative than we really are,” explained Bodnar-Deren. “Creative projects can be used everywhere. When I teach statistics, I actually have students write poems about different models/formulas, and I have been told by students, they never forget the formula for which they wrote their poem.”

Currently, Bodnar-Deren teaches Forging Cultures of Resilience, alongside adjunct professor Dingani Mthethw. In this service learning class, students are asked to engage with youth in Mphophomeni, South Africa, for a conversation about the nature of resilience, and spend much of their time discussing how both communities have transitioned from racial segregation to inclusive democracy. All students partake in a mock city hall policy debate where community members and leaders Zoom in and participate for their final exam. Students also create a final project using spoken word/poetry, art, drama and/or music, to represent a synthesis of the struggles in both spaces. Finally, all students engage in the Zulu practice of communicating with bead work to tell a story about social/racial justice. These creative assignments are just a part of what Bodnar-Deren and Mthethw label “active learning strategies.”

As Bodnar-Deren and Mthethw write in their course description, “Our hope is that these active learning strategies and reflection will lead to deeper and new understandings of not only our histories and realities, but will also engender problem-solving, solutions and the envisioning of a new and inclusive future that is both local and global.”

Senior McKenzie Ahmadi has taken many classes with Bodnar-Deren over her four years at VCU, and cites the creative assignments as one of the main reasons she enjoys those classes. “Dr. Bodnar-Deren was probably the first professor that offered creative learning assignments in one of my classes,” said Ahmadi. “I am a very visual person and prefer creative assignments any day over the traditional essay/research papers. I find them much more engaging, and I believe I obtain more knowledge this way.”

So, does sociology simply lend itself to creative assignments? Or can every field of study offer their students an equally inventive project?

All three colleagues are in agreement: Regardless of the subject matter, there is a place for creativity in student work. “At the end of the day, the point of these types of assignments is to have students critically engage with the material,” said León-Pérez. “Based on the responses from our students, we know that when they are asked to think creatively about material, they rise to the challenge, and show us how they uniquely respond to topics we ask them to think about deeply in such new and surprising ways.”

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