Editor’s note: The following article is part of an ongoing resource collection called Assignments of Note.
I am proposing an assignment that grows out of an interesting piece of research (Neu, 2015) in which students collected images of those they’d approach and avoid as potential group members. When interviewed, students identified the social cues, conveyed by features such as hair style, clothing, age, and ethnicity, that they used to categorize these hypothetical group members. Findings revealed that most students selected to approach images of people who looked much like they did and avoided those or people who didn’t, often relying on stereotypes and discriminatory innuendos. Unlike previous Assignments of Note entries, which highlight published assignments, this one offers for consideration two versions of an assignment based on the activity used in the research.
The instructor shares with students a description of a graded group project—potentially one similar to group projects used in the course or program. Students are instructed to assume they’re selecting group members for the project, but with the caveat that they do not know other students in the course. The assignment is to gather five images of persons they’d approach and five images of persons they’d avoid as potential group members. A stock photo repository or two with a filter for, say, “college students” could help narrow their search. (For example, see https://www.pexels.com/search/college%20students. Do note that this collection includes only picture of young college students.)
Students submit their collections along with a short paper in which they identify the aspect(s) of the image that caused them to place it in the approach or avoid category.
The instructor reviews the entire collection of images, categorizing them with some of the criteria used in the research.
If the class is large, a subset of images can be reviewed. While reviewing the collections, it’s good to bear in mind that the analysis doesn’t need to be done with research precision. On the other hand, it’s important to conduct the review carefully, ever mindful of the need for objectivity, given the subjectivity involved in the task. The goal is a set of general conclusions about the images selected, offered descriptively, not judgmentally.
Identify the most common reasons students are giving to justify placement in the approach or avoid category. Do not use actual student comments but craft generic versions of them.
Return the image collections to students along with a written description of the conclusions and rationales, plus two or three follow-up questions. Here are some possibilities:
Answers to the follow-up questions are submitted along with the image collection.
This is a high-stakes assignment that involves some risk. It may reveal that some of the criteria students are using to make choices rest on stereotypes and are discriminatory. That could cause them to respond defensively and, rather than considering other criteria, increase their commitment to the choices they made. Their response will be less defensive if the assignment provides them some protection. Individual choices and comments should remain anonymous. The focus of any class discussion should be more general than specific. The point of the assignment is not to make students change but to provide an experience that reveals their criteria and lets them decide whether a change needs to occur.
Grading: There’s strong justification for low-stakes grading of the assignment. If grades are involved, students may try to tailor their responses to their perceptions of the instructor’s views. Doing so defeats the purpose and potential of the assignment. Students need to feel empowered to be honest, and that’s easier when grades aren’t on the table. That said, this assignment involves some effort, so it does merit credit. It could be awarded if the student’s work shows a good-faith effort.
To lower the stakes and make the assignment more manageable, the teacher could assemble a diverse collection of images (say, 10) that responds to the diversity or lack of it among students in the course. The teacher distributes the images to students, who then categorize them as potential group members they’d approach or avoid and, in the short paper, identify the aspects of each image they used to justify putting it in either category.
After reviewing the students’ submissions, the teacher can offer conclusions about each individual image, starting with the number of students who put the image in each category along with their most common reason(s) for doing so. Evidence of stereotyping might made clear by a visual representation of the images most frequently chose for each category. In this version, the follow-up might be class discussion, again encouraging students not to reveal their individual choices but to discuss their collective results. A follow-up paper could be used to encourage students to explore their individual choices. The follow-up questions in Assignment 1 may be useful as prompts.
Grading: It’s still an assignment that entails some individual risk, so if credit is involved, it should be based on participation, not content.
For those seriously considering either assignment, I would strongly recommend reviewing the study. It contains a variety of additional details relevant to an assignment like this.
If you use this assignment or some version of it, please tell us what happened. Identify any changes made or that you’d recommend. We’d be happy to attach some experiences to this Assignment of Note.
Neu, W. A. (2015). Social cues of (un)trustworthy team members. Journal of Marketing Education, 37(1), 36–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475314565509