Project-related teaching to take students beyond cultural fear

Priest with beard, flanked by students in exterior photo

Father Mark Hannah with students Alex Brouwer and Brian Marcus.

By Michael Longinow, Biola University

and Rebecca Frazer, The Ohio State University

Hate comes from many places in our world. And the students in our classrooms see it—sometimes right around them: gun violence aimed at faith groups, racist graffiti, and the social media of those who seem so full of rage and vendetta.

It scares them. And the fears Gen Z students have are shaping how they approach their education, their career preparation and even their relationships. Studies show that anxiety, stress, depression and—in extreme cases—suicidal thoughts and action are part of their generation more than what we experienced. We as their faculty have to find ways to mix teaching of journalism and media with a sense of something more, something spiritual.

Parker Palmer, in “To Know As We Are Known: Education as Spiritual Journey” says American higher education suffers from a fixation on knowledge as power and isolation as a means to the end of individualistic success. It leads, Palmer claims, to despair and loneliness. Humans crave so much more. And that more, he says, is knowledge aligned with compassion, learned in community.

A student project I’ve written about before in this newsletter became a perfect example of Palmer’s perspective. This project, part of an upper division course for writers and photographers, produces an in-depth reporting and documentary photo book. It has centered on cross-cultural themes over the nine years we’ve done it. But last year I wanted the students to take on the racial profiling of Middle Eastern people in Southern California. The book topic was migrants and refugees from Middle Eastern countries and how they cope once here. This site includes student blogs on each chapter and has video clips highlighting two chapters.

I assigned chapters on men & boys, women & girls, struggles with housing, the legal hurdles migrants and refugees face, food that Middle Eastern migrants make and sell, and the kinds of music and entertainment that are unique to people from that part of world living in California.

It made my students anxious. Joshua Starr, in November’s Phi Delta Kappan, wrote that cross-cultural encounter interests Gen Z, but to actually do it—that’s a stretch for some.

The way it worked in this project, borrowing from Palmer, was framing the work in compassion. I appealed to the students’ hearts, not just their heads. I told them about a student, someone many of them knew, who is regularly pulled out of line in airports and searched and questioned because her passport is from a Middle Eastern country. It’s scary and uncomfortable for her, even after all the times she’s had to go through it. Many students in the class live out of state so the TSA process is familiar—yet they’d never thought of those who get targeted by the system.

The other success, also from Palmer, was to build a community in the class. We were a team—not just individuals cranking out media work for their own grade. I pointed out regularly how much they needed each other. No chapter in the book could stand alone. Students working on one chapter would learn about people and contacts that they could share with people from other chapters. And the sharing happened.

To promote the group experience, I took time in the class to circle up our chairs and talk about what we were learning, what was hard, how we were growing in our grasp of people so different from us culturally. It bonded the students in this cross-cultural journey. It made the work more personal. And we prayed together about how to make it work.

Palmer would say the work of religion and media are integrally aligned. Our grasp of the supernatural “other” beyond our senses makes the work of storytelling, of news-gathering into a far more comprehensive and meaningful pursuit.

Students who encounter an unfamiliar culture—whether in their own state or on another continent — face new perspectives of the world around them that can be jarring and even painful. The way they once made sense of the world may never be the same. Assumptions will be challenged, self-protective stereotypes may be shattered and, in some cases, hearts may be broken. How can we encourage students to take cross-cultural journeys that may rock their worlds in uncomfortable ways? The opportunities are all around us.

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