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communication tips -ISM(N.) Uses Video to Provide Students with New Ways to Learn About Diversity and Identity
Tony Deifell, Executive Director, Institute for Public Media Arts

Video and other communications technologies can be essential educational tools to engage today’s college students in exploring issues of diversity. In the past two and a half years, through a project sponsored by the Institute for Public Media Arts, more than 350 students at colleges and universities across the country have explored their own identities and their relationships with those whose experiences or backgrounds are different from their own by making individual video diaries and group documentaries as part of a variety of diversity courses.

One student who took a course developed through the project describes how she used her video documentary to open up dialogue within her own family: “This weekend I brought home our video to show my parents. Needless to say, it had some effect…following the screening, I talked with my parents for three and a half hours about homosexuality and related issues. It is hard to describe how amazing this conversation was to me…For the first time on Saturday, I felt I was discussing with them instead of talking at them. I guess I just didn’t feel like a kid anymore. I argued my position and supported it with qualified statements that kept the conversation interesting and productive….I guess what it comes down to is that if our video can strike up that much dialogue between my parents and I, then we did a good job!”

Leaders of the -ISM(N.) Diversity Education and Civic Participation Project have learned from young people that emerging media is a “language” young people know and understand. As one student involved in the project put it, “I’ve spent 16 years in school and no one before has asked me to express myself in a medium I understand.” Media is a tool that meets their interests, excites their imaginations, engages their critical thinking faculties, raises their awareness of how they gain knowledge of “others” who are different, and helps them build relationships across lines of difference. Most importantly, -ISM(N.) project leaders believe that video production can be a powerful educational vehicle through which students can reflect on the connections between their actions and their learning.

The definition of the project’s name, -ISM(N.), reflects the project’s overall goal of greater civic engagement for students. Its name is drawn from The American Heritage Dictionary and means “action, process; practice” and a “doctrine; theory; system of principles.” In order to foster real civic engagement, students need to be given opportunities to take “action” in a social and political “process” that entails a diversity of “doctrines and theories” shaped by gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and other different identities.

The -ISM(N.) Project uses emerging media to develop diversity curricula that is experiential and involves students in intergroup collaboration, personal exploration, creation expression, media literacy, and critical thinking. Students also learn to create media that can have an impact on public consciousness.

Over the past two and a half years, -ISM(N.) has developed three pilot programs that have focused on faculty and curriculum development, student leadership, and co-curricular community educational activities within higher education. The first project is a curriculum and faculty development project that has partnered with 60 faculty members from 19 colleges and universities that represent a diverse cross-section of higher education in the United States. These partnerships have experimented with team-taught diversity courses that integrate the use of media--individual video diaries and group video collaborations--with other forms of experiential learning.

The second project involved a Multimedia Campus Diversity Summit in 1996 that brought together students on 86 campuses nationwide for four weeks of community educational activities via local campus educational forums, the World Wide Web, more than 400 video letters, and the culmination of the Summit--a live satellite video conference with noted authors Dr. Ronald Takaki and Dr. Michael Dyson.

The third project involves the production of a documentary called My So-Called Community.
-ISM(N.) gave video cameras to eight college students and paired them over nine months with Frances Reid, director of the much acclaimed documentary, Skin Deep. The resulting one-hour documentary will bring to a national television audience of more than two million people these students’ gritty, first-person stories about the challenges and rewards of living in a multicultural society.

In 1996, outside evaluators found that “The -ISM(N.) project clearly affected students’ thinking about themselves and their world in a way that few courses are ever able to accomplish. The focus on diversity issues and the use of video to explore those issues on a personal level enabled students to critically examine their own actions and open their minds to a greater understanding of the actions and experiences of groups (or individuals) ‘different’ from themselves….At a personal level, most students now feel more empowered to deal with the day-to-day isms they encounter--primarily racial and gender.”

Schools in the project have used the -ISM(N.) student videos to organize such events as campus-wide forums and freshmen orientation seminars. Dartmouth College convinced administrators to use -ISM(N.) videos to establish mandatory training for cafeteria workers who were making fun of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students as well as students of color who they perceived as beneficiaries of affirmative action.

-ISM(N.) is currently completing My So-Called Community which is scheduled for release in 1999. The project is also now in the process of building a broader infrastructure for developing, institutionalizing, and evaluating a wide variety of media-based diversity curricula for higher education and secondary schools. -ISM(N.) also continues conducting gatherings of educators, distributing youth-produced media, and supporting student leadership. In this process, project directors are looking for educators and other professionals who want to be a part of this growing effort.

For more information please write Tony Deifell, 115 Market Street, Durham, NC 27701.

The -ISM(N.) Project, including selected student videos from it, will also be featured at AAC&U“s upcoming conference, “Diversity and Learning: Identity, Community and Intellectual Development,” November 12–15, 1998 in Philadelphia. Visit www.aacu-edu.org (click on Meetings/Network for Academic Renewal) or call 202/387-3760 for information about the conference.

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Television stations in particular may want to cover campus-wide forums or orientation seminars that feature student videos, because the videos provide precisely the kind of visual elements that television programs need. Consider working with your college or university public information office to ask a TV news director to cover the event and feature the student video. Or the campus may run a cable station or program that could feature student videos.

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