I have always found using "play" (active learning strategies) to be a great way to teach students about language and culture. Too often when the difficult issues of gender and race are directly confronted in readings or lectures, students turn off and retreat into well worn positions. Yet, as we know, if we get students engaged and working together, we can often bypass those barriers and open new avenues of thought and expression. This is precisely what I was trying to do when I designed my course on language and culture. In the course, students played with language by performing several group projects. Hypertext entered the course as a way to bring the different parts of the "play" together, a way to make links and connect ideas without creating a single hierarchy of ideas. A plan that failed more than it succeeded.
We played a great deal, for example, with gender issues, trying to get at what Robin Tolmach Lakoff means when she says that the language characteristics of women instantiate their roles in culture (204-05). Women use language strategies, Lakoff observes, that are more indirect and imprecise; they strive harder to be correct and are often interrupted more; they are less likely to be successful when introducing a topic of conversation; and they use more polite and expressive forms that evoke emotions. These and other language strategies reflect (and help to perpetuate) women's relative position and power in relation to men's.
To explore these differences, as a class we took a long list of words (i.e., smart, cute, perky, handy, rational, emotional) and divided them into two categories: those most often used to describe men and those most often used to describe women. Using small groups, we also generated several hundred more words for each category. We then sent groups out to visit restrooms across campus to collect graffiti. When we next met in class we put the graffiti on the blackboard under the titles, "Men's Room" and "Women's Room," and then met in small groups to summarize and list differences between the two sets of data.
We added to understanding of differences by meeting in groups to write short skits about how students ask other students out for dates. The group members wrote scripts, assigned different roles, and performed the skits in front of the class. Finally, we collected hundreds of advertisements that depicted college age men, women, and couples. We analyzed the copy and images to see if they supported or contradicted the differences we had found in our readings and other projects. On the whole, although our class findings supported Lakoff's claims, we found the evidence to be ambiguous and changing for Generation X (both in positive and negative ways).
We also used similar strategies to
explore issues of class and race, often writing up our findings a short
microprojects (written individually and as groups). The
first hypertext assignment tried to have students link the microprojects.