By Renata Strashnaya
If I told you that you could spend your class time building energy, passion, critical thinking and knowledge base, would it pique your interest? I hope so. I recently presented about an advertising activity I conduct in my Psychology of Gender class at Pedagogy Day 2015 (Graduate Center, CUNY). I am glad to say that the activity received a very positive response so I wanted to share it with those of you who were not able to attend.
Halfway through the semester, students in my Psychology of Gender class read about and discuss images and language about men and women in popular media. To encourage critical thinking and to build awareness of important concepts by relating them directly to “the real world” outside of class, I assign an activity that asks students to pick two advertisements (one stereotypical of gender norms/roles and one non-stereotypical). Students are required to peruse print media (e.g., magazines, newspapers), choose two ads, and bring them to class along with the following information: (1) title of publication, (2) product/service that is advertised, (3) the setting (e.g., home, work, park), (4) whether the focus is on full body or face, (5) age of woman/man, and (6) suggested personality traits of woman/man. On the day of the activity, students tape their ads to the blackboard by carefully placing each ad in the category that they feel this ad belongs—stereotypical man/stereotypical woman/non-stereotypical man/ non-stereotypical woman. Students then have some time to stretch their muscles and walk around the room to view all the ads before returning to their desks for discussion.
One of the first things students usually observe is that non-stereotypical ads are much harder to find. Second, students do not always agree about the placement of their peers’ ads, which sparks an interesting debate about how what looks non-stereotypical at first is in fact based on subtle (or blatant) stereotypes about men, women, or both. At this point, everyone is engaged and invested in the conversation, and your role as the teacher is similar to that of a facilitator. Your intention is to probe further and to connect what the students say to concepts they have been learning all semester. As such, textbook terms and course topics gain meaning in students’ everyday activities and lives. Be prepared for many “Aha!” moments, including some of your own. For instance, one student reported not being able to view train advertisements the same way again because he said, “my eyes have been opened.”
This exercise also allows for an examination about how gender intersects with race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, ability, and age. Since most of the ads that students bring are relatively current, the class can engage in a discussion about progress (or a lack of it) from a political and historical standpoint. By relating what students say to current events and societal concerns, there are often personal confessions about how certain belief systems persist in students’ own lives and the possible role that media plays in forming long-standing perceptions of self and how one fits in the world. If you are teaching at a place like the City University of New York (a large public institution), you are also bound to have students from different parts of the world—students whose experiences are diverse, shaped by different norms and discourses, and influenced by cultural values outside of the mainstream. As such, there can be a discussion about how the media reflects and shapes societal norms and values, which can be supported by presenting students with “identical” ads across different countries with subtle, but critical distinctions. Although, I mainly use this class activity in a course about gender, it can be used for almost any topic. For example, in a class about child development, perceptions and stereotypes about childhood can be explored in a similar fashion.
I have not had a student yet who did not enjoy this exercise, and I have not had an experience yet where a student did not surprise me with an observation that I have never considered before. At the beginning of each semester, I make a promise to my students that whether they agree or disagree with the material we will cover during the semester is not the point; however, by the end of the semester, they will gain an awareness about the world that will change what (and how) they notice, think, and hear. I believe that this activity helps me, as an instructor, to accomplish this goal.