When I put out the call for ideas on teaching diversity, I expected to spark a wide-ranging discussion. I asked for teaching examples and exercises on three usually active journalism listservs. I also talked to several colleagues on my own campus and elsewhere.
Diversity isn't a new concept in my institution. In all my classes, we dutifully talk about it. My college sponsors an annual televised panel discussion on a diversity topic, this year focusing on Hispanic and Spanish-language media. In my photo classes, we do a "someone-not-like-me" assignment to encourage students expressly find someone from a culture or background different from themselves in order to document alternative viewpoints.
But I wanted something different. I wanted to engage my students, to confront them. I didn't want to merely go through the motions.
I received precisely four ideas from the various listservs. There was no debate or discussion. My on-campus colleagues did offer videos of panel discussions from a few years back. One listerv colleague suggested looking up a diversity palette, which illustrates the wide range of diversity issues. Others suggested some shooting assignments similar to the photographic assignments we already require. A few weeks earlier Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute had handed out a diversity matrix at a seminar I attended.
One wag suggested we take pictures of rednecks and pickup trucks to illustrate the political flap about the term "diversity." A colleague suggested we try to find a way to illustrate the image without irony. Honestly, though, since my students are mostly from semi-rural Arkansas, they confront that stereotype every day. Any irony associated with it can start a fight.
The ideas that came from outside my campus seemed to be a bit esoteric for the needs of my advanced photojournalism class, which consists of a few juniors and seniors still wrestling with career choices as well as the photo editor of the local newspaper who is finishing his degree after 10 years. I wanted something concrete, something more applied than theoretical. We can apply the theories later as we analyzed diversity issues, I thought, but I really needed a starting point.
And I have to admit I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm from my colleagues in discussing the subject.
Without the spark I sought, I had to go to my own archives to come up with something. I found a three-year old image from our student newspaper, the Herald. That image brought the kind of debate I sought. It wasn't forced or theoretical. It was real.
What image was this? In 2000, there had been a problem in a large general education history class during a test when one student was accused by a classmate of cheating. The accused student allegedly became disruptive. There was pushing and shoving between the students and the teacher.
The accused student was suspended, then reinstated soon thereafter. He was, as it happens, an offensive guard for the football team. Many students, faculty and staff thought he had been given preferential treatment because he was an athlete. Following the publication of several stories on the incident in the Herald, the accused came to the student newspaper office to complain that his side of the story hadn't been covered adequately. He was angry and confrontational, according to newspaper advisor. As a precautionary measure, newspaper staffers called the campus police. As the discussion became heated, the police decided to defuse the situation by taking the accused away. After this incident, he was again suspended, but he ultimately returned to campus to finish his degree.
The Herald published a photo of Alvin, handcuffed, being led away by police. You can see the photo on this page. There is no question: the accused is African-American, and everybody else in the photo is white.
After the publication of the photo, we discussed the coverage of the incident in my mass communication and modern society class. The discussion split the class along racial lines. The African-American students were angry; upset about an image that showed an African-American man in chains, especially under the supervision of white police officers. Most white students who spoke said they saw no problem with the photo: the image accurately depicted the incident. Those who saw no problem with the image also expressed concerns that not publishing the image would be a form of unnecessary self-censorship.
I stayed out of the debate. I think both sides had valid points and the classroom was a crucible for both sides to confront the other. It as a pleasure to see my students truly engaged in such a discussion. I was lucky, too, to have a class that was about one-third African-American-a critical mass of minority students who felt comfortable enough to speak out. I doubt we could have had such an honest heated discussion if there only had been one or two African-Americans in class.
After that class, I went to the student newspaper and made a copy of the photo. I have kept it since then, so that when I needed something concrete to provoke a discussion of the diversity of viewpoints an image can bring, I already had it.
We have had essentially the same discussion in my photo classes in 2003 that we had in the class in 2000. No, I don't have a good answer yet on how to handle the situation-and I wouldn't volunteer one if I did.
The important thing to have is the dialogue.
* Jack Zibluk is an associate professor of Journalism at Arkansas State Univ. and coordinator of the photojournalism sequence. He is also the ethics writer and columnist for News Photographer magazine.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp. 9,32.