Talk About Teaching and Learning:
November 25, 2014, Volume 61, No. 15
Guiding Students from Individual Experiences to Group-Level Patterns:
An Example Using Race and Ethnicity
“My mother was born in the US but my father was born in Korea and I was born in the US—so am I a first or second generation American?”
“My father is black and my mother is white from Cuba. Am I black, white or Hispanic?”
“I think African Americans are only American-born descendants of slaves from Africa.”
Students look to instructors for answers. In this example from my classes, they want me to define for them which racial, ethnic and immigration status categories to which they belong. They want answers in discrete categories (on which survey researchers must rely) rather than those that are continuous and multidimensional (that more closely approximates how individuals think of themselves). At the very beginning of these discussions, students not only think about what categories they belong in, but how to categorize other people in the class and on campus and beyond more generally. These quotes are similar to those I get every year in my classes on race and ethnicity, which I have taught in the Sociology Department and for Asian American Studies over the past 17 years. These courses are crosslisted under Sociology, Asian American Studies, Africana Studies and Urban Studies. I always begin the class with an anonymous survey asking students to self-identify their race, ethnicity, birthplace (US or foreign-born) and social class background. I use these responses to begin a conversation that starts with self-identification—the bottom line here is that I tell students they can say whatever they want about themselves. We then move to thinking about how others identify them (if you look like someone who is Asian by the observer, then you are Asian) to how the US government and other official entities identify them. While these classifications usually overlap, they are rarely identical to each other.
My goal here is to talk about the challenges faced by many faculty members as we nudge our students to make the leap from reflecting on their individual experiences to thinking and analyzing data about larger groups in US society and beyond. Since sociologists are, by definition, largely focused on groups, students’ individual experiences can sometimes serve as examples typical of the point being discussed, but more often they can be obstacles to understanding larger phenomena in contemporary US society. Instead of avoiding discussions about individuals, I embrace the use of individual examples to illustrate larger demographic patterns. However, I very clearly remind them that using an individual example to make generalizations about a group is not scientifically sound. So, what do I do? To the extent possible, I try to use their lived experiences to demonstrate social facts—this becomes easier as I get to know them, and when I also know that some students do not mind my using them as examples. I may show them a graph or a bar chart produced by the US Census Bureau using data from the American Community Survey. I draw their attention to a particular data point and patterns between group averages by using an individual-level fact about me, my husband, family, friends, colleagues or students (not by name of course). Knowing someone’s sociodemographic background (their race, ethnicity, immigrant-status, education and class) gives us a lot of information about other group-level characteristics. I also remind them how individual identities necessarily become simplified when we aggregate data and think about categories. Embedded between these examples are constant reminders to my students that my examples are not typical of a particular group of people. Just because their mother or uncle’s immigration histories do not fit these patterns is not reason enough to reject descriptions of group-level phenomena. I also remind them that they themselves are not like the “average” American or even the “average” 18-22 year old. Likely, they are not even typical of the “average” Penn student, however we define it, since they decided to take my class. Sociologists always think about groups and group-level phenomena but our empirical illustrations often sound as if we are talking about individuals and micro-level analyses (which we sometimes do as well).
I also use the survey responses from the beginning of the semester to demonstrate some social facts—these are fun tricks that most sociologists have at their disposal. For me, it is simply knowing that most Asian Americans in the US today are foreign-born or children of foreign-born parents, while very few white non-Hispanics are from immigrant families—by using their survey responses to demonstrate some of these patterns, I can help them begin thinking about how their individual family experiences fit within the larger US society (although this doesn’t always work perfectly given that the average student in my class is not randomly selected from Penn students, and Penn students are not a random selection of 18-22 year olds in the US). Still, this trick works pretty well. Having students learn the actual figures on the proportion of the US population who have a BA Degree or more or the median household income helps them to place their own family experiences within the distribution of Americans today. This is very powerful especially for students who feel marginalized at Penn by virtue of their relative family economic status, parental income or their racial background. Some of them learn that they are, in fact, more like the “average” American or that their family histories are typical of individuals from their country-of-origin and that the students from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds are less like the “average” American. Making students who feel isolated realize that they are a part of a large sociodemographic group can be comforting.
I use these examples to demonstrate ideas of the hierarchy of categories. Groups that we identify as normal can serve as examples of privilege. Hence, someone like me has to be a “Chinese American” or “Asian American,” but cannot be a “regular American” because that term implies someone who is white (and sometimes black). My husband is a white immigrant from Canada but no one ever asks him where he’s from since he is seen as a “regular American.” As someone who is heterosexual, I never had to come out to my parents as “straight.” I do not have to think about my status as being “physically-abled.” Simply put, my aforementioned three examples, I am not privileged in terms of my racial status, but I am privileged in the other two categories. Using individuals and their positions to demonstrate social relationships and norms is possible, but one always has to bring the discussion back to group-level analyses (at least I do in a sociology class).
Grace Kao is a professor of sociology, education and Asian American studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.