In the past few years, I’ve invested in assigning creative final projects for my upper division classes. Across the three institutions I’ve taught at as a tenure-track professor, the risk is high (because students loathe group work so they’re always giving me side-eye for assigning a group project as a requirement and sometimes it ends up the evals) and the outcomes of the projects vary wildly. The range of quality in the projects can be attributed to the fact that I don’t teach an art or film editing course—I teach sociology. But also because students have varying abilities in creating finished and polished projects whether they be visual graphic posters, videos, art, etc. The final product is not my main concern though—really, its the process students undertake to create their final project that is important to me.
This Fall semester, I had the privilege and pleasure of starting a TT position at my alma mater (San Francisco State, go Gators!) where I knew I could really push students to do something other than a final paper, and where I knew that my department would recognize an “alternative” final assignment as a pedagogical strength (I mention this for those of us on the tenure-track who might want to try this method but ya’ll got to take into account the context of your institution). I taught a Families and Society (SOC 464) class and the students were amazing from jump. They were all open to challenging their own ideas and embodied identities. They were down to be co-teachers/co-learners in the classroom with me, taking on discussion activities through reading groups. I mean. They were great. So I thought that these final projects might be good.
But y’all. They were AWESOME.
I structured it like this. After the mid-term, I had them focus their energies on the final creative project which set up the final project grade with a process-oriented assessment instead of assessing the projects as a final product. I had four assignments due before the in-class screening during the final exam period:
- Progress report with research topic, research questions, methods, concepts
- Storyboard that outlined a vision of what the 5-6 minute video would look like
- In-class Pitch of their idea and what they had collected already
- Reflection essay on the course concepts, experiential learning and reflexivity on their roles in the group
I provided at least 2 class sessions where they would only work on the project assignments in terms of brainstorming and collective concept development. For their assignments, I gave detailed feedback to the groups via iLearn (SFSU’s instructional tech management system). I also checked in with groups via email periodically, perhaps in the future, I’ll set up some office hour appointments too.
Here are some course structural things that I want to remember for future courses:
- Scaffold the assignments: Every assignment (short papers, free writing activities, group formations) should lead up to preparing them for this final assignment. I know. DUH. But I didn’t set up the class like that this time so I had to play catch up mid-semester; creating assignments along the way. Start at the beginning of the semester!
- A Paradox: We already engage the construction of the “normative” in the class, why not have them identify a paradoxical normative narrative in the class as it progresses and have them juxtapose that with their own experiences or better yet, other people’s experiences? That could be the “data” in their final projects.
- In-class Tutorials: I should bring an instructional designer in one or two times in the semester to show them iMovie or another PC-based software.
On to the good stuff—the perfect storm: students, the past election season and the medium of creativity produced amazing results. I think partly this was because the students at SFSU are really plugged into political discourse but I also I think they create amazing things when they come together.
With the consent of my students and the consent of the people that they included in their projects, I want to share some of the creative final projects with all of you.
In this short video entitled, “Never Meant to Survive”, students explored the “possibility of queer kinship as the site of political resistance” as Christopher Dokko, one of my students writes. Their group interviewed Queer Folks of Color (QFOC) about chosen families and Queer kin in a time of Trump. They begin with an Audre Lorde poem and splice in interviews with QFOC’s over the realities of living under a Trumpian administration. Important to note that this group decided to switch the direction of their whole project when they met up the morning after the election of Donald Trump as president. The students in this group described their change as a way to heal and wrap their heads around what our lives were going to be like.
This video entitled, “So Who is this ‘Muslim’ the Media Keeps Talking About?” was born out of a critique of my syllabus. I did not have a reading on the families of South Asian or Middle Eastern families or families that practice Islam. Although, we discussed Asian American families and media frames depicting the “model minority, the students in this group wanted to fill in that gap with their work. Students in this group sought to debunk the media narratives circulating about Muslims and Muslim families.
I especially liked this video project entitled, “Creating New Endings,” because the students in the group were what I like to call the “ratchets” of Earth with a play on Frantz Fanon Wretched of the Earth. These students were always quick to reference their epistemologies as women of color, working young women and Bay Area representatives in class and it showed through the song choices and creative turns in this video.
I share these 3 projects not because they were my favorites over other projects but the students accomplished what I had set out the final project PROCESS to be.
- They translated the academic debates, scholarship and concepts from class in their own words to their people, peers, communities, friends, families to collect data.
- They internalized the importance of challenging normative ideological codes that circulates about families in the US.
- They flipped the script and used their own experiences and emotions as the guiding analytical lens to create this projects that will go beyond me reading it in my office and assigning a grade to them at the end of the semester.
For these reasons, I feel really proud to be a part of their learning process.