Diversity and Democracy

Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation: A Project for Democracy

“I think I’m afraid of Muslims,” wrote one of my students in her first journal entry. “No offense to any of them, but they terrify me. I feel that way because of 9/11.” These comments weren’t unusual. Other journal entries suggested prejudice or outright racism toward Mexican Americans and African Americans, in particular. Both white and minority students made disparaging remarks about other ethnic groups. In general, regardless of their backgrounds, most students demonstrated a lack of cultural competence.

After participating with a team from Lone Star College–Kingwood in the 2012 summer institute for Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation (a curriculum development project offered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment), I designed a semester-long research and journaling project for my developmental reading students. I wanted this project to address the attitudes described above by guiding students as they explored a cultural group. The project had two conditions. First, students had to choose a group based on the demographics of our class, which was as diverse as the Houston area. Second, students had to choose a group that they had little experience with or knowledge of, or perhaps that they viewed negatively. I told myself—as well as my students—that I wouldn’t judge them. But I wondered: what sort of baggage do they carry to class every day?

Bridging Cultures in the Classroom

The research project began with students simply journaling about the cultural group they had chosen—from how they view it, to why they view it that way, to where they think they may have acquired their beliefs. This assignment offered students “opportunities for perspective-taking and reflection” while offering me the chance to “explicitly identify [their] intercultural skills, behaviors, and attitudes” (Lee at al. 2012, 67). Based on students’ responses, I worked with a librarian to provide an “introductory bibliography of texts” (Lee et al. 2012, 69), which for our purposes contained primarily reference materials so that students could gain a fundamental understanding of the groups they were studying (Mayhew and Fernández 2007, 58). My aim was for students to unpack their baggage, then educate themselves.

Once students had obtained background knowledge of the cultural groups they had selected, and once their reading and research skills had progressed, they explored current, controversial issues relevant to those groups. Then, every few weeks, they met with each other at what I called “action stations,” where they visited with classmates who belonged to the cultural group they were researching and applied their knowledge by discussing issues with each other. By rotating stations throughout a class period, students gained experience as both researchers and cultural group members. Some of our goals were as simple as understanding someone else’s viewpoint, others as complex as looking for common ground on issues of disagreement.

These sessions involved more than mere talk. First, students set the rules for their action stations so that they would feel comfortable and buy into the class work (DiClementi and Handelsman 2005, 20). They also collaborated on research and shared cultural artifacts from their homes. This was the first time that some students had interacted with a diverse group in a significant way, and they did so in a structured, safe environment to achieve shared goals.

The project was bookended with a final reflection, similar to the first assignment, so that both the students and I could see how far they had progressed. Through this exercise, I found that the majority of students had come to value reading and research and had opened themselves up to building bridges across difference. In the end, students were speaking to each other rather than at each other—a substantial step toward cultural competence.

Drafting a Democratic Syllabus

I began to view my teaching as an extension of democracy. Classrooms should serve not only as meeting places for students or training grounds for future employees; they should provide a space for the birth of citizens (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 9–14). With that in mind, I stopped bringing a syllabus on the first day of class.

Like a monarch on a throne, the syllabus has come under attack of late (see, for example, Singham 2005 and 2007), and some professors (recently, Blinne 2013) have written about collaborating with students to create their syllabi. When I walk into class and explain to students that we are going to draft the course syllabus together, they are confused at first, and then intrigued, and then downright interested.

In my first-year Composition and Rhetoric and Introduction to Humanities courses, I provide a general framework, which outlines what can’t change (such as Texas general education requirements, notable Lone Star College policies, and English Department guidelines), but also lists those areas that students can—and will—draft: attendance guidelines, participation and behavior policies, and plagiarism penalties, among others. However, I don’t let students make decisions about the syllabus solely based on their opinions, or invite them to come up with whatever they want. I have found that freshmen, particularly those at a community college, often need to learn how to be students—how to join the culture of academia. To this end, I use the syllabus as a teaching tool.

During the first week of class, I ask students to read some resources that I have chosen for them. These include, for instance, an excerpt from a student success handbook, a few articles written by both professors and students on classroom etiquette, and statistics on the rate of cheating among students in US colleges and universities, as well as Lone Star College guidelines on academic integrity and a research study on the effect of class attendance on grades. Students learn how to identify, access, and use a variety of sources, how to draw conclusions from evidence, and how to discuss their findings, all while collaborating to create our syllabus and our class.

This year I have also yielded some of the course content to students. For example, during our poetry unit, students worked in groups to select readings from the textbook. I provided a literary element, such as symbolism, and a page number span, along with a general assignment and some guidelines to help students lead our class discussion. Exercising their newfound freedom, students took charge. The week before their assignments were due, each group provided a list of poems and discussion questions, both of which I preapproved. Students got to read what they wanted to read; they got to talk about what they found relevant. One group with an Iraq War veteran led a discussion on Brian Turner’s poem “Jundee Ameriki” (Arabic for “American soldier”). With poise and pain, this student discovered the strength of a single voice: his own.

Overall, I believe that our classrooms should reflect our democracy, and that democracy is in a constant state of creation. It’s messy work, so we should allow our classrooms to get messy, too. If we don’t provide students the space to find their voices, how can we ever expect them to use those voices out in the world?

Editor’s note: The Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation Project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Blinne, Kristen C. 2013. “Start with the Syllabus: HELPing Learners Learn through Class Content Collaboration.” College Teaching 61 (2): 41–43.

DiClementi, Jeannie D., and Mitchell M. Handelsman. 2005. “Empowering Students: Class-Generated Course Rules.” Teaching of Psychology 32 (1): 18–21.

Lee, Amy, Robert Poch, Marta Shaw, and Rhiannon Williams. 2012. “Engaging Diversity through Course Design and Preparation.” In “Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence,” special issue, ASHE Higher Education Report 38 (2): 65–82.

Mayhew, Matthew J., and Sonia Deluca Fernández. 2007. “Pedagogical Practices that Contribute to Social Justice Outcomes.” Review of Higher Education 31 (1): 55–80.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Singham, Mano. 2005. “Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom.” Change 37 (3): 50–57.

———. 2007. “Death to the Syllabus!” Liberal Education 93 (4): 52–6.

John Dethloff is professor of English at Lone Star College–Kingwood.

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