Engaging Performance and Ethnography to Enrich Diversity

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana


Scholarship over the years has helped us recognize that individuals fail to perceive diversity as groups having different needs, challenges, and social obstacles that impede success and learning. Having honest conversations and giving students the opportunity to express themselves without retribution has been a path not often trodden in academia. At HBCUs, the opportunity to teach a wide variety of students across age groups, races, socio-cultural experiences, and economic backgrounds, with diverse needs and expectations, challenges instructors to develop pedagogies and practices that reveal both the similarities and differences among our student body. We live in a society that works hard to convince us that we are all the same without appreciating the different needs and limitations that are pivotal to defining individual academic success. As we have discovered at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), by engaging students in diverse learning styles we better prepare them for a world where they may look similar, but learn and succeed in very different ways.

Among the diverse teaching/learning styles we have adopted are performance (including role play and other forms of simulation) and the use of critical ethnography. In performance-based work, we engage in an “ethics of care” for those with whom we work and study, and for the voices we embody in texts studied and presented. Such pedagogical practices allow us not only to acknowledge similarities among our students, but also to devise scholarly practices that afford them the opportunity to recognize their own unique learning styles, appreciate their different approaches to studying, and apply personal skills for achieving immediate and career goals. In critical ethnography-based courses, students learn of pressing issues in communities around the globe, while also studying how scholars engage with those communities and their concerns and disseminate information ethically, in a manner that is representational and promotes advocacy. Such pedagogical practices allow us to consider diversity and otherness, have dialogue and engagement amongst individuals and subjective selves, and evaluate our roles as global citizens so that we understand how our interactions with diverse groups can be substantive and meaningful for all (Madison, 2005).

Within the context of Xavier’s mission to promote leadership and service in a just and humane world, we introduce students in the humanities and social sciences to social justice issues and the ideal of global citizenship. In the international studies classroom, for example, engaging students in role play and simulation exercises allows them to adopt a country they know little about and immerse themselves in its culture, politics, economic hardships, and social development. The practice has been transformative, propelling some students into future careers in diplomacy and service as non-governmental advocates for global justice. Similarly, in Diaspora studies courses, we find that one of the most impactful exercises on student learning is auto ethnography, where students study the lived experiences and narratives of others to discuss issues around civil liberties, freedoms, and social justice. Students gain insight into the multiple ways in which lived experience informs an understanding of the world.

Contemplating Diversity

At Xavier University of Louisiana, the concept of diversity manifests in unique ways. Although there are obvious similarities among students in terms of race, ethnicity, generational cohort, socio-economic status, and cultural experience, there are noticeable variations present within the student body. For example, to expand recruitment efforts, we have researched a new element of diversity: veterans’ inclusion in the academy. We recognize that veterans bring another element to enriching the learning experience at historically Black institutions because of their lived experiences. One of our colleagues, Dr. Marcus Cox, who participated in the FRN Symposium, shared insights into what he believes military veterans can contribute to diversity given their age, experience, discipline, respect for authority, strong core values and integrity, time-management skills, leadership potential, work ethic, and knowledge of diverse cultures and geopolitics. Although we will not evaluate the merits of this perspective, we wanted to recognize the breadth of our consideration for diversity before discussing pedagogical approaches to engaging it.

Engaging Diversity via Performance

As minority serving institutions grow, one of the challenges faculty face is how to manage diversity in the classroom, how to engage students with varying interests so that learning is achieved. We identify two pedagogical tools that have been explored with significant success in our classrooms: performance and ethnography. Role Play, as performance, is highly recommended. Educational strategists suggest that utilizing performance skills is an asset in any classroom. Not only does it motivate diverse students to learn new facts in individual ways, it exposes students to real world experiences through indirect observation. For example, students can engage in global understanding vicariously—no foreign travel required. Further, it introduces fun into a serious learning curriculum, thereby making learning easier (Oberle, 2004). It imparts content skills (Clapper, 2010), develops self-confidence and identity (Colwill, 2004), and encourages critical and analytical thinking (Ringel, 2004).

In the discipline of international relations (IR), simulation and game theory have long been applied to intelligence-gathering, making these practical learning techniques a natural fit for IR courses. Blending theory and practice in the IR classroom contributes to the internationalization of learning and introduces learners to careers in global citizenship. At XULA, performance exercises provide students a mechanism for exploring new ideas about the world and refining career interests to include service beyond US borders. Adopting a foreign country and utilizing the skills of simulation/role-play for intensive study has been an asset for students, helping them to deconstruct stereotypical thinking and recognize the benefits of equity, tolerance, and respect for diverse others. Students have embraced controversies in global justice while playing the roles of advocates for human rights, gender justice, global equity in health and nutrition, climate justice, and other global causes, such as literacy and equal access to technology. By assuming the roles of foreign representatives collaborating on resolutions to address global issues, students develop a better grasp of tolerance, empathy and fairness.

Needless to say, the learning outcomes of this pedagogical tool are bountiful. Students develop their research skills, explore new data-gathering techniques, and expand their arsenal of resources to incorporate the narratives of diverse others.

Pedagogical strategies of performance, in the international relations classroom, have aided the intellectual development of students, exposing them to contemporary global issues and broad cultural interests, and transforming them from passive to active learners who are resolved not to be apathetic about global concerns, but to become tolerant leaders. Imbuing students with aspirations of global citizenship means empowering them to focus on problem-solving on global political, social, economic, and cultural issues and, most importantly, to adopt new career goals in international public policy, domestic and international law, and diplomacy.

The reality is that after engaging a serious curriculum of study in a field like international relations, where fun learning approaches are introduced, the skills developed, the content learned and the competence gained inspires students to take the next step of incorporating this learning into a potential career experience. After just a few years of engaging students across the curriculum in performance study in the international relations classroom at Xavier University, several students from the social science disciplines (political science, psychology, business, and communication studies) who have taken the course, join the US State Department and enjoy deployment to embassies in several countries where the United States maintains formal diplomatic relations. Some of the states included in this career expansion for our minority students have been Dubai, Ethiopia, India, Mali, Mexico, and Switzerland over a ten-year period.

Engaging Diversity via Critical Ethnography

Another pedagogical tool with the potential to transform the academy is critical ethnography. Though Xavier University does not offer courses in anthropology, the institution strongly encourages interdisciplinary approaches to course development and in the African American and Diaspora Studies Program (AADS), special topics courses enlist the use of critical ethnography—a kind of social science field research that informs intervention into African-descended communities whose experiences and voices have not been afforded the political spaces or opportunities to address pressing issues in ways that transcend their physical geographies. Critical ethnography, thus, challenges institutions and social practices, and strives to establish parity between the researcher and the informant community. Adopting the critical ethnography text for the AADS course, “Ethnographies of the African Diaspora,” students in the upper-level course are introduced to the concept of diaspora, to ethnography as both compiled research and method, to the praxis and currency of interdisciplinary work that lends itself to both qualitative and quantitative research, and to the urgent concerns affecting communities of African descent worldwide. The selection of course materials affords opportunities for engaging issues relevant to the daily lives and experiences of the students, as well as pathways for engaging the broader mission of the university.

In the AADS course, the obligation is not only to teach specific subject matter, but also to instill curiosity about various communities worldwide, and to work with students in ways that promote self-reflexive analysis of their own experiences and identities. As a special topics course, Ethnographies of the African Diaspora is dedicated to studying critical texts about 20th-century and 21st-century African Diaspora communities and beyond, and the specific concerns that have marked their respective histories, informed their identity formation, and affect their stability. Aligned with the institutional mission of promoting social justice, the end-of-semester objective is to have students gain competency in identifying and analyzing the socio-political, economic, and historical factors that may or may not contribute to issues of human rights and social justice, and to analyze the roles and responsibilities researchers have in representing communities and their experiences, and the efficacy of those representations in educating audiences and advocating for responsible engagement. Typically there are three primary texts read in the course and the screening of one documentary film to demonstrate the relationship between the written text and visual media in recording field research. The three texts students read during one recent semester illustrate the kinds of questions and reflections critical ethnography inspires: Harlemworld by John L. Jackson Jr. (2001), Caribbean Pleasure Industry by Mark Padilla (2007), and Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf (2009).

In Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, Jackson examines the history of Harlem, its reputation as a “black mecca,” and the everyday life and struggles of its residents. Jackson addresses class along with race, and traces the evolution and history of Harlem to show the different ethnic groups inhabiting the area throughout both the 19th and 20th centuries. A compelling aspect of Jackson’s research concerns class and intragroup divisions. For the AADS students, Harlemworld not only establishes parallels between the famous New York City neighborhood and New Orleans’ own predominantly “black” or African American areas, but it also provides an opportunity for first-generation college students to consider how education creates divisions within groups of people sharing similar racial or ethnic backgrounds. In one instance, Jackson chronicles the strategies enlisted by a college-educated individual for maintaining relations between differing social groups. Consequently, the text gains additional relevance in helping students consider methods for negotiating their diversifying interests.

Reading Padilla’s Caribbean Pleasure Industry: Tourism, Sexuality, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic, students analyze research methodologies in addition to subject matter in order to identify ethical approaches to working with human subjects. Following the researcher’s strategies in the text, students learn how they, as scientists, have the potential to interrogate whose (or what community’s) story is told and how, and who has assumed the right to speak for those communities being researched. Reading ethnographies, students are exposed to questions of representation and explore such topics as sexuality and performance of gender, tourism and sex work, HIV/AIDS, and public health. Moreover, through Padilla’s text students make connections between New Orleans and the Dominican Republic through the tourist economy, and the vulnerability of sex workers that rests at the intersection of tourism and the global economy.

The final text read in the course is Abusharaf’s Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan: Politics and the Body in a Squatter Settlement. This text illustrates how ethnographies critique “conditions.” As researchers enter and inhabit spaces, there exists potential to disturb the status quo and to unsettle existing structures by illuminating and interrogating power dynamics that otherwise would continue sans critical analysis or interruption. In the case of Abusharaf’s study, the repercussions of war and forced migration are uncovered, and marginalized and otherwise restricted voices are excavated. Reading about and discussing the experiences of displaced women resettled in a refugee camp, students learn how ethnographic research brings to light human rights and social justice concerns that illuminate the importance of self-reflection.

In the AADS course, the use of critical ethnographic texts encourages students to contemplate diversity in communities and research subjects, and to consider the importance of self-reflexive and self-reflective approaches that encourage awareness of others, and that assist researchers in rendering visible human rights and social justice situations.


Abusharaf, R. M. (2009). Transforming displaced women in Sudan: Politics and the body in a squatter settlement. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Chan, Z. C. (2012). Role-playing in the problem-based learning class. Nurse Education in Practice, 12(1), 21-27.

Chang, C. T. (2009). Combining role-play with problem-based learning to teach development economics. In Nordic Conference for Development Economics.

Clapper, T. (2010). Role play and simulation. Education Digest, 75(8), 39-43.

Jackson, J. L. (2001). Harlemworld: Doing race and class in contemporary Black America. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Kilgour, P., Reynaud, D., Northcote, M. T., & Shields, M. (2015). Role-playing as a tool to facilitate learning, self-reflection and social awareness in teacher education. International Journal of Innovative Interdisciplinary Research, 2(4), 8-20.

Madison, D. S. (2005). Critical ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Neuendorf, P., & O’Connell, M. (2011). To be or not to be—That is the role play question. In M. Koehler & P. Mishra (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2011—Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 2182-2191). Nashville, TN: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Padilla, M. (2007). Caribbean pleasure industry: Tourism, sexuality, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Russell, C., & Shepherd, J. (2010). Online role-play environments for higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(6): 992–1002.

Shapiro, S., & Leopold, L. (2012). A critical role for role-playing pedagogy. TESL Canada Journal, 29(2).

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom