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The Tilford Group

Human Difference and the Self

One strategy when trying to confront student resistance to talking about human difference is to find ways for students to examine their own experiences for moments in which difference was important. Students can also be encouraged to find stories that demonstrate how they fit into these discussions about diversity. Students who identify as white and middle-class can also use personal stories to counter the assumption that these factors do not belong in these discussions about diversity.

Educational Narrative & Classification

Students describe how people were organized in their high schools or in an earlier educational experience. They classify and describe different communities (e.g., student groups or cliques). In their description, they will describe these communities thoroughly, perhaps describing their behavior, their dress, their attitudes, the ways they relate to other student groups, and other characteristics. Students can also use stories of their own experiences with these groups, either as being a member of them, of dealing with them, or of moving from one group to another.

Importantly, students should be able to point out what these different student groups have to say about the culture of the educational institution, including its attitudes and its values. Jerry Adler’s “The Truth About High School” (Newsweek 10 May 1999: 56-58) provides good background for cliques in American high schools and also indicates the significance of these groups.


Students create a list of the various communities that they belong to, exploring their membership in classroom communities, campus communities, as well as family, religious, political, hobby-affiliated, regional, state, national, or global communities. Students then explore what is significant about these communities. For example, how do they relate together? How are their roles different in these communities? What communities conflict with each other? Students then write a thesis-driven essay that describes and reveals the significance of at least two of these communities in their lives. Students may want to address some of the following points in their essay:

• The values, beliefs, and commitments of these communities.
• How these communities are organized: What are the different roles of people? How are these roles selected? Who has power?
• How is language used in these communities? Is there a special “language” that unifies members of this community?
• What communities are related with these particular communities? What communities are in conflict? Why?

Students are encouraged to research the communities they choose. Though they will be using personal experience, they should also use outside evidence in order to help develop their points.

Personal Ethnography2 

Students focus upon their own social and cultural identity and reflect on how it fits into larger social systems.

In order to make their personal ethnography more significant, students should try to choose an identity that shows readers how they connect themselves to a larger social group, which, again, may be tied to gender, class, race/ethnicity, or region. Their experiences may address how other people have created an identity for them.

The personal ethnography combines storytelling with analysis and research. Students use descriptive and narrative strategies to recall a particular experience that illustrates the influence of social systems. It might be helpful for students to think in terms of what “cultures” they identify with—culture being defined as the learned behaviors, values, and beliefs that are shared and practiced by a group of people. For example, students might focus on an event that represents their culture, such as a family tradition or a moment when they first became aware of their gender, class, or race.

As they tell their story, they will also analyze the event’s significance in terms of cultural identity, specifically in terms of social systems. For your analysis, students need to step away from experience and examine it from the eye of a social researcher. From this position, students should come up with points or generalizations that show readers how gender, class, race/ethnicity, and other factors connect to their identity. These questions may be helpful for students to develop their analysis:

• What specific examples from your experience support your analysis?
• Why is your experience significant? Why did you choose this experience, as opposed to others?
• What does this particular experience tell readers about your social and cultural identity?
• What are the values of the larger social group that you are identifying with?

Family Stories3 

Using a narrative activity from Sheridan Blau’sLiterature Workshop, students brainstorm stories that represent themselves or their families. These are the types of stories that are repeated at family gatherings or the stories that students tell when they are with close friends.

After students have created a list of possible stories, Blau recommends these following steps:

1. Identify around three of these types of stories, ones that you think are the most interesting.
2. Write down titles for these stories, making them as representative and interesting as possible.
3. Share your titles with your classmates, providing some brief information about your story if necessary.
4. After hearing your classmates’ stories, think up a few more story ideas.
5. Think about which of the stories might have the most to say about gender, class, ethnicity/race, and other social factors. Jot down some more notes about the story you have chosen.
6. Share your story with a small group of classmates. When you are finished with your story, ask your listeners to test your story. What is the major point about the story? (The “So What?” question.) Can they interpret the significance of your story? Can they connect your story meaningfully to social and cultural identity? Listen to your listeners’ interpretations and take down more notes.
7. Share with the whole class, both the story and the student listeners’ interpretations. Can other students offer additional interpretations?

Students should continue to test each idea they come up with by asking themselves: How does this story relate to gender, race, or class? If they can’t answer this question, even with help from your instructor and classmates, they should go back to their brainstorming lists and choose another narrative idea.

1Adapted from John Ramage, John Bean, and June Johnson’s Writing Arguments, 8th ed. (p. 26).
2See Chapter 6 of Cynthia Debes et al.’s Writing Communities and Identities for additional activities related to the personal ethnography. 
3Adapted from Cynthia Debes et al.’s Writing Communities and Identities (pp. 196-197).