Multicultural Panel

Last night, in a master’s level Career Development class, rather than just lecture the students on multicultural issues for hours on end, I had the idea of creating a panel.  By asking “real” people from various cultures questions, students would have a unique opportunity to apply the information they have been researching, rather than just discussing it with themselves or their professors.  I thought it would be a great way to have the information “come alive”, plus I figured students must be curious about lots of things that only someone from that culture would know.

I invited several people I knew (outside academia) that were of a minority culture.  This took some effort, since some people didn’t want to drive to a strange place at night, struggle with parking only to enter a classroom where students are going to ask you all sorts of personal questions.  However, despite all this, I did find five people, which I figured was a good number.  Three were going to come in person and two were going to use Skype or iChat, since they were not local.  Unfortunately one member backed out at the last minute, and we had technical issues with the iChat connection, so we ended up with three people on the panel (two live and one on Skype).

Two weeks prior to the panel, I sent an email to the students outlining who would be on the panel and what their cultural background was.  I instructed the students to provide one question they would like to ask one or more panel members based upon the multicultural career development article they researched, or just something they have always wanted to know.  I gave them a due date of about 5 days prior to the panel, to give me an opportunity to read the questions to make sure they were relevant, appropriate and clearly-worded.  A few days prior to the panel, I emailed the questions to the panel, so they would know what was going to be asked of them.  (I used a Google document for this, which made this process very easy).

Other logistics: I snail-mailed the panel participants parking passes and maps, and gave them a thank-you gift afterward.

The results: Overall, the activity was a great success.  With a few exceptions, the students asked some very relevant and interesting questions.  A few examples:

1.  “What is one stereotype you’ve witness multiple times from people who are not familiar with your culture? Basically, if you could change/stop one stereotype, what would it be?”

2.  “Was there anything that a teacher/counselor (elementary, middle or high) did that had a positive impact on your cultural identity?  What do you wish your teachers/school counselors would have done differently?”

3. “What has been the biggest challenge that you have encountered while on the job due to your cultural differences or due to cultural differences of another person involved?”

The panel members spoke freely and appeared to feel very comfortable in front of the students.  The panel members were concise in their answers, yet thorough.  (I was afraid they might ramble on, but they didn’t).  The students appeared to be engaged, as there was silence when the panel members were speaking, all eyes were on them, with minimal fidgeting and no yawns, and several of the students asked follow-up questions.  The main professor even got involved, asking a few questions of her own.  The panel members appeared relaxed throughout, smiling, and were quite willing to address all of the students’ questions.

After the panel members left, we took a few minutes to process the activity.  The students told me that they really enjoyed it and thought it was good.  The only negative thing the students had to say was that they could not hear the person using Skype very well.  It helped that I summarized some of her responses, but it would have been much better if the students could have heard her more clearly.

Lessons learned: I probably would not choose to use Skype again.  For some reason Skype would not work when my laptop was connected to the overhead projector.  As a result, I spent the first 10 minutes of the panel fidgeting with the equipment, and texting the Skype panel person to try to figure out what went wrong.  When I finally did get Skype working, it was very difficult to hear that panel member, possibly due to her microphone.  Also, we couldn’t see her because she was on my tiny netbook laptop instead of projected on the screen as originally intended.

The fourth member, who we were supposed to connect with using iChat, never appeared.  I still don’t understand what happened.  I sent him texts that he never got.  He said he was on iChat, but we couldn’t see him.

At any rate, it was far too distracting to try to deal with all of those technical issues and run the panel at the same time!

What I would do differently:

1.  Have an assistant help me with technical issues so that I can run the panel.  No assistant, no Skype.

2. If I using Skype, do a sound check with panel members the day prior, and make sure they have my id as well.

3. If using Skype, have those on Skype sign in 15 minutes early so that any last-minute technical problems can be addressed.

4. If possible, get to the classroom the day prior and try using Skype on the projector.  This way there will be time to call technical support if there are any issues.

5. If there is no projector, don’t use Skype or iChat unless the sound is clear.  Not having a video image is OK, but the sound must be clear.

6. When inviting participants, make it clear that they are not expected to be the “expert” on their culture or ethnicity, that we are just curious about their personal experiences.

Conclusion: I would definitely do this activity again.  The students benefited greatly.  Although it requires a lot of advance planning, it is worth it.  I wouldn’t bother with Skype again, however.  The risk of technical issues isn’t worth the benefit of having that additional panel member that can’t be there in person.

Update on 12/17/12: The use of Skype in the classroom appears to be problematic in general. Besides the technical issues, students seem to complain when I have guest speakers over Skype.

*This activity has also been published:

LoFrisco, B. M. Multicultural Panel. (2012). In T. M. Laura, M. Pope, & C. W. Minor (Eds.), Experiential activities for teaching career counseling and for facilitating career groups (Volume III).  Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.

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