I started off one of my classes this semester with an activity I’ve never tried before – and it turned out great!

The course is called Queer Identity and Popular Culture, and I’ve conceived it as an upper-level undergraduate course designed to introduce students to queer theory in the context of media and communication. The activity was to, as a class, manually create a “word cloud” around the term “queer.” I wrote QUEER in the center of the chalkboard, and then asked students to start offering terms that they saw as being associated with “queer” in some way. I started off asking them to raise hands and let me call on them by name – this was to give me a chance to learn their names and so I could ensure that everyone got a chance to participate at least once. (Once everyone had shared something, it became more of a free-for-all.) I pointed out that they could cite any terms that were associated with queer in our culture – their saying a term didn’t necessarily have to mean they believed it was synonymous with queer or should be associated with queer in their opinion. This freed them up from having to take personal ownership (if they weren’t comfortable doing so) and allowed us to shift the discussion, implicitly, to the discursive construction of queer, versus their own personal experience of queerness. I also encouraged them to offer pop culture examples – to pretend we were bloggers writing for a Queer Pop Culture blog, and these were the words we’d use to “tag” our posts. Here’s what we ended up with by the end of the class:


(Closer-up pictures can be seen here.)

Here’s what I think worked about the activity:

It got everyone talking. Since there were no wrong answers, everyone had something to contribute and the stakes were pretty low. Even the students who seemed shy/more reluctant to talk could participate. I had no idea going in how well versed the students would be in queer theory or queer culture – I figured this activity would allow anyone to chime in, even if they had a pretty limited background in the topic.

I learned new things. Many of the examples students offered were figures in queer pop culture that I hadn’t heard of. Some of them were local queer icons, which was great for me since I’m pretty new to NYC.

We established a safe/productive classroom discussion dynamic. Discussions in a course like this can be sensitive. I want the students to feel safe admitting when they don’t understand something or haven’t been exposed to it before. I tried to model this by admitting that I hadn’t heard of some of the examples the students offered (this also gave them the chance to serve as experts and explain it to me and the rest of the class). I also pointed out, earlier in the discussion, that it was ok if they hadn’t heard of some of the things other students were mentioning and that they shouldn’t feel like “outsiders,” because we’d be discussing everything as the class progressed. At one point, a student prefaced her contribution by saying “I don’t mean to be offensive with this, but…” I pointed out to the class that, going forward, we were going to assume that no one means to be offensive with their comments, and that the classroom should be a safe place to share things we’re unsure about. (Of course, this one depends on everyone actually not meaning to be offensive. My sense with this group is that this won’t be a problem, fortunately.)

I got to learn about each student. Not only did I get practice associating their names with their faces, the activity gave them the opportunity to self-disclose without being put on the spot. Several of them, with the terms they offered (and in some cases, explanations of those terms), were able to express their personal experiences and special knowledges. This may have been the most productive aspect of the exercise for me, as I now have a great idea of where to pitch my explanations of various concepts, going forward.

I suspect (hope?) that the activity also worked to pique the interest of the students in the topics and examples they haven’t yet encountered. I had one student tell me after class that he liked the activity, and I saw a few of them taking their own pictures of the board with their phones. It will be fun to refer back to the photos of our word cloud at the end of the class to see which things we ended up covering in depth. This will also hopefully help students measure their own learning – to see where they had expanded their vocabularies and competencies over the course of the semester. I also think it will be fun, at the end of the semester, to talk about which words we didn’t have on our cloud and that we would want to add.

I think this activity could work well for almost any course centered around a key theme or term. It’s particularly useful for courses with “sensitive” topics (anything having to do with social inequality, for example), and for courses in which the backgrounds of the students may vary widely. It could also work in lectures on specific topics (not necessarily on the first day of class) though some of the outcomes (like learning names) may not be as useful later on in the semester.