Making Ethnic Studies Compute

Cal State San Marcos professor explains how she used online mapping tools to help students connect social research to their own personal narratives.

July 13, 2011

SAN JOSE — People typically use maps to locate themselves relative to their surroundings. At California State University at San Marcos, one professor is teaching her students to use advanced mapping technology to learn about themselves and their communities on an even deeper level.

Theresa Suarez, an associate professor of sociology at San Marcos, has taught partially online courses on racial and ethnic identity for years. But Suarez found it was difficult to enable her students, many of whom are are people of color, to connect the theoretical material she taught in class and their own narratives, she explained during a session here on Tuesday at the Emerging Technologies in Online Learning conference, hosted by MERLOT and the Sloan Consortium.

A lot of her students, Suarez said, seemed less interested in reflecting on how racial and ethnic identities shape their own lives and neighborhoods than checking off the general-education requirement and continuing their studies in business or nursing. "I really had the challenge of rethinking how to make tangible, relevant, visual, the theoretical concepts for our class to really help them grasp what we were doing," she said, "that this was about our everyday lives, all of us — that this wasn’t just about something ancient."

Suarez, who describes herself as late-adopter (her presentation here was a rare foray for her into teaching with PowerPoint) and an occasional techno-skeptic, resolved to find a technological solution that would not require a lot of complexity or jargon. So she turned to online software that uses geographic information systems to let students to superimpose demographic data about race and ethnicity onto maps of their local communities.

Suarez instructed her students to place digital pushpins on places that shape their own experiences of where they live. "Where do you shop?" she said, by way of example. "Where do you surf? Where does your girlfriend or boyfriend live? What schools did you attend? Where do you work? Where don’t you go?"

The students then had to reflect, in essay form, on the points of reference marked by the pushpins, describing how each of those places play a role in their identities — particularly in light of what they learned by seeing demographic data mapped on to their communities.

“Lake San Marcos is a place I’ve been living for the past seven years,” wrote one student, an adult learner and small business owner, an Arab Muslim, who lives in the neighborhood with his young family. “…I’m shocked to see how much it lacks diversity, knowing that it sits in the middle of a diverse community.”

The student went on to say that one road he crossed to get to campus marked the boundary between an ethnically diverse neighborhood and a very homogeneous one — echoing a course reading that had explained how racial and ethnic clusters often break along natural or infrastructural boundaries. "He always wondered about that," Suarez said. "It seemed to affirm for him his everyday experiences."

This idea of affirming anecdotal perceptions with data and mapping tools might seem relatively basic to social scientists, Suarez said. But not so for students who have never viewed their world, or themselves, through that lens. In a survey at the end of the semester, 86 percent of her students said the exercise helped them view social research in a new way. And that did not just mean knowing its capabilities in explaining the world around them, Suarez said — it also meant knowing the limitations of social research.

"I didn’t want them just to make a pretty diagram," she said. "I asked them…. Are the racial/ethnic categories used in the diversity index adequate? Was demographic data available by ethnicity? Are there any groups left out? What are the advantages and drawbacks of race and/or ethnicity?"

The idea is to allow students to participate in social science research, rather than merely being subjects of it. Suarez said that by using GIS mapping and personal essays to make abstract theories of race and identity more relatable, she hopes to create “social scientists-in-training” — even if they end up being nurses and businessmen.

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