What is the difference between an immigrant, a migrant and a refugee? The news is so saturated with these terms and polarizing arguments that students at all levels—including first-year college students—may not know how to begin with this question. Terrible images from journeys gone wrong or mind-boggling statistics trend on our social media feeds, stoking feelings of outrage, terror or worse—indifference. How can students be more critical readers, researchers and writers on this topic which impacts our communities on local and national levels? We can start by reading, listening to and telling the very human narratives of people’s journeys from one part of the country or the world to another.
Recently, I’ve been introducing academic inquiry in first-year college writing courses by asking students to investigate immigrants and refugees in California. As a writing professor, I’m not an expert on immigration, but I do know a few things about being intellectually curious and seeking deeper understanding through reflective analysis, research and writing. I introduce the topic with the award-winning 2017 story, “Three Refugees, Three Journeys to California,” from KQED’s The California Report. After reading profiles of refugees across generational and historical conflicts, students then create a multimedia profile of an immigrant, refugee or migrant from another state in their community. In this post, you can listen to Elizabeth Batres’ interview of her father, Luis Fernando (below), and Eduardo Castellanos’ interview with his father, Jaime (further down in the post).
Elizabeth Batres writes of her father’s story: “It is important to understand the hardships many other immigrants like my dad had to go through for a positive, safer and successful life.”
The Multimedia Profile: Setting Goals and Getting Started
Why do I teach the multimedia profile in a college writing course? The goal of this assignment is to expand students’ media literacy skills, as well as their researching and storytelling abilities, in a way that reflects our multilingual stories of living in California.
Specifically, I want my students to
- Expand their media literacy skills across formats by summarizing and analyzing audio, print and visual journalism
- Learn basic interviewing skills as a research strategy
- Interpret and compose the data they gathered into a narrative suited to an audience of their peers
Lastly, because many students are interviewing friends and family members whose first language is not English, I encourage them to conduct interviews in another language, and to incorporate those languages into their profiles and translate when necessary. This teaches multilingual students to draw upon their knowledge of other languages as a resource for an academic writing course. Whatever your learning objectives are for this project, it’s important to clarify them from the beginning.
To start class discussion, it helps to first activate students’ existing knowledge on the topic. I ask students to free-write their thoughts in a two-minute quick write, responding to a provocative quotation or image from news media to spur their thoughts. I then ask each student to contribute something they know or a question that they have, listing ideas on the board. This activity primes students to listen to our first source on the topic, the story of Mohamed Aref Rawoas and his family by reporter Laura Klivens.
I find that most 18-year olds do not have much experience listening to audio journalism, so I ask them to pay attention to sound.
- Whose voices did they hear?
- What emotions did they hear in those voices?
- What background noises did they hear, and what does this tell us about this story?
We discuss all three interviews in this series, with Rawoas and his family, with author Viet Thanh Nguyen and with 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern. Listening to the narrator’s voice helps us to understand their story, while photographs anchor our imagination as we listen. Students then read the print version, summarizing and critically responding to each profile to further understand storytelling across media platforms.
Eduardo Castellanos writes of his father: “I have a lot of respect for my father, because of how important his tough immigration journey was to his family.”
Inquiry-Based Research Writing
Students select a person to interview—a parent, friend, neighbor, co-worker. The freedom to choose their subject is important to the process of inquiry. They compose interview questions based on guidelines I provide to them and test the clarity of their questions with their peers. We discuss the ethical necessity of explaining the assignment and collecting permission from their interviewee to share their story. After these necessary preparations, students are ready to go into their communities and research the topic.
I found it helpful to build in class time to test our audio equipment, which was a smartphone or laptop. In the age of ubiquitous media, it is safe to assume that every student has a phone or a laptop with recording capability. But we can’t assume that every student knows how to use their device to create audio files. In the future, I would provide class time to recording, editing and uploading audio files using free audio editing software, as described in a blog post by John Walter.
Publishing and Sharing Stories
After the drafting and peer review process, students publish and share their profile essay on a secure course management site (I’ve used Blackboard and Canvas, but the Google suite on a private setting can also work). In class, students upload photographs, audio files and an excerpt of their writing. We spend the rest of class reading, listening and responding to each other’s work—essentially, we tell each other stories. There are stories of fleeing violence, seeking safety and opportunity, and acculturating to a new life. There are tragedies and some humor. For some students, this is their first opportunity to sit down with a parent, grandparent or sibling and hear their story, and the experience can be emotional and sometimes risky, but is also eye-opening and extremely rewarding.