Diversity and Power: Gender, Race, and Class in the United States

Assignment: Keywords Autoethnographic Project
Class: Diversity and Power; Gender, Race, and Class in the United States
Institution: University of Iowa
Co-authors of this assignment: Naomi Greyser, Aniruddha Dutta, and Aimee Carrillo Rowe

Note: This course did not use the Keywords Collaboratory as its platform.

Project Description:
This assignment was part of a four-credit course fulfilling the diversity requirement in the General Education program at the University of Iowa. “Diversity and Power: Gender, Race and Class in the U.S.” introduces students to intersectional, transnational and ecological approaches to identity, experience and American-ness. Students learn about histories and topographies of injustice, and their resistance in social movements and individuals’ daily practices. As at many institutions, our general education program provides students a broad foundation of knowledge and transferrable skills for a “lifetime of learning.”

With this aim in mind, we designed this autoethnography assignment to engage students in bringing scholarly knowledge and their own experiences and observations into conversation with each other. As students inter-animate life stories with the depth and richness of keyword entries, we guide them in responding to standard questions coming out of critical race and feminist epistemologies: 1) Who benefits from the structural arrangements that underpin an event, story or experience?; 2) How are each of us entangled in histories of both privilege and oppression?; 3) Given the histories of injustice we trace in the course, what can each of us do with the privilege we have?

Instructor Comments:
What worked: It has been helpful to lay the groundwork for this assignment early in the semester by doing an in-class free write, where students reflect on first-person narratives they read about gender, race, class and other axes of identity (Malcolm X, Janet Mock, Sandra Cisneros, Ntozake Shange, and others). Noting what choices they appreciated as readers of autobiographical narrative allowed students to draft statements with awareness of sensory detail, writerliness and aspects of autoethnography as a genre. We return to these drafts later in the semester, when students typically enhance their critical analysis. Many students enter the class imagining that gender, race, class all take shape through dramatic and history-making events.

The assignment’s intersectional focus encourages students to notice privilege and oppression structuring U.S. culture in ways that are alternately banal and dramatic, painful and pleasurable. It works to highlight for students their complex relationships to privilege and oppression, as we encourage them to write through categories of experience they have often not considered (whiteness for white students, masculinity for men, first-world privilege for many U.S.-born students of color, etc.). Students who do the assignment well learn to draw on keywords to critically analyze a range of texts and experiences. Through peer review and conferences, we encourage students to transition from a “summarize, memorize and apply” model of learning to one where they undertake research, evaluate and critically engage objects of inquiry, understanding keywords as complex and contested each time we use them. We also like that the assignment authorizes students to articulate and validate embodied knowledges, while also pushing them to interrogate knowledge from perspectives outside their own.

What needs work: Bringing keywords and personal experiences into mutual conversation is more easily said than done. There is no template for inter-animating first-person narrative and keywords, and a number of students have been challenged to move past a “taped” paper where the first half of their essays comprise a story and the second half summarizes a term and pronounces that the term is present and operative in their lives. Teaching an assignment that invites students to confide personal narrative can make the class illuminating but comes with certain interpersonal challenges and can require a delicate hand and emotional labor.

Some students mistakenly imagine that they need ‘dramatic’ tales to do this assignment, and we need to disabuse them of the notion that diversity and power take shape largely at sites of danger, intense precarity or social revolution. (Conflict at family holidays is an example we often use to unfold diversity and power in everyday life.) In addition, some students approach us about difficulty articulating personal narratives that do include vulnerable-making stories that can make in-class peer-review challenging, even as the assignment becomes rewarding to them. We have found that the very element that animates this assignment – the personal relevance of college coursework and reading – can also become an obstacle. Some students have difficulty understanding terms in their multiplicity or seeing beyond their own positionality, even though that is a main aim of this assignment and our course. It is challenging for many culture workers and writers, including us, to simultaneously push our writing inward toward the personal and outward towards politics, scholarly conversations, and U.S. cultures.


Diversity and Power: Gender, Race and Class in the United States
Professors Naomi Greyser, Aniruddha Dutta, and Aimee Carrillo Rowe University of Iowa

Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies: 131:055

(a class fulfilling the UI’s Diversity Requirement in the General Education program)

Keywords Assignment

Course Description:

This class explodes a common assumption that we are past racism, sexism and classism, opening a dynamic space to explore differences in power and privilege – and to develop an eye-opening understanding of how race, class, gender and nation shape our lives and world. Through readings, films, and interactive assignments, the course aims to increase our knowledge of the inequities in our society and the consequences of those inequities for different communities and individuals. We ask: How are individual lives shaped by larger societal forces? How do our own social positions affect how we see and experience the world? How are people involved in actively resisting inequality and social oppression on a daily basis?

Keywords for ‘Diversity and Power’: diversity, slavery, race, racialization, ethnicity, class, labor, gender, disability, indigenous, Indian, capitalism, nation, empire, globalization, religion, queer, politics

Keywords Major Paper Assignment: Autoethnography

Assignment Calendar:

  • week of 3.11 – writing activities during section
  • wed. 3.27 – workshop day: mandatory drafts due in lecture. Bring TWO hard copies. We will take attendance.
  • thurs. 4.2 – final copy due: upload to ICON dropbox by 10 PM (Dropbox will time-stamp your paper.)

No late papers will be accepted. Seriously.

An autoethnography is a form of writing that lets us reflect on how we create meaning through experience, storytelling, and knowledge. This assignment asks you to write your own autoethnography to consider on

  • how the keywords and readings in our course help you to understand your own experiences with gender, race, class, dis/ability, nation as well as
  • how your personal experiences help you to understand course concepts and keywords

You will write a short paper (3-4 pages double-spaced) in which you share reflections on how your everyday life is shaped by a keyword from Burgett and Hendler’s volume. You may like to also address your keyword’s intersection with (additional) categories of identity and experience (sexuality, religion, citizenship, age, etc.).

Your paper will include two main components: a vivid story from your life, and an analysis that draws on that story to define and develop a keyword. Strong papers will not only apply a keyword to explain first-person stories, but will also develop a main argument, or thesis statement. Thesis statements may articulate how power and diversity in the U.S. are lived and experienced; they may argue about an aspect of a keyword entry; or they may disagree or specifically affirm an aspect of our other readings this semester using the keyword and your story as evidence. Excellent papers often add to, amend, or critique keyword entries or class readings. Strong papers may also foreground intersectionality, the transnational or ecology as we have discussed them this term. The grading rubric below offers a helpful guide to the structure and grading criteria for our assignment.



  • a “hook” that captures your audience’s attention. This might be an image, an anecdote, a quote/epigraph, an irritation – something that orients your reader to the richness of your autoethnography and personal experience.
  • enough background information to orient your reader to your topic without including so much that the paper becomes top heavy.
  • a mapping sentence or other way of presenting the organization of your essay. (“This essay will address…. by…”). Students often mistake mapping statements for thesis statements. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that rephrasing the assignment can serve as your thesis. A thesis makes a specific, contestable argument rather than saying something like “this paper will explore the role of <keyword> in structuring diversity and power in the U.S.”
  • a thesis that presents, in a single sentence, the argument your essay does. A strong thesis will reflect on how power inequities or the struggle against them work. Strong papers often use personal experience and course readings to analyze the keyword, as well as drawing on the keyword to explain their story. You might consider what you would want to extend, amend or critique about a keyword entry.


  • Your story should use descriptive imagery. Imagine your story as you write it to help you convey the images from your memory.
  • A strong paper may draw on sensual detail to engage the reader: consider taste, smell, sound, touch, and visual detail as you flesh out your story.
  • Use first person; this is your story, you should feel comfortable allowing your voice to come through
  • A strong paper will take some time to develop the depth of characters so we really get to know who they are and what motivates them (including yourself)
  • The story should set the scene, yet not take up the bulk of your essay. Remember to tell your story fully but also leave room for your critical analysis. Usually one page is reserved for people’s stories, and two or three devoted to citation, summary, analysis, and supporting the thesis.


  • This section should clearly define the keyword you have selected.
  • In addition to defining the topic in your own words, you should draw directly on the Burgett and Hendler, citing a specific portion of the text including author(s) names and page numbers. (you may use any form of citation you prefer: MLA, APA, Chicago Style, etc. we suggest that you google Purdue’s Online Writing Lab [OWL] for really great information on citation specifics.)
  • Analyze the event you narrated, emphasizing how story and concept illuminate power disparities in the United States and, if you like, acts of resistance against injustice.
  • Strong papers will clearly explain how the course concept helps you to understand and read your story in a new way, and how or why that matters in the context of power and diversity.


  • This section will begin by concisely re-stating main points from essay as a whole
  • Conclusions will also consider how the concept and the event shed light on each other. You might consider some of these questions: What did you learn about your life story, or about gender/race/class/nation in general, through examining your keyword? What did you learn about the keyword when you examined it through your life story? Did this assignment make the concept more concrete, for example? Expose its complexities? Did it illuminate an under-considered aspect…?
  • A strong paper might suggest ways to refine, expand or amend course concepts so that they better reflect experiences and structures of inequality. See if you can move past flatly defining course concepts to get into a deeper discussion about how the concepts help us make meaning and what they let us see (or don’t let us see).


  • clear and crisp sentences; avoidance of run-ons
  • correct syntax and grammar
  • a distinct style that suits your rhetorical aims (humor, liveliness and creativity are always welcome!)
  • Proper citation (consult Purdue’s OWL on how to cite properly at: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/)

Advice as you write:

  • Keep sight of the keyword you have chosen, do not lose yourself in your own story—make connections!
  • Be honest! Stories about power and inequality can bring up awkward or taboo subject matter. This material is exciting to think about and requires that we “stay with it” as writers. Articulating mixed feelings, awkward silences, relationships lost or solidarities gained will help you fully unfold your story and the lived experience of power and difference in the United States (or elsewhere).
  • Be self-reflexive—consider your complicity in participating in power relations, what you wish you’d said or done but didn’t; what was tough or inspiring or frustrating or illuminating. Definitely don’t feel the need to paint yourself as innocent or perfect. None of us are.
  • Be wary of overly tidy or grand conclusions that make overarching generalizations or that tie things up with a too-tidy bow. Examine the complexities, dwell on the paradoxes, don’t be in a hurry to resolve unknowns and tensions. Conclusions can lay out tough territory; they don’t need to propose solutions to poverty or racism or hetero/sexism in the U.S.
  • Conclusion: restate thesis and review your points. End with open questions, a sense of urgency, or a larger reflection about what you learned from your autoethnography.