During my second year teaching in the UCLA Law and American Indian Studies program, I once asked a colleague of mine to speak to my class about her work as a Native scholar. She asked my class if we, as a class, had defined the terms used in the course title: Working in Tribal Communities. What do we mean by tribal? What do we mean by communities?
In fact, I had not walked through such an exercise with my students, and after that day I vowed never to take for granted the terms I use in the classroom again.
In writing classes, science classes, sociology classes, law classes – truly, in any classroom – we use terms all the time in ways we would never use them anywhere else. We gain an ‘insiders’ knowledge through the semester that could make our students feel quite proud if we take the time to reflect on that process.
One adaptive, student-centered exercise I use in all of my group sessions – classroom, workshop, presentation – is one I call the United Nations exercise. Boiled down, it is a very basic definition-of-terms lesson. In my law and American Indian Studies courses, we discuss the nexus among law, sovereignty, race, and culture in nearly every class session. As clear as the students believe themselves to be about at least three of the four terms, the readings and class discussions quickly disengage them from their strong hold on these words. Unchecked, students quickly become uncomfortable and even defeatist when terms they thought they understood begin to feel less like a foundation and more like sand under their feet. The United Nations exercise both exacerbates their discomfort and allows for the reflection they need to guide them through a process of accepting the shifting nature of these terms.
These are the instructions I provide to law and American Indian Studies students to complete the lesson:
1. Sit for five minutes and define these four terms for yourself, based on your own summation of class readings and discussions: law, sovereignty, race, and culture.
2. In your groups, share those definitions as if you were representatives from or working on behalf of tribal communities with the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues* (which meets annually in May for a week in New York City).
3. As a group, come up with a collaborative definition for one term at a time.
(I assign each group one term to collaboratively define. Then they move their definition to another group, rotating all four terms to all four groups over the session).
4. When you receive a new term in front of you, evaluate, critique, discuss, and revise the definition provided to you by the previous group.
5. I will post the final definitions of each term to the group.
6. As individuals and then as a class, you will have the chance to share how you feel about the changes made to your original definition(s).
7. In the next session, we will reflect on the process of coming to consensus, your impressions of seeing that work revised, and conclude with a discussion of what constituents are served by the various definitions that were offered throughout the drafting process.
Ultimately, participants exercise these skills during this lesson:
- defining terms of art
- audience awareness
- critical thinking
- sharing and responding
Participants often cite it as one of the most memorable exercises because of my high expectations of them to engage with the terms – not just as learners but as participants deeply invested in every word choice.
In tutoring, writers often need prompts to help them move past a blank page. I often suggest that writers start by defining any terms they plan to use in their work – even (or especially) familiar words. Narrative fiction writers might work with a coach to define the names they give their characters. Technical writers might collaborate with colleagues to define the term ‘grant’ or ‘proposal.’ These are ways for even experienced writers to stay connected to their words. And, especially for experienced writers, to stay connected to their livelihoods.
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*Credit to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for the use of the logo