What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. Rebecca Mushtare discusses how a trip through fairy tales may open up the opportunity to develop empathy skills and conversations about race, disability and identity.
Allison Rank joins us again this week, this time as a guest host.
- Scieszka, J. (2009). The true story of the 3 little pigs. Penguin.
- Wiesner, D. (2001). The Three Pigs. Clarion.
- Alley, Z. B. (2008). There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales. A Neal Porter Book: Roaring Brook Press.
- Dunn, Elton. (n.d.). Are Pigs Color Blind? Animals – mom.me.
- Dragontown Project Sheet
- Dragontown Project: Brick Kitchen: Don’t Eat Your Neighbor
- Dragontown Project: Georgie’s Adventure
- Dragontown Project: X Marks the Job
John: What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. In this episode, we’ll explore how a trip through fairy tales opens up the opportunity to develop empathy skills in conversations about race, disability, and identity.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer. Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Allison Rank, a frequent guest on this podcast, joins us today as guest host. Our guest today is Rebecca Mushtare who, until this episode, had been the co-host of this podcast.
Allison: Nobody panic. She’ll be back in this chair next week.
John: Today our teas are:
Allison: English breakfast tea.
Allison: …under duress. I’m highly under caffeinated.
Rebecca: I’m drinking my normal English afternoon tea.
John: …and I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.
We invited you here today… because you’re always here… but we’re asking you…
Rebecca: …it’s a matter of convenience….
John: A year ago your daughter was born… now the three little pigs have invaded your class. Could you tell us a little bit about how the three little pigs made their way into your web design class?
Rebecca: I’ve been looking for ways to help students develop more empathy for their audiences, and it’s been a struggle. Students (or anybody who’s new to anything) will immediately try to make things for themselves, because it’s the audience they know best. So, it’s the easiest way. If you’re working on technical things or other concepts you don’t have to worry about audience too, because you have that part figured out. But, I’ve been really wanting to challenge students to dive into audience and also deal with accessibility issues which doesn’t come intuitively to them. So, the three little pigs actually offers a really great opportunity to have different audience members to think about (and audience members that don’t really exist); it becomes a safe zone. In this scenario, I’m using three titles as ethnographies for the students to read to get to know their audience better. I spent some time reading about ten different versions of the “three little pigs” and I’ve identified the best three. They are: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by John Scieszka and Lane Smith, and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, and There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales Retold by Z.B. Alley and R.W. Alley.
They read those books and then we come into class and I ask them to help me understand who all the characters are, what’s important to them, and some of their characteristics or qualities that we need to think about in terms of design… and then (from the perspective of the characters) what’s going on in the community that they live in… and the frame that I’m giving my students is that they’re in this community called Dragon Town. Dragon Town has a mayor named Mayor Melanie McDonald, and she’s human, but there are talking animals and dragons and other creatures that live in this community together and there’s a clear creature divide going on. So, the humans seem to value themselves more than the other critters in town. The poor pigs, they’ve got houses that are falling down. They don’t even up stand the Wolf’s breath. So, we’ve got some issues going on here.
The students read the stories, came to class, brainstormed about these characters, and helped identify some really big issues that were happening in Dragon Town… and then my challenge to them was, in teams of three or four, to identify one of those 10 that we identified as a class…choose one that they were gonna use a web design to help raise awareness of or to start to tackle. Obviously they’re not gonna solve these big problems, but they could make a dent into it.
John: The purpose then is to have students look at a problem from another perspective, from the perspective of the intended audience of the webpage, rather than using their own biases.
Rebecca: Yeah, exactly, and it’s something that they really need to practice… and so, yeah, this is a good opportunity to do that. They’re characters that their familiar with, but the books actually challenged a lot of their initial remembrances of some of the stories. So, it’s a nice way to get them to revisit that in a different way.
Allison: How was this different than how you’ve tried to approach the same topic in earlier iterations of the class?
Rebecca: In a previous episode, I think I talked about my simulated client project where I had these big company scenarios with the audience members being Oswego (the community that we live in) and they worked okay… but the students had trouble aligning themselves with older adults or middle-aged individuals who they just don’t seem to find relevant to themselves and even though these are individuals that are readily available in our community that you could interview and get to know, it was a struggle. We did a project in the fall, “The Voices of Oswego Veterans” project that we had a guest (Stephanie Pritchard) on who talked about that project… and we did a web project with that as well… and that was another way to deal with the audience. This time the audience was members of the Oswego community (the SUNY Oswego community), so they had a little bit easier access to that community… but the community that they were representing was different from themselves. These were students, so the population that they were addressing or talking about was student veterans, which was an identity that nobody in the class happened to identify with. That got us closest to solving the problem… but it wasn’t quite where I wanted them to be yet. What’s nice about this is that you don’t have to worry about offending anybody, because they’re not real.
Allison: I can imagine how the fictional characters are really helpful in terms of giving students a lot of space to play and a lot of leverage, but I have to imagine that there are some real challenges associated with giving them that amount of space as well. I guess I sort of have a gut reaction that thinks that they will make up things that cause problems in and of themselves. They’ve got enough rope to get in some dangerous positions. What are some of the challenges that you faced?
Rebecca: That’s a really good question. What I found was, they were willing to talk about things that they were never willing to talk about before. That, first of all, was a good space to be in. That was things like: “oh, there’s species profiling going on…,” “oh, there’s accessibility issues because pigs have hooves so they can’t type and tap on the computer screen…” …the accessibility issues that just bubble up. There was also the concern that critters were eating other neighbors, so we needed to start a campaign to be vegetarian, for example. So, there’s a lot of different things that came up…. a lot of social issues… another one was stranger danger… and then they did these presentations to the mayor, and it was important because we brought someone from outside in and I think that helped prevent some of the issues that you were identifying could bubble up as being a problem, but there was someone that wasn’t me who was the audience but I didn’t tell him who it was gonna be (it was just a grad student I bribed) who came in and just sat and played the part and asked questions and what have you…. and they were taking notes and then we went away and had a meeting and I came back with notes to the students about what the client was concerned about. So, that helped resolve some issues. But, you know, in the presentations there were some crazy things that happened… like the one on stranger danger, for example, the students had still indicated that the stranger, the bad character, was the wolf and the whole point was that all of the animals, and all of the creatures, and all of the humans, also have children and they all need to be concerned about strangers. That we shouldn’t associate one population as the bad actor. We ended up having to have a conversation about that. You can’t perpetuate these stereotypes, but what happened was we could have that conversation safely.
Allison: The familiarity played in the same way that a stereotype would traditionally function in class, but in a much safer space to have the conversation that resolves it.
Rebecca: Exactly. We were having crazy conversations about racial bias, and all these sorts of things, but under this guise of “it’s about the species” and the species problem that’s going on. And now all of a sudden it became safe. When that one group was having issues getting their head around it, I said to them: “You realize that this is the exact same thing as racial bias, right?” and they just looked at me with deer-in-the-headlights look. The next time they came back, the whole project was fixed.
Allison: That was actually gonna be my next question. At what point did you pull out from playing in the sort of allegorical space to say: “Hey, here’s what we actually just did” or did you let the experience and the skill building stand on its own?
Rebecca: I let things unfold organically, and I prodded and probed as necessary. I didn’t want any projects to perpetuate stereotypes or to perpetuate lack of accessibility… those two key issues. I probed and invaded their team time a lot with those particular things to push them on that, but you know they’re not perfect. But, I think they did a lot more growing in that area than they would have otherwise. What I think is missing, that I want to do next time is allow for more of that reflection at the end, so that they could apply it to some other projects. What I’m thinking about doing is have them present the work as if they were in an interview, and so how would you explain this project and what you learned from this project to a potential employer who has no idea what Dragon Town is, so that it becomes something that’s valid and useful… and I think that’s going to take some effort on their part to make that leap. But I think it’s actually a really good project for them to talk about in an interview and most employers would see the value in that.
I already have them do portfolio documentation. I already have them thinking about that, but I need to coach them through that process a little bit more…. and maybe actually make them present that.
John: Yeah, I could see an employer looking at a webpage making a case on avoiding inter-species consumption and being perhaps a little bit puzzled….
Rebecca: The tagline was “don’t eat your neighbor.”
Rebecca:… which I thought was right on.
Rebecca: Well, and that group actually was interesting too because they wanted to do something that was: “Don’t eat your neighbor.” They wanted to be vegetarian but I was like, “Well, dragons have a big appetite. What are you gonna do for them?” So they came up with this tree salad or whatever that has just bigger things. They had to adapt the recipes and things like don’t forget there’s small kids. You got to think about these different populations, and they adjusted their content accordingly, to rise to that occasion. I also found this really great article about whether or not pigs are colorblind that I used as a doorway into thinking about accessibility issues. Apparently, I learned, pigs don’t perceive color the same way that humans do. They can’t perceive as many colors, so we have to really be concerned about the spectrum of colors and the kind of contrast that colors have… so that they would be accessible to pigs,,, but that led into conversations about maybe the pigs have to use voice activation because their hooves won’t let them type on their devices… and then we also had to talk about a mobile device for a dragon is pretty large…. so we had certainly some fun playful conversations, but they were really meaningful. We started talking about those issues pretty deeply in a way that I’ve never had in my class before.
John: Were the students more open to addressing these issues when it was in this safe zone or this safe space?
Rebecca: Yeah, even when I called that one group out on being stereotypical and perpetuating bias, they just received… and were like: “Oh, okay” and then you try it again… “is this better?” “My god, could you push it a little bit more?” and gave them some ideas about how they could push it… and our first solution wasn’t great after that…. It was to put in a separate monster that didn’t exist in this world as being the stranger, and then I identified that like when someone the other, we shouldn’t just assume that they’re the bad person or the bad creature. We had to be careful. I tried to call them out on whether or not we were using the word person, because it didn’t apply to dragons. So, it was funny [in] their presentations they were really conscious about things like that and trying to be inclusive in their language. So, yeah we ended up trying to tackle some of those things, and I was pretty impressed with how far they got… but it took some pushing. That one group took four or five tries before they had something that was gonna work.
John: How did students respond when you first gave them the assignment?
Rebecca: Well, I should probably provide a little setup in that my class includes design students, marketing students, and graduate students in HCI. So, it’s a fairly diverse population in and of itself in terms of disciplinary background. So there’s that. There are a number of people in the class who may not be traditionally artsy or creative, so it’s a little risky, right? I think I’m also known for being very serious. Which if you know me personally, that might not be true, but in the classroom students perceive me as being very serious… and the semester just was not going great, to be honest. It’s like something’s got to give, the students were struggling with a lot of the technical things, and so I basically threw the syllabus out or revised it significantly. stopped and did just technical exercises so students get comfortable with some of the things that they were really struggling with… and then one day I just showed up and said this is what we’re doing… and they had a ton of fun…. and were shocked… they’re just like “Is she serious? She lost it?” There was definitely those looks, but then there was a couple of key students who just jumped in and ran with it… and I think that really helped. So, I’m hoping that that will happen again. I think if everyone in the class is a little too serious, I don’t know that it would work.
Allison: Would you plan on sticking with, in the future, the three little pigs as sort of the through line story or it sounds like the story with the five different ways that the wolf is at your door? Does that give you some entree into some other storytelling avenues?
Rebecca: There is some entree into some other avenues and I maybe need to read some more fairy tales to be up on that, but the reason why I stuck with the Three Little Pigs is actually the wolf is the character that carries through all of them. So, that the five stories that are connected are all based on the wolf and different stories. So there’s Little Red Riding Hood, the Boy who Called Wolf, those are some of the stories in that other one. So, maybe there’d be some versions? I also happen to know that there was like the version of the Three Little Pigs told from the wolf’s point of view, so I really like that because it’s in direct conflict with the Three Little Pigs version of the story. I liked that the ethnographies that they were collecting were realistic in that they conflicted with one another, that they had to deal with the fact that there was conflicting information, and that they had to resolve that or deal with the fact that a wolf’s perspective was different than the pigs perspective of what the wolves perspective was… and I think that was a healthy messiness about it that worked pretty well… and the particular version of the Three Little Pigs that I used pigs escaped getting eaten by the wolf because they jump out of the storybook. So, there’s some plot twists in there that the students wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s not a traditional version of the story… plus, they all have really great illustrations and they’re beautifully designed.
Allison: Are there other classes where you’d be interested in trying the same type of fictional ethnography technique?
Rebecca: I think it could work in some other scenarios, but I like this because it’s in my intro class. It’s a nice doorway in. What I’m really interested in seeing is, when I have a couple of these students in the advanced class next time, if that impacts their ability to do some actual real audience research and use that research in context. I think I want to monitor that first before doing some of this other work. I like it in particular because it’s a beginning class even though it’s at the 300 level.
John: It sounds like a really fun project, and there’s nothing really wrong with making learning fun.
Rebecca: Yeah, I had a good time and we had some moments where you had to really practice the deadpan look, you know, be really serious about what it is that we’re doing… and that part was really fun.
Allison: …and that seems like an amazing turnaround on a class where you have to scrap the syllabus halfway through a semester.
Rebecca: Yeah, it was amazing… the community that was formed around the project… and the way that they were exchanging with one another and coming together was incredible, and I was so thankful.
There’s nothing worse than an off semester and you just want out. I think everybody wanted out and so I just said “We’re out. We’re gonna try something new” and it worked, so that was good.
John: I guess the next question is: “what are you going to do next?”
Rebecca: That’s a good question… I think that with this project I’m hoping to expand it a little bit… so I’m currently thinking through “are there things that I can eliminate that I was doing before that I could embed in this project or I just allow them to have the time and space to fully build things out?” They have really good ideas and pretty good plans and the execution is almost there and I’d like to be able to have them have that time for the “almost there” to be “there” and then also to do that reflection piece that I kind of half-assed.
John: Okay, well thank you for joining us and I guess we’ll see you again on our next episode… and back as a host.
Rebecca: I mean, that is, if you’ll have me back.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.