Teaching Diversity Through Fictional Worldbuilding

As a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver I was often assigned general studies courses like Cultural Diversity in the Modern World. In the first few years of teaching those courses, I had students select an article from a list and then teach each other the core concepts of diversity. This approach worked well for the most part, but I kept running into students who completely resisted any conversations around diversity, who time and again, refused to engage with the content and spouted all sorts of misinformation, and took issue with concepts like privilege, implicit bias, sexism, and racism. There were a number of students I couldn’t reach no matter how hard I tried.

Then, in the fall of 2019, I spoke with a colleague of mine at length about this issue. She was facing the same sorts of problems I was in the classroom. It appeared that more and more students weren’t even interested in having difficult conversations in the first place. With both of us sci-fi enthusiasts and gamers, we arrived at the idea of creating a new kind of classroom, one in which, diversity is taught  through the creation of a fictional world. Below are a few screenshots of the book we developed.

In the course of creating this textbook, we created a new model, The Three Cs. The Three C’s are Context, Conditions, and Choices, and in September of 2021, I gave a Ted Talk on The Three C’s and why they are a vital starting point for understanding difference. Through the book and classroom lectures, students understand the core of each of the three C’s and how to not only use them to build more authentic and interesting fictional characters but also to understand those who are different from them.

In college courses the assignments are crafted around the three C’s. Their first assignment is to build the core environment, some biological features of their characters (if they are different from modern humans), and a timeline of five major events that shaped the fictional world. The second assignment is to address the conditions of life that their characters face (example below) and the third assignment is to introduce a cultural-wide change agent and how their characters make choices based on the previous conditions of their lives as they are changing and evolving. Finally, students are tasked with showing off their world. They are tasked with a 5 minute overview of their world and a 10 minute creative project that teaches the class core elements of their characters and their world and how identity and culture interact.

Assignment Example: Worldbuilding Project Part 2: Establishing Privilege (Via Canvas LMS)

During the second assignment, students are given this privilege chart in their textbook to consider not only their characters privilege in their created society, but their own privilege and access in the real world. This help students think about the fundamental structures of society and how their own identity fits into a wider conversation about access and equity. This approach has radically changed my classroom conversations about how culture and identity interact.