Skip to main content

Professor's social experiment highlights controversial laws in America

January 11, 2013

America has come a long way in the fight for equality and forming a “more perfect” union. However, to raise students' awareness of complex and controversial laws in place today, Erik Johnston, associate professor in ASU's School of Public Affairs, decided to conduct a most unusual experiment to prove America still has a long way to go.

The experiment required students in Johnston’s PAF 300 course (Intro to Public Administration) to complete an assignment on their Wikispace, an online collaboration website, something they had been doing for weeks in the class already. What made this assignment different from the others was the way it was being graded.

To receive credit for the assignment, students were subjected to an in class cheek swab, and white students had to display their student ID’s to their teaching assistants (TA’s). In addition, student athletes who did not score at least an 80 on the assignment would receive a 0, and all female students would have their scores adjusted to 77 percent of the average score of their male counterparts.  

One way to get a 100 percent for the assignment was to donate $25 to a course project taking place later in the semester. Of the 80 students in the class, about a quarter of the students donated to the course project to receive a 100 percent, according to Johnston.

Johnston admits he was nervous about conducting this experiment, but said the point was to highlight how laws work in our society today.

“This is what is going on in everyday life,” Johnston said.

Laws and controversies students reviewed included, but were not limited to voter ID laws, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, “poverty taxes”, and a case in Topeka, Kansas where domestic violence prosecutions were stopped temporarily in 2011 due to budget cuts.

“These are laws we have to follow, whether we like them or not. They are also laws we are responsible for influencing and should reflect our values, so I wanted the class to be aware of the 'creative' laws that are currently on the books,” he added.

“It’s one thing to tell them about these laws, but for them to actually be invested in what’s going on, I wanted them to feel these laws. Learning by doing is easier said than done.”

The grading rubric for the assignment was crafted by Johnston, and certain students selected early in the semester, including public service and public policy sophomore Travis Kester.

By making the rules, Kester was considered to be part of “the one percent,” and received a 100 percent on the assignment plus a 20 percent bonus for “great performance.” This grading scheme was designed to show students how wealthy individuals receive special privileges in society simply because of their wealth.

“At first the assignment was funny to me. It was a bit over the top and ridiculous, but Dr. Johnston made it feel relevant to modern situations,” said Kester.

Johnston expected to receive pushback from his students for conducting this experiment, but instead he was surprised at the initial lack of outrage from his class.

“Only one student made an objection, initially,” he said.

That student, Portia Portugal, a junior in the Global Studies program, objected completely and couldn’t believe Johnston was serious.

“I sincerely thought he was just playing a prank on us,” Portugal said.

Portugal had completed the assignment before reading the grading rubric. Once she read the rules and realized she would have her score adjusted just because of her gender, she became incensed.

“Being the feminist in the making that I am, [this rule] was of particular concern to me.”

Upon completion of the assignment, Portugal wrote in large red letters, "P.S. I REFUSE TO BE GRADED BY THE RUBRIC GIVEN. THANKS!"

“I would be damned if anyone was going to grade me based on my gender,” Portugal said.

And so while she objected, when students entered class the next day, wondering about the grading for the assignment the night before, they were greeted by Johnston and TA’s in their lab coats.

Students were instructed to lineup, and every student, except for Portugal, got in line and had their cheeks swabbed.

“I was laughing because I couldn't believe they were all going along with this. As people walked by me I heard them all talking about how ridiculous this was and they couldn't believe it, yet they were still going along with it,” said Portugal.

Senior public service and public policy major Cara Cook also believed the rules were “obviously extremely unfair,” and said she too had objections but did not protest the experiment initially.

“I was pretty shocked and confused how he could be allowed to do this,” she said.

Johnston received permission to conduct this experiment, but did not inform students of this fact until after the experiment was over.

Once the swabbing had ceased and the class ended, students turned from curious, to outraged, and unprompted by their professor, formed a student union to protest the grading rules.

Robert Walsh, a senior political science major, was one of those outraged students and created the union.

“I decided to start the union because I thought others were being graded unfairly, especially the women in the class. And two things stood out to me…” Walsh said.

“One was that people weren't willing to speak up against authority (Johnston), even when obvious rights were being violated, and two, that this may set a precedent and tone for the class that would allow for other unjust grading procedures to be adopted.”

Kester also had a similar motivation for joining the union.

“I joined the union strictly because I was the one percent, the person who had the easiest job and got the most out of the assignment just for making a grading rubric. Although this was nice, I felt guilty because of my "special" circumstances. I joined the union to help the other, less fortunate students out,” Kester said.

“It didn't seem fair to me that others struggled while I had it easy, and it opened my eyes to some of the ridiculous truths about our modern society.”

Walsh was also moved by the experiment and says he gained valuable insight by being a participant.

“I learned that people are much more powerful if they band together and support a common goal. I also learned that it is very difficult to get people to act, even when they are being obviously discriminated against by another party.”

And while Johnston’s experiment seemed to work, he wanted students to gain even more from the experience, so he negotiated with the union using practices similar to modern day union negotiations. After hearing the union’s argument to be graded equally, Johnston agreed the students could receive full credit on the assignment by completing “40 action items” in the community, ranging from attending political events, to registering students to vote.

Portugal, who attended political rallies as part of her participation, enjoyed this aspect of the experiment and was happy to see the class finally take action.

“It was exciting to see how everyone stepped up and played their part,” said Portugal.

Cook says the experiment turned into something “much bigger” than she thought anyone in the class could have imagined.

“These rules were put in place to teach us first hand lessons on disparity of opportunity, laws such as SB 1070... unfair pay for equal work, unions, unknown disadvantages of being poor, and increasingly intrusive policies.”

“We learned that even though each student in the class may not have been affected by the grading rules, we were able to accomplish much more as an entire class fighting against these unfair rules than if only the people that were affected were the ones standing up for themselves,” she added.

Johnston says the experiment was a huge success and is one he would like to do again in future classes.

The money raised through the experiment was then used as the foundation for a lesson on participatory governance and the class selected where to donate the money. The course project required students to select a cause or organization they believed would better the community, and then argue why their organization should receive the money collected from the donations.

One student, Cook, decided to go above and beyond, and proposed raising $500 to sponsor one child in the Sounds of Autism’s Balance the Spectrum program. The program was designed to help parents “promote maximum connection with their [autistic] children and create an environment that promotes growth and learning,” according to the organization’s website.

After pitching the idea to her fellow classmates, Johnston challenged Cook to raise $250 from her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Johnston said he would match her, using funds from the class pool to sponsor one child.

Soon after, Cook took the information back to her sorority and was amazed at the response.

“We offered community service hours if they donated $25. Before we knew it we had 45 women committed to donating $25, one woman donated $50, and we raised $1,150. This amount was then matched by the class pool to equal $1,500 to support three children with an autism spectrum disorder,” Cook said. 

Cook added, “I never thought that from those silly grading rules we would have ended up doing such amazing things as a class and it was honestly one of my favorite moments in college.”

In total, the class raised $3,014.75 to support various startups, entrepreneurs, and charitable organizations.
“I’m more proud of this class than any of the other classes I have ever taught,” Johnston said.

“This class is for non-majors, and going into the first class students told me they didn’t care about any of this stuff. So, to see them get involved and actually stand up for what they believe in, without being graded, was really exciting,” he added.

Cook noted that on the first day of class, Johnston told the class his approach to teaching is to “accidentally teach” rather than “cram information in our heads and expect us to write it out on a test.”

“He obviously accomplished this and more, and it was an extremely successful way of teaching our class so many different things that will stay with us forever.  I think I speak for the entire class when I say this is a class we will always remember and we were lucky to be a part of it.”

Written by Daiyaan Colbert, College of Public Programs