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Vacuuming in the middle of a frat party: VCU psychology class is out to break social norms

“Many noted how one odd behavior was generally accepted on VCU’s campus, but the same behavior was scorned at Short Pump.”

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By Brian McNeill

As a class assignment for a Virginia Commonwealth University social psychology course, each student was asked to go out into public and break a social norm. So Tyler Epperson, a senior psychology major, strapped on a fake pregnancy belly, went to a rowdy bar and had a few drinks.

“Putting myself around intoxicated people and cigarette smoke caused me to clearly stick out like a sore thumb,” Epperson said. “At first I was excited about this. However, once I stepped into this environment the room was filled with shock and disgust.”

A woman in a gray dress drinks a beverage while standing next to a man wearing dark clothes.

Epperson could tell people were upset, signaling their disapproval through dirty looks. A few people walked over to express their opinions, but only in groups.

“It led me to realize that people tend to feel more comfortable giving their opinions via body language, or not alone and within groups,” she said.

Epperson’s fake pregnancy at a bar was just one of the social norms broken this semester as part of the exercise in the social psychology course taught by David Chester, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of social psychology in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“The goal is for the students to take what they learn in the classroom and take it out into the real world,” Chester said. “They identify a social norm and then they go violate it in a way that doesn’t put themselves or others in harm’s way.”

Chester has taught the class several times, and each time he is amazed by the creativity of the students.

“If you give VCU students an assignment like this, they’ll just go to town,” he said. “They really take it to another level.”

In a previous semester, one student went to Victoria’s Secret, tried on underwear in the changing room and then walked around the store asking for opinions on it.

Another student went home for a big family meal. When a messy pasta dish was served, the student ate with her hands.

“She decided the norm she was going to violate was that you use silverware to eat food,” Chester said. “So she’s just eating with her hands the entire meal, acting like nothing was different.”

This semester, one student went to a big fraternity party and started vacuuming in the middle of the crowd.

“Eventually, other people started to catch on and then they took it over from her and they just kept vacuuming,” Chester said. “By the time she was leaving the party, there were people still vacuuming the house.”

After they broke a social norm, the students were asked to write a paper reflecting on how their experiences illustrated the power of cultural and societal pressures.

Hadley Rahrig, a doctoral student in the social psychology program and the course’s graduate teaching assistant, said the students clearly committed to the assignment and their reflections were thoughtful and entertaining.

“A few examples include: wearing clothes backwards, meditating on the floor of a club, walking around a grocery store with an open umbrella, and screaming in the middle of conversations,” Rahrig said.

Some students used the opportunity to explore social norms that had more serious, relevant consequences, she said.

“For example, one student wrote about shaving her head and what that meant within her own culture,” she said. “One student wrote a poignant piece about dressing in drag, noting how one’s gender expression can be internalized by observers.”

Most of the students realized how challenging it is to break a social norm, even when just deviating a bit from standard behavior, Rahrig said.

“Students reported receiving dirty looks, hushed criticisms and direct confrontations,” she said. “Some students stated that they were mortified by the experience and couldn’t wait for it to end, while others seemed more comfortable with nonconformity.”

The students also learned how standards for social norms vary considerably between environments.

Many noted how one odd behavior was generally accepted on VCU’s campus, but the same behavior was scorned at Short Pump.

“Many noted how one odd behavior was generally accepted on VCU’s campus, but the same behavior was scorned at Short Pump,” Rahrig said. “Some students actually applied a quasi-scientific method to their project by systematically testing the behavior in different environments and with different groups of people.”

For Rahrig, reading the students’ papers felt like watching performance art or an episode of “The Office.”

“Some papers did come across as poignant social commentary, but some were so cringeworthy that they made me laugh out loud,” she said. “Overall, I was extremely impressed. I think more psychology classes should challenge students to test psychology theories in the real world. These exercises show how creative and thoughtful our students can be if given the opportunity.”

The idea, Chester said, is to show students how much of their and others’ behavior is driven by norms.

“It lets them realize that all the time you are surrounded by social norms,” he said. “They dictate your behavior and that when you break them you can get very interesting responses from other people. It’s a really intense but interesting experience for these students.”

Epperson said wearing the fake pregnancy belly at the bar was “definitely an experience to remember.”

“I got plenty of ‘how can you live with yourself?’ and ‘you’re disgusting’ calls from a distance,” she said. “Overall it was an educational experience and I am glad to of done it.”

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For two weeks, Douglas Freeman students can enter an immersive portal and meet people around the world

It’s long been the stuff of science fiction: step into a portal and be instantly transported to the other side of the globe. And while students at Douglas S. Freeman High School won’t technically be leaving their Three Chopt Road campus, a new student-driven project might give them the next best thing.

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It’s long been the stuff of science fiction: step into a portal and be instantly transported to the other side of the globe. And while students at Douglas S. Freeman High School won’t technically be leaving their Three Chopt Road campus, a new student-driven project might give them the next best thing. From Feb. 17 to March 1, students at the school will be able to step into an immersive, audio-visual chamber and interact with residents of Afghanistan, Uganda and other places far from Henrico County.

The Douglas Freeman portal is constructed from a repurposed steel shipping container, painted gold. It and similar portals are dimly lit and include a floor-to-ceiling screen, giving people at each location the illusion of being in the same room. The portal will sit at the front of campus, where the HCPS Technology and Facilities departments have run power and internet lines.

The portal, one of more than 60 worldwide, is the creation of Shared_Studios of Brooklyn, NY. Douglas Freeman students proposed bringing one of the portals to campus, and funding from the Henrico Education Foundation made it happen. The Foundation supports innovative teaching and learning in Henrico’s 72 schools and program centers.

“One of our roles as a school is to expose students to new ideas and different ways of thinking — to broaden their view of the world,” said John Marshall, Douglas Freeman principal. “The school’s diversity is a strength in this regard, and embracing that is one of our core values. The portal gives us the chance to do this at an even greater scope. It highlights the fact that we’re creating global citizens who learn much more than just facts and content during their time at DSF.”

Douglas Freeman is the first public school in Virginia to host a portal. Teachers plan to use the portal to add a new dimension to coursework. For example, Freeman students studying art, geometry and Spanish plan to talk with street artists using a portal in Mexico City, who use ratios in their designs. Photography students hope to learn from artists in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, who use that medium to tell their stories.

The public is invited to use the portal on two successive weekends to interact with people in other nations:

  • Feb. 22 (9-11 a.m. with Herat, Afghanistan; 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. with Mexico City)
  • Feb. 23 (Noon-2 p.m. with an Erbil, Iraq camp for displaced persons)
  • Feb. 29 (10-11:30 a.m. with Lagos, Nigeria; Noon-2 p.m. with El Progreso, Honduras)
  • March 1 (Noon-2 p.m. with Kigali, Rwanda)

Find out more about the Douglas Freeman portal at freemanportal.org. A short video produced by Shared_Studios explains more about the project below.

The portal project is an example of the concepts laid out in the Henrico Learner Profile, the school division’s framework for the skills students need and how they can best attain them. It uses many concepts included in the Henrico Learner Profile, including global citizenship and the idea that learning should be student-owned, authentic, connected and take place anytime and anywhere.

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Vaping is a growing problem in high schools, and HCPS is addressing it with a new workshop

At least one in 10 Henrico County young people have reported using an e-cigarette or vaping device, according to nonprofit advocacy group Henrico Too Smart 2 Start — and the popularity of vaping is increasing.

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At least one in 10 Henrico County young people have reported using an e-cigarette or vaping device, according to nonprofit advocacy group Henrico Too Smart 2 Start — and the popularity of vaping is increasing. Register for Henrico County Public Schools’ Feb. 27 Vaping Prevention Workshop and get the facts about vaping from experts.

Find out what you can do to educate young people about the realities and health risks of vaping. Get resources and learn tips on how to talk about tobacco use. The workshop will feature representatives of the American Heart Association, the Virginia Department of Health Tobacco Control Program and Henrico Too Smart 2 Start.

It will be held on February 27th from 6:30 – 8:00 PM at the Varina Area Library at 1875 New Market Road.

The workshop is part of Henrico County Public Schools’ Family Learning Series. The series is presented by Henrico Schools’ Department of Family and Community Engagement. Workshops are held at public libraries and school facilities across Henrico County. To register for the vaping workshop, email ansimms@henrico.k12.va.us or call 804-652-3787. Teachers who attend will earn recertification points.

For details on the sessions, go to henricoschools.us and look under “Hot Topics” or go to https://henricoschools.us/family-learning-series-winter-spring-2020/.

The schedule is as follows:

  • “Vaping Prevention Parent and Guardian Workshop” (Feb. 27 from 6:30-8 p.m.)

Varina Area Library, 1875 New Market Road, Henrico, Va. 23231

  • “IEP 1, 2, 3!” (March 11 from 6:30-8 p.m.; sessions in English and Spanish)

Center for Global Citizenship at J.R. Tucker High School, 2910 Parham Road, Henrico, Va. 23294

  • “LGBTQ+: Everyone Needs an Ally” (March 18 from 6:30-8 p.m.)

J.R. Tucker High School library, 2910 Parham Road, Henrico, Va. 23294

  • “Raising Children: Parents, Where is Your Village?” (March 25 from 6:30-8 p.m.)

Fairfield Area Library, 1401 N. Laburnum Ave., Henrico, Va. 23223

  • “Quality Time: How to Fit It In” (April 8 from 12:30-1 p.m.)

Online class (for information and a link to the workshop, email ansimms@henrico.k12.va.us)

  • “Homework Help! Supporting Student Success” (April 22 from 6:30-8 p.m.)

Libbie Mill Library, 2100 Libbie Lake East St., Henrico, Va. 23230

To register, email ansimms@henrico.k12.va.us or call 804-652-3787.

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University of Richmond Museums presents “A Competition in Prose, Poetry, or Images”

The exhibition is the first retrospective of German artist Fritz Ascher, comprising seventy paintings and works on paper, ranging from early academic studies and figural compositions to the artist’s late colorful, mystical landscapes.

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The University of Richmond Museums presents Otherness: A Competition in Prose, Poetry or Images on Paper, specifically for high school students and presented in conjunction with the exhibition Fritz Ascher: Expressionist, currently on view at the Harnett Museum of Art.  The exhibition is the first retrospective of German artist Fritz Ascher (1893-1970), comprising seventy paintings and works on paper, ranging from early academic studies and figural compositions to the artist’s late colorful, mystical landscapes.

The Fritz Ascher Society invites high school students to submit an essay of up to 500 words, a poem of up to two pages in length, or an artwork on paper (drawing, watercolor, gouache, or collage) that reflects on the theme of “otherness.” Fritz Ascher’s art and/or life will be the inspiration for the submission.

The winners of the competition will receive cash prizes and will be celebrated at an awards ceremony and reception on Monday, May 4, 2020, 6 p.m., at the Modlin Center for the Arts, University of Richmond.  The winning entries will be exhibited for the program.

The jurors for the competition are Ori Z. Soltes and Rachel Stern, Fritz Ascher Society, and Richard Waller, Executive Director, University of Richmond Museums. The exhibition and programs are made possible in part with funds from the Louis S. Booth Arts Fund, Allianz Partners, Goethe Institut, and the Fritz Ascher Society.

Send submissions to:

The Fritz Ascher Society
Attention: Rachel Stern
121 Bennett Avenue, Suite 12A
New York, New York 10033

For questions and text submissions: info@fritzaschersociety.org

The University Museums offer free tours for high school classes interested in visiting the exhibition.  To book a tour, contact Martha Wright at mwright3@richmond.edu or call 804-287-1258.

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