Teaching: Mind Mapping American Bodies

Untitled mind map
A student in my course “American Bodies” thinks back critically on the class, arguing that American citizens are defined by group-specific stereotypes that create different experiences and further reinforce misconceptions:
“We discussed many different forms of bodies that have all had distinct social associations connected to them.  For the most part, white men have dominated society, always being in power and having authority over others. Those with negative social associations have always been at a disadvantage and often have been restricted, whether that be socially or under very specific laws created by those in power. We discussed how people in power have tried to regulate and restrict those below them often for nothing more than their skin color….”

In my American Studies courses I ask students to construct a mind map with an accompanying essay reflecting back on the course. The assignment aims to secretly get students to think about a structural analysis of power.

For this assignment, students were asked to reimagine the course structure by choosing a few of the course readings, films, lectures, etc. and lumping them into new categories and linking these categories and topics. It might sound a bit confusing, abstract, or a little hippie granola for you, but when executed correctly produces beautiful, thought-provoking images that evidence students reflecting critically on the course material.

First I’m going to give you the assignment basics and then I’ll share some of the best mind maps and their essays from my Spring 2015 course I designed, “Blood, Bones, and Brains: 20th Century History of American Bodies.” (You can see the syllabus for that course on my Academia.edu page.)

Assignment Basics

I show them this mind map as an example and tell them that the center of the mind map should be their overarching argument — each branch shooting out from the center should be a main theme, and then the smaller lines attached to those main theme branches should be their evidence to prove their argument. I use that mind map example because many others that you can find through Google are not intending to evidence an argument and, therefore, tend to be more descriptive brainstorming maps than a tool for visualizing a thesis.

However, unlike that mind map example linked above, students are asked to build off the main theme branches with evidence from the course. These offshoots from the main themes can be organized in whatever fashion they want. Sometimes you’ll find clear linkages and in other cases huge messy clouds of connections. A brief 1-page explanatory essay accompanies the image in order to articulate the student’s argument and evidence why those themes, offshoots, and connections/linkages were selected. Students can create these mind maps whatever way they’d like — via 3D model, video, Powerpoint, drawn by hand, or using some of these programs.


Student 1:

mind map (1)

“My mind map is divided into the three units (Turn of the Century, World War Era, and Postwar) that made up our semester.  Each unit is then divided into the topics of each class.  Lastly, I added the distinct topics and concepts that we learned in class and discovered in the readings.  In the middle of my mind map I drew a person to represent the common theme of our class, American bodies.  I made him look kind of like a super hero because I feel like everything we learned throughout the semester makes the American body; no matter skin color, shape, class, race, a superhero….”  

Student 2:


“It is not everyday when you think about people and their mindsets/values as “bodies”. When we start to think of bodies and how they are shaped and characterized by society, I realized how we start to perceive them. Bodies such as women, people of color, or those who are poor are seen as “weak”, “disabled”, and even not worth “saving”. These perceptions lead to the image they have on society. They are viewed as these things with the help of racism and sexism. Are these bodies really “free” in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave if they cannot even be seen as equal?

It was interesting to see that the typical “white, middle class male” wasn’t even deemed glorious if they were not muscular and well behaved gentleman of society. The actions that were/are taken on these people include laws, internalized/externalized judgments, and discrimination. Society chose to oppress those who weren’t fit for society. Women, people of color, and even “weak” men were oppressed without question and still are today. The progression of these topics led to dire consequences for society. Society was divided and there was a lack of trust for other groups and the government as a whole. This begs the question: “why?”. Why did we oppress and continue to oppress different groups of bodies?”

Student 3:


“The concept of the ideal body came from the readings: Modified Bodies, Bodies on Display, Regulating Bodies, and Bodies in Crisis. Each of these readings spoke about wanting to achieve the perfect or ideal body or of not having that ideal body (Regulating Bodies). Another strong theme was race. The race factor was in almost every one of our readings. It was what I would almost venture to say the main theme was of our class. It was everywhere which is appropriate since it is everywhere in everyday life….”

Student 4:


“Something that I came to understand is that the theme of Bodies on Display is perpetual, for ‘the gaze’ as you called it, is and will always be present. In this course, I was able to look at bodies from a new perspective. With my mind map I aimed to visualize essentially, how the themes we covered are interconnected. For example, a modified body is equally a body in pain and a body in conflict. Women who would change their images whether through make up, breast implants, or vaginal reconstruction (a topic covered in another class), would initially be bodies in a state of conflict, torn between what they believed to be true beauty and ugliness. Simultaneous they would be a body in pain, for just about all the modification process that we talked about came at some cost or risk….”

Student 5:


This student divided their mind map into quadrants: “When I went to first create my mind map, I knew I definitely wanted there to be certain divisions of demographics and then I wanted to place the readings, that related to that aspect of the body, into that category. I chose to divide the course into four different categories: race, class, gender, and able-bodies. Although these are just a few of many demographics, I feel like the readings fit nicely and evenly into those categories. While I have placed all of these readings into specific categories, they definitely, without question, overlap with one another in more ways than one. After dividing the readings into their corresponding areas of concentration, I then wrote a phrase arrowed off of the reading that explained one prominent aspect of the reading….”


Ultimately, the assignment worked pretty well in getting students to explore the relationship between group identities and intersectionality. Having recently spoken with Julian Chambliss about his use of infographics in the classroom almost as research reports, I’m determined to find new ways of incorporating visual and experiential modes of communication and critical thinking into courses that moves beyond strictly reading and writing. Have other ideas?  Share them with me!


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