This is a beautifully complex topic; so much so that it causes me some hesitation writing about it in a concise way. Then again, isn’t that one of the functions of a blog?
The core of the provoking questions site I work on is, in large part, one of mining our identities as educators (instructors, learning facilitators, coaches, co-learners, etc.).
The terms we use tell us a lot about how we conceive of our roles and ourselves within those roles for better or worse. Two dangers I see are over-simplification and rigidity. These are at the core of what I am reflecting on today. Stated interrogatively:
To what extent can my academic identity be an obstacle to deep learning for my students and myself?
Last week I was participating in the VCU Institute on Inclusive Teaching. The second day had Quentin Alexander and Zewelanji Serpell speak on “Stereotype Threat and Solo Status in the Classroom.” The conversation was organized around identity. Our first activity was to think of 3 words (maybe 4) that each of us consider our individual identity labels, then we shared our descriptors with a partner. This is really difficult because I see life (our lives and my life) as complex. It’s tough to simplify. Are there words that speak to the core of who I am or how I see myself? Is there a core? It turns out that many people had difficulty. Nonetheless, patterns emerged in the ensuing discussion.
People largely discussed their real-world identities in terms of familial status (father, grandmother, sister, etc), professional status (professor, lawyer, etc.) and social status/sub-group (religious affiliation, friend, dancer, musician, conservationist, etc.). One of the goals of this activity was to highlight similarities among individuals. Another goal was to expose the dangers of over-simplification and labeling. As I work on this question, I am also revisiting a book I blogged about here by James Paul Gee. Yesterday, I began rethinking this experience in light of Gee’s three identities framework.
Gee has a chapter entitled “Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be half elf?” One purpose of the chapter is to unravel the complex relationships between our virtual identities (Our Roles -context dependent- e.g. video game characters we play or “student as scientist“), our real-world identities (Our Status (whole self) – e.g. familial, professional, social, academic = “learner as scientist”), and our projective identities (Our Desires/Aspirations – the projection of our values and desires onto the virtual identity = learner as scientist). Another purpose is to explore the extent to which the various ways we might interface or manage these identities in context can point to learning principles that can be a guide for crafting deep learning experiences for students. For example: The Identity Principle: “Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (p. 64). I reread this yesterday and made a connection.
Of course, my thinking went directly to how faculty learn and its implications for crafting faculty development experiences.
Our sense of self can be empowering and inhibiting. So much depends on experience (as the scholarship on adult learning has taught us) and so much depends on context (a big shout out to sociology, psychology and behavioral economics to name a few). I want to focus on a few barriers here.
How do we know when the identity we project in the classroom acts as an obstacle to deep learning? We can apply this question to our students learning as well as our own. I’ll try to parse them out.
I am reminded of Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. In a sense, Goffman makes the case that the identities we want (projective) manifest themselves in the varied contexts of our lives and to various degrees. In other words, our projective identities function at the confluence of our virtual and real-world identities. Abstract enough? What does this look like, and what are some of the challenges?
If we want students to respect us, we might begin the semester establishing credibility. We list our credentials, our publications, and emphasize anything that might make us look smart. According to VCU’s Faedah Totah & Emily Williams IIT presentation – “Stereotype Threat and the Instructor” – female professors tend to spend more time establishing credibility than do their male counterparts. This is due, in part, to the tendency of students to erroneously stereotype female instructors as less capable or intelligent. Unfortunately, Totah and Williams argued that there is a sense in which establishing credibility reinforces prejudicial thinking on the part of students. Similar assumptions (often built and reinforced by past experiences) in this context are found in younger faculty. both female and male, and in those who are not in the racial majority.
Our real world identities (gender, age and race) influence our virtual identities (the role as the professor). Both are affected by our projective identities: Who do we want to be? How do I want other so see me?
Another example that I hear often is related to credibility, but involves our expectations for performance. We call it “rigor.” Our real world identity as former students, at which professors were very successful, informs our virtual identity as the rigorous professor that is fused with assumptions and values of what intellectual work looks like and what the intellectually disciplined should do. (Side note: “should” is an indicator of a prescriptive assumption that declares our views of what the world ought to look like and how it ought to function).
How can our identity as the “rigorous instructor” create problems? Simply stated: know your context. For example, I spoke with a young professor once who said “I did it, why can’t they?” She was complaining about her students’ poor performance and general lack of intellectual discipline and grit. Interestingly enough, this instructor graduated with a Ph.D. from and ivy league school, in mathematics, and is a female. She is the statistical anomaly, yet she projected her life experiences as a learner on a population who were in an open enrollment urban university with a high minority population. In essence, her assumptions about learning did not match the reality of the population she served. Consequently, she could not communicate effectively with students, which limited her pedagogical options. Our task was to expand those options appropriate to context while not grossly compromising her values of academic rigor.
So much of faculty development is about self-exploration. I have integrated the exploration of our instructor identities in every workshop/seminar that addresses topics of crafting and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for students for at least the last five years. Of course, there are many approaches and methods for mining what I see as a very rich source of information.
3 Brief Examples (there are many more)
- I’ve challenged instructors to mine their personal intellectual history (e.g. how they have come to think critically) as a guide to pedagogical methods. We’ve even done this a couple times using a technology like Timeline JS. I then showed them how my students use the same software to log their intellectual journeys as part of their portfolios.
- I’ve facilitated learning experiences that utilized art and poem as a window into exploring fears and aprehensions. For example, the Pablo Neruda’s poem entitled “We Are Many” has proven very useful for this goal.
- I’ve even had instructors complete the same activity I have my undergraduate students make on the first day of class: Make two lists that complete the following sentences: “The teacher’s job is…” and “The student’s job is…” We then analyze the lists to highlight the assumptions we project on the learning roles and, therefore, expected behaviors.
Such approaches target our identities; our sense of self – virtual, real world or projective. If faculty development does not have space for self exploration, then can we expect transformative pedagogy? Create relationships, build on strengths, and challenge for growth.
Moreover, without a vision or concept of my professional growth, I doubt that I will be able to transfer those experiences into classroom practice. Just as important, will I have a clear conception of my journey or evolution as an instructor? If not, how can I plan? Hmmmmm…
So, who am I? What is my instructor self? I want to see myself as aware, flexible, disciplined and exciting. My identity has evolved from one of “cool new guy” to “establishing credibility” to now (17 years later) one of a provocateur who challenges students assumptions to develop richer world views, skills and dispositions. I would like to identify my teaching self as a craftsman: intentional, planned, problem solver, present, who acts with love and respects the process. However, I fall short because it’s more than that. I want to be a co-learner: curious, humble, disciplined, and hungry for more knowledge. However, I fall short because teaching seems so much more complex at times. So, who am I? I’m still working on that. I have moments of clarity.
Another way to think about it, a little intellectually playful, is to look at it through the lens of a question: What’s your teaching super hero power? What’s mine, and what does that say about who I am, the roles I play, and what I want to be?