December 16, 2004

Identity Activities

One of the primary modes/models of learning in our class has been the practice of reflecting in advance on a defined topic and then reflecting together in a small group in the classroom. Given how much time we spent in these conversations, it was evident that this learning style was being given a high priority.

This pedagogical approach is a distinct contrast to my seminar work in my home department and other departments. The topic of our course—literacy and identity—has been intentionally integrated into the culture and structure of the class. Our identity—or many facets of our identity—have been central to the conversations. In a sense, we have put our money where our mouth is: if identity is such an vital concept in learning, then our personal identities should be a part of our learning about identity as a sort of theoretical position. Often our courses are designed in such a way that leaves a tremendous gulf between the concept(s) and the pedagogy. For example, a seminar that explores Marxist ideals of labor and material may never stop to examine the kind of labor being produced in the seminar, the relationship between student and teacher, the materialistic trappings of the class and its members, the bourgeois values of the class and the university culture, and the irony in the terminology of meeting weekly in an exclusive, privileged “class” given the Marxist attention to class consciousness.

However, for all the focus and attention on our own identities throughout the semester, we have lacked a conscious dialogue about the fact that in studying identity and literacy we were practicing identity and literacy as a means to that study. For example, we never discussed how writing in these journals shaped our sense of identity. For me the intellectual and literate work of sitting down to write these—knowing that I would share them with a peer and an instructor and post them publicly, as well—did a great deal to shape and reshape my identity anew and in new ways. In many cases, I was writing for the first time about my experiences and identities. It was clear that this literate act was doing a lot of work. We also never discussed what it meant to write for a (semi)public audience rather than writing in a personal, confidential diary.

In the concepts we have covered in the class, I am interested in considering classroom uses of the figured world idea put forward by Holland, et al. I think introducing students to that model would provide a useful tool to consider cultural, fictional, social, and political structures in a way that encourages critical distance that in turn promotes critical thinking. Inasmuch as I ask my students to read texts that are unfamiliar to them (19th century American or British writing, for example, as well as more contemporary “multicultural” literature) trying to frame the text in a description of a figured world could be a powerful way to begin an extended conversation about a particular work of literature. I will have to look elsewhere for an approachable text (the Holland text is probably a bit too expansive and complicated for first- and second-year students), but I think that students would readily grasp the idea and be able to apply it to a variety of contexts.

The research texts that we have read provide my first insight into empirical research methods of literacy and identity. While I doubt that I will embrace the methodologies of education research, I think that many of the lenses the authors develop in analyzing their data are very useful. The identification of narratives that informs Rymes’ study could obviously be useful to any teacher who can listen carefully to the conversations of students about the class, about their college experience, about the readings, or about their lives and identity that may extend beyond the academic environment. If I can identify some typical, repeated narratives of students it will be useful to evaluate some of the attitudes and learning of my classes and will also provide avenues of entry for discussion about topics that surface in their narrative construction.

The way that Kelly deals with popular media and the construction of (alternative) youth culture and identity is also useful, I think to my teaching. At the foundation of Kelly’s work is an intense attention paid to the actual pop culture/media forces at work in her students’ lives. If a teacher can always stay in touch to some degree with the “figured world” of her students, the possibility to have richer connections and conversations in class and class assignments is magnified many times over. The use of popular media, including films, music, web content, and television, can complement the more “traditional” literary texts and provide a springboard for students to engage with the literature. Her observations about “borrowed” identities might also provide a way to encourage the possibility of student readers being willing to “borrow” the cultural world of literary texts. This might be a stretch, but if Caribbean Canadians can “borrow” African American popular culture, than perhaps Minnesota college students can “borrow” Colonial Puritanism for a few weeks. Now that I actually write it down, it sounds like a potentially dangerous project that could encourage caricatures and stereotypes instead of more complete considering of the complexities of certain identities. On second thought, I think I’ll steer clear of that idea.

Posted by ogde0004 at December 16, 2004 11:59 AM