of Personal Identity
by John Baughman
variables influence an individual student's behaviors and attitudes. These
categories of identity include, but are not limited to, characteristics
such as gender, race, ethnic group, social class, region of origin, religion,
and level of ability. We need to be careful, of course, that generalizations
about our students' behavior do not substitute one set of assumptions
for another. Although groups who have characteristics in common often
share norms of behavior, attitudes, or speaking styles, not every person
endorses these views. It is important to remember that some "[m]inority
groups draw great strength and character from racial, religious, or national
solidarity" (Brookfield and Preskill 131), but that not all members
of these groups identify with them. Some people of color, for example,
do not experience strong cultural affiliations, and many biracial students
prefer not to identify with a particular race. Furthermore, even those
who do identify with a particular group will not share the same thoughts
or actions. Assuming all members of a group think alike robs people of
though the following sections focus on issues particular to certain groups,
we do not mean to suggest that homogeneity exists within any of these
groups. The complexity of ethnic groups in the US challenges concepts
such as ethnic learning styles or the ability to identify racial or ethnic
group membership by physical characteristics or behavior (Banks 155).
Rather than assuming that our students learn in only one style or another,
we need to learn to recognize the differing ways in which students learn.
By structuring our classes to include a variety of modes of learning,
all the students in the course will be able to learn effectively. Being
aware of some of the issues facing members of particular groups helps
make us sensitive to the pressures faced by many students while treating
each student as a whole person rather than as a stereotype.
and multiracial student population is increasing significantly, as are
all groups of color. In fact, if current trends continue, the US Census
projects that groups of color will make up about 47% of the nation's population
by 2050 (Banks xxi). The categories of race and ethnicity apply to more
than just students of color, however. All students enter the classroom
with an ethnic and racial identity, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Even though "race" is a contested term biologically, it is still
used in daily interactions as a way to "categorize people according
to certain visual or accented language traits to 'mark' them as racially/ethnically
distinct" (Tatum 4). Given the social history of the United States,
we cannot quickly discount "race" as a special factor in some
of our students' development. All of our students bring their histories
into our classrooms. Some of these histories can be problematic, because
for many people of color "racism and cultural bigotry remain pervasive"
(Brookfield and Preskill 129).
often stressful for students of color on predominantly white campuses.
Many times the power and presence of racism in this setting is underestimated
(Tatum 77). People of color often feel overlooked, made representative
for their race or ethnic group, or attacked personally or by association,
while whiteness remains an invisible or normative category. Research even
indicates that many instructors "communicate negative feelings to
students of color and have a disproportionate number of negative verbal
and nonverbal interactions with them" (Haberman; Irvine; Zeichner
& Hoeft). These negative interactions include ignoring students of
color, challenging them less often during discussion or problem-solving
sessions, counseling them to take less-advanced courses in mathematics
or science, and even accusing those who do well of cheating (a phenomenon
also known as "spotlighting"). Such lack of attention and lower
expectations from a succession of teachers can cause students of color
to feel alienated from their academic environment and to have diminished
confidence in their abilities.
to combat these feelings of alienation, isolation or tokenism is to establish
positive facultystudent relations with all of your students. Studies indicate
that "relationships with faculty are one of the most effective predictors
of student outcomes" for black students on largely white campuses
(Watson 79). Positive relationships lead to lower levels of alienation
and higher retention and graduation rates. Another way to create a supportive
environment is to acknowledge and address differences in the classroom
and provide course material or examples that draw from a wide variety
of cultures and experiences. Color-blindness is not the goal of a multicultural
education, but awareness and appreciation of unique individuals is. As
mentioned earlier, it is also important to realize that vast differences
exist between the various cultures lumped together under such words as
"ethnic," "minority," or "students of color."
All African-American students, for example, do not know each other, nor
do they all speak alike, think alike, or have similar life experiences.
Similarly, Asian-American students may exhibit very different reactions
and backgrounds than African-American students. Student behaviors or attitudes
may also differ widely according to gender, social class, their specific
cultural group, and even how long ago their families immigrated to the
To a learner
whose home culture differs from the one dominant in many university classrooms,
unspoken expectations of classroom interaction and communication-how one
gets the floor, shows deference, concurs or disagrees, etc.-may seem confusing,
alienating, or unfair. If we remain unaware of such possible cultural
influences, they can cause misunderstandings in the classroom. For example,
in many cultures (including Asian and Latino/a), silence before one's
superiors, indirection in expressing one's thoughts, and avoiding direct
eye contact all signal respect for authority. Students from such cultures
may hesitate to speak out in class, to address the teacher's ideas directly,
or to state strongly their ideas in writing. Thus, a professor might consider
a Latino student who avoids eye contact during discussion as "apathetic"
or "indifferent," while the student might simply be conforming
to culturally delineated patterns of respect (Collett 178). On the other
hand, the teacher's continued eye contact, meant to elicit comments or
signal interest in the student's ideas, may make the student uncomfortable
since a direct gaze could indicate either a direct confrontation (if directed
to the same sex), or an attempt at seduction (if directed between the
sexes). On neither side would the assumptions be correct. In general,
increasing your knowledge about and sensitivity to ethnic, racial, and
cultural groups other than your own will help you become a better teacher.
much research has been conducted on gender dynamics in education, we have
included this information in a separate section. See chapter II for more
on this topic.
United States, social class remains an unspoken, largely invisible social
characteristic (Brookfield and Preskill 143). The American myth of a classless
society, where the issue of class is forgotten or is subsumed under issues
of race, often holds sway at universities as well. At U.Va., in-state
students who transfer from Piedmont Virginia Community College and other
local two-year community colleges and who come from working-class backgrounds
comprise an easily overlooked underrepresented group. Such students, who
may be slightly older than their counterparts, often perceive a difference
between their class origins and identities and those of many of their
instructors and peers. As a result, many working-class students suffer
from anxiety over whether their performance in this new environment is
adequate, from feelings of condescension from other students, and from
feelings of social and academic isolation. By contrast, students with
middle-class upbringings are often the least aware of class status, have
a better sense of how to negotiate the university system, and tend to
assume that if they work hard they will succeed (Warren 1998, 1).
the educational quality of American high schools varies widely according
to geographical location, which is itself tied to class, some rural or
inner-city students may enter our classrooms less educationally experienced
and with less confidence in their abilities than other students. To respond
effectively to such students, we must understand their lack of experience
as an effect of class and school quality and as the reflection of a lack
of educational experience, not of inherent ability. Because most instructors,
even those who also come from a working-class background, hold an "idea
of appropriate forms of classroom discourse
much closer to middle-class
than working-class norms" (Brookfield and Preskill 145), they may
rely on academic conventions or forms of speech that are disorienting
and even intimidating to working-class students. One way to relieve student
anxiety is to acknowledge and encourage a wide range of speaking forms,
while being explicit about codes of discourse you or other students find
offensive or too informal (e.g., excessive cursing, unfamiliar slang,
etc.). Most importantly, don't mock, even affectionately, a student's
preferred mode of talking. Other ways to address class-based differences
include the following (Warren):
students learn "how to play the game." Be very explicit
about rules of operation and norms for your class and for the university.
- Let students
know how their work ranks,
why it is adequate or not (or why some of the work is adequate and some
is not), and what you think they can do in the future.
and discuss class differences.
Point out value-laden language or class-based differences in discussion.
is easy to ignore the presence of what Laurie Crumpacker calls the "invisible
minority" of gay and lesbian students in our classrooms (qtd. in
Chism 26), since such students must choose whether to make their orientation
known to us and their classmates. This very choice is both the product
and the source of special difficulties. Lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual,
and questioning students face overt hostility and rejection and the perpetuation
of sexual stereotypes. To complicate matters further, this hostile climate
exists while students may be struggling to come to terms with their sexual
identities. No matter when such students may have discovered their sexual
identity, they face the particular difficulty of "coming out"
in a potentially hostile college environment, a social environment that
still condones prejudiced remarks about sexual orientation that it no
longer condones about race or gender. Techniques such as these can help
you create a supportive environment for students:
assume that all students are heterosexual.
give assignments that force lesbian and gay students either to lie or
to "come out" to the class. For example, in courses that
use personal essays or discuss personal experience, be cautious about
giving assignments or calling on students in a way that forces them
to describe their social life (such as "Describe your ideal date"
or asking a female student to "tell me about your boyfriend"
or a male student to "tell me about your girlfriend"). If
you do give such an assignment, give an alternative topic as well.
ignore homophobic remarks made in your classroom. In class, students
may make remarks concerning sexual orientation that they would never
make concerning race or gender. Such a reaction seems to be particularly
common in firstyear students and can occur more often in certain disciplines
(such as psychology, English composition, and foreign language) where
students' personal reactions to controversial subjects are often discussed.
A less explicit uneasiness about issues of sexual orientation may also
occur. Students may balk, for instance, at discussing texts that contain
the term "lesbian" or that discuss gay issues. Ignoring such
comments only perpetuates the problem. Instead, explain in clear terms
why you find such comments objectionable or engage the class in a brief
discussion about the negative effects such comments may have. For more
tips on how to deal with a discussion that becomes heated or out of
hand, see chapter IV, "Dealing with Conflicts."
racial and ethnic diversity of our society brings with it an increasing
religious diversity. Many religious students go through their college
years feeling at odds with the basic structure of their institutions.
For example, while universities tend to be closed on important Christian
holidays, such as Christmas, almost all universities hold classes on the
important religious holidays of non-Christian students, such as the Eid
ul Fitr at the end of Ramadan or Yom Kippur. It is usually up to faculty
and TAs to make individual arrangements in order not to place students
who wish to attend services on these days at an inherent disadvantage.
To relieve this problem, make it clear that you will honor important religious
holidays without lowering your attendance standards. You can consult the
Interfaith Calendar website (www.interfaithcalendar.org) for schedules
of religious holidays to locate ones that occur during instructional time.
You might also announce in your syllabus that students who ask to miss
classes because of important religious holidays will not be penalized,
but that they must notify you well ahead of time and make up the work.
differences, as well as the general differences between non-religious
and religious students, reflect one of the deepest divisions in contemporary
American society and one of the most problematic for the college classroom.
Such splits occur throughout the university but are particularly apparent
in disciplines such as philosophy and religious studies. Since religious
beliefs (along with many fundamental beliefs that people hold dear) cannot
be proven by the strict bounds of logic, how do we talk about them in
our classrooms? What do we do, for instance, when a student's faith collides
with the material presented? Such difficult questions may never be easily
addressed. Yet if we acknowledge such differing viewpoints, we can become
more effective teachers. We can lead our students through one of the most
difficult, but most important, issues in the diverse classroom-how to
acknowledge and respectfully examine vastly different beliefs. As you
prepare to do so, consider the following suggestions:
criticize any religion or religious belief if such criticism is not
important to the course material. When it is, use a tone and choice
of words that show respect for those who hold those beliefs or practice
possible, allow your students alternate but equivalent assignments on
topics that might offend them.
For instance, examples of contemporary student behavior that assume
all students are sexually active may offend those celibate for cultural
or religious reasons. Similarly, the type of assignment discussed in
the section on sexual orientation, such as "describe your ideal
date," can also produce anxiety or resistance in religious students
from cultures where dating is uncommon (such as traditional Islamic
a clear distinction for your students between faith and proof. Acknowledge
students' beliefs in subjects they feel strongly about, but challenge
unwarranted or illogical assumptions.
dialogue and collaborative thinking. Try using the word "suppose"
(or words to that effect) to introduce ideas that might seem challenging
to some students' belief systems and to keep the conversation open.