The Work of Education is the Loosening of Identity-Formations

I take my cues on the nature of identity-formations from my area of intellectual expertise, Buddhist philosophy. One concept that appears early in Buddhist thought, and that gets extrapolated in many different ways over the course of Buddhist intellectual history, is called the “conceit I-am” or, in layperson’s terms, the notion that “I am that.” In technical Buddhist thought, the that is limited in certain ways, but for the purposes of thinking about identity and talking to my students about this concept, I expand it to almost anything: rich, poor, black, white, man, woman, a music-lover, a writer, an athlete, a city-boy, a country-boy, a techie, a lefty, a conservative, a good person, an ambitious person, a top student, a slacker, pro-Israel, pro-BDS, etc.

This concept – “I am that” – is supposed to capture two features of identity-formations: first, while they can be and frequently are stated forthrightly, a true identity formation actually occurs pre-consciously and thus shapes our conscious reception of perceptions and thoughts; and second that, as conceits, they are constructs rather than realities. My twofold goal for students in all of my classes tracks these two features: first, to have the experience of seeing, as it is happening, a pre-conscious identity-formation in the process of shaping their perceptions and cognitions, and second to see an identity-formation as a construction, and not as a simple reality. I take these goals as central to a liberal education because these practices are what train someone to live not just tolerantly but empathetically in a diverse and democratic society, able to hold the tension of opposites long enough to see the truth in another’s position, while yet discerning what is right and arriving at one’s own position.

identityNow all of this may sound mighty abstract. Our topic is a hot-button one: identity itself. So where is the heat? The answer is in the sign. I tell my students that the sign of the presence of an identity-formation is usually fiery: tightness and burning in the chest, defensiveness, anger, or hostile silence, guilt, and the urge to flee, etc. Whenever they feel any of these, there is a chance that one of their identity-formations is being challenged.* Challenging an identity-formation is the only way to work on it; the long road to being able to hold the tension of opposites begins with a simple challenge.

There is a terrible danger accompanying this project, which is that the concept of identity-formations and the necessity of loosening them will serve as a cloak for the further silencing of already marginalized identities, which in turn serves as a cloak for the continued entrenchment of a dominant identity. Indeed the other sort of interaction that spurs bodily feelings like those described above is oppression itself – having others first foist a marginalized identity-formation onto one and then exploit the existing power hierarchy to engage in active marginalization. There are a few ways I work to make sure that as a teacher and authority figure I don’t feed into this. The key one is just to practice discerning between the two kinds of identity work: the kind that breaks down identity-formations, and the kind that asks people with marginalized identities to ignore their own marginalization.

The fact that identity-formations are signified by these bodily feelings is an indicator of the relationship between identity and identity formation: I can be a person with skin we call white without having these bodily feelings of defensiveness, guilt or anger when the topic if white racial domination comes up. In other words, one can have an identity without being captive to it as a formation. The ultimate goal is not for students to be free of identities; it is for them to be free of identity-formations. This is an ambitious goal, and I do not expect it ever to actually be achieved in my classroom. I just hope to move the process forward a bit.

The rubber meets the road on all of this in actual classroom settings, with actual students. But because classrooms and student populations are so diverse it is impractical to prescribe one set of techniques for a classroom teacher to use when trying to achieve the goals described above. There is one guiding principle that I know to be true: if a teacher has not done thorough identity-work on herself, if she has not tracked down, named and at least loosened if not dispatched her own identity-formations, then she will not be able to guide students in that process. In my experience, the disposition of openness that results from having done this work is palpable to students, and they respond with openness of their own, whether through speaking openly in class or, which is more likely, in their writing or in visits to one’s office to talk about an issue on their minds.

But here are some other points about working with identity that I rely on. These are largely tailored by my time teaching in predominantly white college and university settings in which most of the students are from middle or upper economic classes. Some of these points may therefore be irrelevant to teachers in other kinds of classrooms, though I hope that the foregoing reflections are not.

  • Let the coursework guide the identity work. Students should first be challenged by the course readings, not by the professor. This doesn’t mean that the professor is passive in the face of identity-issues; it means those issues are built into the syllabus.
  • Build those issues into the syllabus. Off-handed remarks in the classroom do not make up for the failure to think through identity in the syllabus and the curriculum. Some kinds of classes are more conducive to this than others, and sometimes even though the identity issues are there in the syllabus and readings, the professor has to do a lot of work to get the students to pay attention to them, as many students will have the tendency (especially if they are from dominant racial, gender, economic, etc. classes) to avoid these issues if at all possible.
  • Challenge ready-made truisms. In my context, this means challenging ready-made liberal truisms. It doesn’t matter if I myself think some view that is expressed is largely correct. The student still needs to both understand his/her idea better and learn how to encounter opposition without melting down or clamming up.
  • Model not being afraid to talk about identity. This is necessary in classrooms full of white students who have been assiduously trained by white culture not to reference their own whiteness. Depending on the white student’s own experiences, it may be absolutely transformative for him/her just to hear a teacher she perceives as white reference her own whiteness and how that has shaped her experiences. From this the student learns that whiteness is made, not born, and can start to understand how it has been made in her.
  • Be willing to be inadequate or wrong. Develop a confident way to say “Thank you for that point, I had not thought about it in those terms” when a student points out something about identity that destabilizes you. The students may have a whole range of reactions to this admission (well you should have thought about that!, or, how could you not have known that!) but I have found both in my life as a student and my life as a teacher that students are very willing to be generous when their teachers are and that, more importantly, the only want to handle being wrong or caught off guard with integrity is to admit it.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, exercise a preferential option for the marginalized. This can mean a lot of things, though there is one thing it most certainly does not mean: I don’t lower my academic standards or expectations for students I perceive to be marginalized. But what does it mean? For my context, the best way to do this is to flip the issue: at the level of the syllabus I work to bring the margins to the center, but at the level of classroom space, I work to bring the center to the margins. By this I mean I just work to challenge the reigning assumptions of the identities that have been centralized.    


* Robin DiAngelo’s account of the defensive moves of a white person whose white fragility has been triggered is a good example of this kind of responsiveness within the context of a racial identity-formation. See Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) p. 57 and passim.


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