What good is identity?

Reading about the various methods of identity construction people use has been perplexing. I have a tendency to try and directly apply what the theory we are studying to a hypothetical classroom, and it was initially difficult to see the specifics of how knowing students’ histories will change the types of assignments I would give or the teaching approach I would take; how would I move beyond the problem of just having students type a five paragraph essay on Moby Dick on a computer instead and declaring them to have technological literacy.

I’m not sure I have a good answer yet. But to start, although this may be too simplistic, I see identity and literacy issues as fodder for the types of class discussions about situatedness that we have read about from many different theorists. I used to see my own reading and writing practices apolitical and closed for debate. I never used to think that my appreciation of classical Western literature was informed by any specific value system; Shakespeare was simply what I should be studying; Watchmen was just for fun. But graduate school has forced me to change my world view and start looking at the ways everything I do carries some sort of loaded meaning, and our job as teachers may be to get students to understand this. This brings students personal histories into the mix, and technology is an increasingly important part of most students’ personal histories.

Learning to see this way is It seems like demonstrating how these experiences are value-laden is the window into using students’ understandings of technology and identity. I may be speculating wildly here, but it seems likely that until they are questioned about it, many people may not see technology use as something that carries “values” with it. Knowing how to appropriately respond to your friend’s Facebook status and embed videos in the comment sections of blog posts doesn’t seem like it has any relation to a debate on health care reform. But examining how you respond to your friends, what kinds of videos you post, and how your economic, social, and historical situatedness has allowed you to do engage in those activities can make connections in ways that our students may not have seen before. And it is seeing literacy as Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe define it, something where “the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices–cultural, social, political, and educational” are relevant, that can help us to use this.

A recent New York Times article touched briefly some of these new values, many of which we have brought up in our own class discussions. As the personal technological literacy histories we read this week have shown us, people who have grown up surrounded by technology may take their access to it for granted, while those who have not may see it more vividly as a kind of gatekeeping entity, granting and denying access. This provides a perspective that I, for instance, was not conscious of while I was learning to use a computer so I could download pictures of the Millenium Falcon.

And further, those groupings offer traction for students to question their relationships to entities like the university. Cynthia Selfe’s “Students Who Teach Us” chapter in Writing New Media mentions Freire’s notion of “teacher-students with students-teachers,” which carries with it packed ideas of decentering power in the classroom. Technological literacy, when students may know more than we do, not only upsets the “traditional” teacher-student power relationship, it demonstrates how much power this previously ignored knowledge can have. I am not sure how well personal tech histories would work as assignments in an undergraduate writing classroom, but as we have discussed in class, it may be a way to introduce students to these difficult concepts.

I appreciate what bonnetj and Lothlorien have said about how to actually use these technologies in the classroom. As I mentioned, my slightly conservative tendencies make me bristle at the thought of trying to evaluate a purely-visual composition with other standard essays, but I like the idea of using electronic, hypertextual resources that still require writing. It might not be a world-upending revolution, but it offers a way to see how identities can be used in a practical way.

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3 comments on “What good is identity?

  1. Mark,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on identity this week because I think that our specific group of graduate peers has had a lot of new concepts placed at our feet in the last couple of years. While theory appears to change slowly in the Humanities field, the introduction of technology into the writing classroom has been a bit abrupt for some of us. Asking students to assume an identity in their written work has been a hard enough task for the last 20 years or so and now as teachers we have to incorporate the addition of a digital identity, even when we may have not yet developed one of our own.

    Accepting that the writing classroom has moved beyond Moby Dick and now incorporates The Watchmen as intellectual fodder is a big change. Now we have to take into consideration how a student responding on facebook is a medium into how they might respond to an essay or during an in class response. Lothlorien and bonnetj both pointed toward the question, as teachers how far are we asked to go to “identify” the identity of our students?

    I think the addition of a digital identity complicates the writing classroom because students are already being asked to create an identity for the classroom itself and often find a different “voice” or identity in their essay writing. When people interact socially online they are creating yet another identity that we are asking them to bring into the writing classroom and to negotiate each of these to create a written graded assignment. This quote stuck out to me in the readings this week, “More significantly, he suggests that back-stage behavior is somehow more authentic, or closer to the truth of the individual’s real identity, which appears to imply that front-stage behavior is somehow less sincere or less honest. This could be seen to neglect the extent to which all social interaction is a kind of performance.” There are aspects of our personalities and identities that we allow to be shown at different times and we are constantly navigating through them to decide what and when and how much is appropriate in any of the spaces that we interact in. What we present to the outside world may not be truly authentic to the person that we believe we are inside but rather the persona we assume for the public. We have all been placed in this situation with the use of “street” language and “academic” language. Incorporating so many things into the writing classroom is not only difficult for us as teachers entering the field but also for students just beginning on a journey of their own, often with a lot of identity baggage in tow.

  2. Good points! Even if we see students as having distinct “student” identities, they don’t always warm to that assessment or way of thinking about the world. It reminded me that one of the reasons we read the Introduction to Identity article is that many people do see identity as sort of monolithic and relatively static (at least past a certain age).

    And to take the notion of revealing certain parts of ourselves in certain contexts, if we’re talking about the creation and maintenance of identity, I think it would be worthwhile to look at places where people explicitly assume identities. With Facebook and MySpace, there is the sense that you really are trying to convey the “essential” you, however flawed that assumption may be. But with something like Second Life, you’re creating something that reflect your common behavior or may have little to do with how you normally act. It can be about ways of trying on new personas, or enacting aspects of your personality you don’t normally reveal (but are no less a part of “you”) through clothing choices, in-game “jobs,” or the choices you make when interacting with other people. Also, you can fly.

    And on a side note, I feel I should clear this up right now–I have read Watchmen, while I have not, in fact, read Moby Dick.

  3. Pingback: These are a Few of My Favorite Posts (Part II) « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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