Victor Asal, Rockefeller College, University at Albany, SUNY
Students often have a hard time understanding the challenges others face in society related to identities like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. They often hear about these challenges from professors or read about them in the newspaper but that is very different then hearing about facing these challenges from their peers. In the recent virtual APSA Teaching & Learning Symposium on Teaching Race, Ethnicity, & Politics I presented an exercise that I have used for a long time in school and have published an article on that gets students to think strongly about their own identity and gives them an opportunity to hear about the identities of others and how these identities have been shaped. You can find the article on this exercise here and the PowerPoints for the exercise here.
While the article frames the exercise around ethnic conflict, I and others have used it for a wide array of classes dealing with all sorts of identities and not just in the context of classes on ethnic conflict. When running the exercise I should note first and foremost that you should tell the students that you will be asking them to write down personal information and there will be a classroom discussion after about what they have written down but you will NOT call on anyone to talk or volunteer information unless they raise their hand. This is important because some of the key identities that students have are identities that they are not at a point at which they would be willing to share and you do not want to put someone on the spot – so only call on students in this discussion who actually raise their hands.
The first step of the exercise is to ask students to write down their top five identities that make them part of a larger group – could be their race or gender or sports fan or music fan – or whatever but whatever their top five identities are that make them part of a larger group. Once they have done that, ask them to choose one identity that if they had to give one up that would be the one they would be most comfortable doing so and cross it off. Usually, students don’t have much of a problem with that. Then ask them to remove another identity. Then another. When they get down to three many students get uncomfortable. When they get down to two identities and I tell them now choose one and get rid of the other there are usually some students who say “professor, I can’t do that.” I say – you have to and in real life there are many people who are forced to. If you HAD to choose which one would it be? Choose.
Once they are down to one, I tell them that I would like to go back to all five categories and ask them if they are ok sharing to tell you the categories of all five of their topics to write them on the board so that we can see all the identities people wrote down. Across the entire class it is usually somewhere around 12-16 identities. There can then be a very productive conversation about why these identities are what people choose. I then tell them I am going to read out each identity and unless someone tells me that was their top identity I am going to cross it off. We usually get down to between 4 and 6 identities – that almost always includes race, gender, religion and very often sexuality. I then ask them why these – and that also is an interesting conversation why these are the top identities people refuse to give up. I then tell them I am going to share two stories that have shaped my identity. After I share these stories, I ask the students if they are willing to share stories of their own that shaped their own identity. Often many students are willing to share stories about their experience and you can see in the eyes of the other students how surprising some of these experiences are. Students have shared how they have been treated badly because of their race, religion, gender, sexuality ethnicity and other identities and how that shaped how they thought about themselves. I will reiterate that it is very important not to force anyone to share. I have more than once had a student come to me and tell me that they are ok sharing their identity with me but they cannot share it with their classmates.