Group Identity (Part Two)

Movie poster for Absence of Malice, a movie I discuss later in this post.

In the first installment of this series discussing group identity on college campuses, I provided some background information on my history and background of the speech I gave in 2007 on the same topic. 

In Part Two, I provide information on the college where I was tenured at the time. I think that is important to the story because what was happening there seemed pretty extreme fifteen – twenty years ago. Today, such practices are mainstream in academia. But why was this particular 7,000-student college, tucked in the foothills of San Gabriel Mountains, at the forefront of identity politics?

I also introduce the first problem with a focus on group identity: the inability to develop relationships. 

Again, I will rewrite the speech, interrupting periodically with my current comments about what I wrote so long ago.

*****

First, relationships become nearly impossible to develop.

I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t the original intention. After all, a famous strategy of those in power is “divide and conquer.” In fact, the college administration purposely created such an environment among the faculty. It started after a ten-year budget crisis.

(speech)

I do feel compelled to go off on a tangent and discuss this ten-year budget “crises.” I didn’t follow politics very closely back then, so for the most part, the only information I had came from the college administration. And every school year began with a campuswide meeting lamenting the distressing status of the college budget, which was directly tied to the health of the California state budget. The claim at the start of each year was that we had no money. This was followed by a discussion of where budgets would need to be cut across campus, which basically included every department. It was also explained that there was no money for any new academic programs, any learning-centered innovations, any student services.

The first year this happened, we all understood and did the best we could do to decrease costs in the English Department. Any plans that we had developed for new courses, programs for remediation, and support services for struggling students would be put on hold for better days.

At the end of each school year, the campuswide meeting would include a celebratory speech about how the budget hadn’t been nearly as bad as previously thought. In fact, the school was running millions of dollars in the black, leaving money available for the administration to quickly spend as they saw fit. After all, the best way to retain a budget from year to year is to spend every last cent, proving the money is necessary.

That might be believable the first year, the second year, and maybe even the third year. But at some point, the narrative was so predictable that the presence of any “crisis” became completely unbelievable. (Sound familiar?!) 

During those same years, the college placed a freeze on all full-time faculty employment. Note I said faculty. During this time period, plenty of administrators were hired. However, the increasing enrollment and number of classes that were offered required more faculty to teach those classes. This meant we were only given the ability to hire part-time instructors. Or rather, hire adjunct instructors. At some time in my career, the term “part time” became politically incorrect, and we were told we must call such employees “adjuncts.” Apparently, calling someone a part-time instructor was offensive, despite the fact that they work “part time” and that they are fully aware they work “part time.” Of course, today, if you look up the definition of adjunct instructor, the dictionary states it is “a part-time instructor.” They are identical.

During this time period, and maybe even still, a state policy required colleges to maintain a ratio of 7 to 3, full-time to part-time faculty members. If a college did not achieve that ratio, severe budget cuts would be the consequence. However, I don’t think in the many years I taught there that we ever reached that ratio. Instead, in the English Department, we had four full-time faculty and anywhere from 20 to 30 part-time fac… pardon me, adjunct faculty. Yet our college budget was never once penalized.

I bring this up because having the majority of college classes taught by adjunct vs full time faculty is detrimental to students, and not because the adjunct faculty are less qualified. They aren’t. They are just as qualified to teach as any full-time employee. 

Ironically, the original logic behind calling such employees adjuncts rather than “part time” was to make them feel more integrated into the college community. But not even a name change can integrate them into the department or even into the school. That isn’t their fault. It is by design.

For one, an adjunct instructor is limited by the union as to how many classes he or she is allowed to teach (usually two or three). This means such a person must secure positions at multiple colleges, becoming what is called in Los Angeles a “freeway flyer.” So that instructor’s experience would be to come to campus, teach the class, race back out to the parking lot, and head to the next school, leaving no time to get to know anyone or to participate in any activities at any college. And believe me, I know. I spent four years as a freeway flyer, teaching at up to four different colleges at times.

The other problem is that because adjunct instructors are paid by the class, they cannot be required to attend department meetings or any other gatherings because they are not being paid for their time. And besides, most if not all of them have other jobs, making scheduling next to impossible.

This means those faculty members are disconnected from the goals of the department, the changes in curriculum, the educational philosophy of the discipline, and even their co-workers. They basically have no influence at all on what is happening in the department. This leads to a complete lack of cohesion and consistency across classes and an indifference to the other instructors, both full time and adjunct.

Back to the speech and the idea that focus on group identity makes relationships in general more difficult.

A movie I routinely screened in my Intro to Journalism class is the 1981 film Absence of Malice

(speech)

My undergrad degree is a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. That credential allowed me to create a journalism discipline and develop two introductory classes, one an overview of the industry and one a reporting class, both of which I taught. 

It [Absence of Malice] nicely illustrates the problem with group thinking when it comes to relationships.  In it, Sally Field stars as Megan Carter, a young newspaper reporter who is “involved” with her unwitting story subject, Michael Gallagher, played by Paul Newman. When Michael comes over for dinner one night, she immediately questions whether he had prior knowledge of an unusual press conference for which he was the subject. Before he answers, he tells her, “If you ask me as a person, I’ll tell you. If you ask me as a reporter, I’ve got no comment.”

Her response? For her, there are no conversations with her as an individual, as simply Megan Carter. Her membership in a group, reporters, always trumps her existence as an individual.

So he walks out the door. It is the end of their “involvement.”

This inability of people to differentiate themselves as individuals from their membership in a group essentially destroys relationships; you no longer interact with an individual. You only interact with the group.

Just as in the case of the beautiful skirt. It never occurred to the complaining student that I was paying the compliment to this one woman, regardless of her group identity. But evidently something said to one African-American, must apply to all. And if it is being said to all African Americans, then the compliment is also being denied all other groups.

What is the lesson? Do not single out an individual for anything, not even something positive.

As I now understand much more clearly, this is especially true for something positive. Showing preference for the individual is the crime of nearly every dystopian novel or movie, from Brave New World to Anthem to The Giver. A society promising equity, where everyone is equal, or a society prioritizing collectivism, demands a deterioration of relationships between individuals. Because when we have a friend whom we love, we will prioritize them over a stranger. And the most personal relationships we form are between members of a family.

This is why dystopian novels and movies depict societies where the family structure has been destroyed. Men and women are kept separate (allowing for periodic scheduled sex to ensure the propagation of the species). Or children are taken from their mothers and raised by the state. Developing emotions for an individual is forbidden, sometimes ensured through state-administered drugs. Community members spy on and report on any individual who is not complying with the group.

It’s no surprise that totalitarian governments do the same: destroy personal relationship between individuals and demand allegiance to the group. 

And one way to do that is to declare that anything said to an individual, such as “beautiful skirt,” is a statement made, more importantly, to the group.

That ends Part Two. For the next installment, I will continue pointing out the dangers of focusing on group identity in education.

You can read Part One HERE.

4 thoughts on “Group Identity (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: The Damage Wrought by Group Identity on College Campuses – The Writing Life

  2. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Three) – The Writing Life

  3. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Four) – The Writing Life

  4. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Five) – The Writing Life

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