Group Identity (Part Four)

Another not-very-good photo of me speaking at a conference!

This is the fourth installment of a series of essays on group identity on college campuses that comes from a speech I gave back in 2007. You can find the firstsecond, and third here. I will continue discussing what happens when the educational system develops a fixation on group identity, problems I saw playing out 15 years ago. And these problems have only increased since then.

The fourth installment begins with how group identity damages relationships between faculty members. The speech is rewritten in the indented sections, and I interrupt periodically with my current comments about what I wrote so long ago. 

            Between Faculty Members

The chill [created by focusing on group identity] extends to the relationship among faculty members themselves. Ironically, faculty members like to think of themselves as individuals. This is one reason why academic freedom is so important to them. Of course, theoretically, we understand the importance of following the curriculum. But the idea that each professor should be able to teach the material in the manner he or she sees best is a deeply held belief. So when politicians or administrators start chipping away at that individual freedom, teachers will typically band together.

Don’t get me wrong though. Plenty of faculty members have been indoctrinated in adherence to group identity. As a result, rather than their group identification lying within their discipline, such as engineering, philosophy, or sociology, they look for their group membership within their race, ethnicity, or gender. 

speech

In Part Two of this series, I discussed how this manifested at the college where I was teaching. A couple of full-time English instructors, both women of color, decided that they no longer wanted to be identified as part of the English Department and instead banded together with other “people of color” and their anti-racist allies (before the term anti-racist ally was coined) – including a couple of business instructors, some Chicago Studies instructors, and a few other humanities instructors – to form their own new, made-up (literally) department.

The administration had implemented the tried and true strategy of “divide and conquer” to create the exact conditions necessary for this to happen. It began when the previously discussed faculty hiring freeze ended and dozens of new hires started teaching (see Part Two). The president of the college decided that she and a group of administrators would provide the orientation and training for all new faculty members. (By the way, during the interview process, we were informed that we could not hire anyone who had previously worked at the college or who was white – that policy will be explained more fully in a later installment.)

Previously, upon hiring a new English instructor, we would organize a meeting to introduce him or her to the entire department. Then, the chair and vice chair would schedule a number of get-togethers with the new addition to go over everything they might need to know to succeed: from course details to committee memberships to college culture. In those meetings, we created important, and long term, relationships. 

Most of these formal meetings occurred during the first semester, but they did continue for the next four years of probationary employment. Believe me. We enthusiastically desired the success of each person we hired. That result was in all of our best interests! We worked to build trust so that the new person would feel comfortable coming to us with any questions, concerns, or even complaints. We worked to build a cohesive department, where we respected each other’s input and where we fine-tuned our department’s mission.

All of that potential was taken away. The new faculty members would now be meeting every Friday morning with the administration instead of with us. Word came out fairly quickly that the new employees had been informed that they were the new future of the college, that they would be instrumental in changing the culture of the college. They were told that they would be reporting to the VP and not to their respective department chairs. They were told that all those who had been previously teaching at the college were “old school” and that they were “new school.”

This arrangement gave all new faculty members sanction to, for example, start their own department, Not surprising, when the administration was alerted about the insubordination, it refused to take action. This gave them sanction to ignore course requirements as relayed by the department. This gave them sanction to skip department meetings. This gave them sanction to openly criticize us “old school” professors to students in their classrooms, forcing students to choose sides. (I can’t even begin to imagine as a student being pulled like this into the politics of the faculty.) This gave them sanction to undermine everything we were doing.

And they were untouchable.

It was disastrous for the English Department. And this same scenario was occurring in every department across the school. In response, those of us who were considered “old school” banded together in disbelief, seeking both confirmation of our experiences and advise.

This naturally results in a divided faculty overall and within disciplines with varying standards that provide contradictory information in class and strive for inconsistent goals for students, something that proves very confusing to even the smartest students.

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The first part of the administration’s strategy was complete: we were sufficiently divided. Now we only needed to be conquered

Which then damages the relationship between faculty and students.

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I do want to expand on the practice of “new school” instructors to discuss with their students the division created by the administration in their respective classes. But first I will explain how, in general, group identity damages the relationship between faculty and students.

            Faculty and Students

When teachers do not adhere to the objective truths of a discipline and instead adopt a relativist view, it makes it difficult for a student to know whom to trust. Teachers contradict each other without acknowledging the contradictions being presented. 

And when teachers in the same discipline contradict each other, students tune out. Everyone loses credibility. Students quickly learn that what is taught in English 101 by one instructor is certainly not applicable to English 102 and another instructor. It is all relative. It is difficult to find value applicable outside of a specific classroom and a specific professor.

Those who formed their own department also created their own standards for the classes they taught, English classes that were assigned by me as vice chair in conjunction with the department chair. However, they refused to participate in any discussions with the rest of the department about those classes. So one of their English 101 classes, for example, bore no resemblance to the rest of the department’s English 101 classes in terms of standards, complexity of reading, expectations of writing, or level of rigor. That’s a great way to lose trust and credibility with students. 

Writing and reading are skills that must be practiced, much like the piano must be practiced or dance must be practiced. That is at least if someone hopes to improve. When we are dealing with college freshmen and sophomores at state colleges and universities, the number of students unable to read and write at a college level is shockingly high. At the college where I taught, upon enrolling, only 7% of students had the skills to qualify for English 101, Freshman Composition. This meant that nearly all students were required to take one or two remedial English classes before tackling Freshman Comp. 

Now imagine being a student who has trouble writing a coherent, grammatically clean paragraph. Imagine that the info they learn in English 21 completely contradicts what they learn in English 28. And that none of that bears any resemblance to what their instructor expects in English 101. How confusing would that be? What students in this situation tend to do is believe that what they learn about writing applies only to that particular class. There is no attempt to carry the skills over to future English classes, to essays written for history or other classes, to the work place. And before anyone claims that academic freedom allows instructors to teach students to write however they choose, that may be technically true, but it certainly is no way to ensure student success, especially students who struggle with the fundamentals. Once students have more control over their writing and are in upper level writing courses, then there is a lot more room to be flexible and creative in the instruction.

A divided faculty ensures this disconnect between courses.

The next installment will continue with other problems created for the relationship between faculty and students when everyone is determined to prioritize group identity.

One thought on “Group Identity (Part Four)

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

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