Group Identity (Part Five)

I don’t seem to have photos of me teaching, but here is a staged photo of me grading papers (while on the phone??) for an article about my writing.

This is the fifth 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 firstsecondthird, and fourth here. I will continue discussing what happens with a fixation on group identity, problems I saw playing out 15 years ago. And these problems have only increased since then.

This installment continues with the discussion of the detrimental impact group identity has on the relationship between faculty members and students. The speech is rewritten in the indented sections, and I interrupt periodically with my current comments about what I wrote so long ago. 

Another problem that develops in the relationship between student and faculty is that a teacher must constantly monitor his or her speech in class to satisfy the most sensitive, insecure student, lest the politically correct police, i.e. the compliance officer, be called in to force the teacher to…well…comply.

Just the mere threat of being called insensitive (let alone racist!) renders most teachers compliant and inhibited, censoring every word that comes out of their mouths to ensure they do not potentially offend anyone in the class. 

Of course, this is an impossible task, as students can manage to find something offensive in being told that they must turn in their work on time. Deadlines, you see, are the kind of objective standard deemed so offensive in academia.

I hope it goes without saying that I am not referring to obvious uses of language that should be avoided by any professional, such as gratuitous derogatory putdowns. No one can or should justify such language. And no genuine educator would.

Speech

This actually made me laugh. This was an issue fifteen years ago, but the concern then is absolutely nothing compared to the prevalence of this concern today. More recently, enforcing deadlines, demanding punctuality, expecting consistent attendance, assigning readings by dead white males is all considered racist. Accidently using the wrong pronoun is reason enough for shame, smears, suspensions, investigations, firings. And as an English professor, I have spent 25 years making sure that plural pronouns match their antecedents, not only in my writings but also in my speech so that I would be speaking in class using correct grammar. So to suddenly be expected to, overnight, consistently use the pronoun “they,” for example, to refer to a singular person? There is not a chance I would achieve that perfectly. All I would need is one student offended by the mistake, and my career could be over.

I recently quit my job as an adjunct community college lecturer because of masks. The rule at the college was that all students and all instructors must wear masks at all times while on campus, including in the classroom. For one, I am not interested in teaching with a mask for a variety of reasons, none of which are because I want people to die, just to be clear. When working with a majority of “at risk” students, students who have fewer academic skills and often very little family and peer support, the relationship I develop with the student is of vital importance. I need to create trust, respect, and commraderie if I expect to motivate students to perform and to surprise themselves with what they are capable of. I cannot overemphasize this enough. And required masks would absolutely interfere with that goal.

But more importantly, I refused to play the mask police. I would not be willing to tell students to pull their mask up over their noses or to pull them down under their chins. I would not be willing to call anyone out who kept their mask pulled down too long after taking a sip of water. Not going to happen. And again, all I would need is one student to put in a complaint that there are those in the classroom not sufficiently complying with the mask rules, and my career would be over. 

Understand, I have no tenure and no seniority at this college. I would be gone immediately. 

I also want to share a story that is related to the concern about the potential of “offending” students. Do students sometimes get offended? Yes. Do teachers/professors sometimes say things that are offensive? Yes. Is it typically their intent to be purposely offensive? No. It isn’t. 

Back in the late 1990s early 2000s, this idea of teachers being offensive in the classroom and needed to be instructed against this was increasingly popular. As a result, one year a group of faculty were required to attend a seminar led by a PhD student from UCLA, whose dissertation dealt with offensive teachers.

The PhD student explained that often we say things that we think are innocent but that turn out to be very offensive to one or more students. His goal was to make us, as classroom instructors, aware of how we might be unknowingly be offending our students. Fair. I was certainly open to that.

He began the morning with a film he had produced of interviews with students who found themselves offended by something a professor had said. I wish I could remember the specifics of the examples, but I do remember thinking they were ridiculous. That no one could predict the statements would be offensive. And that other statements were necessary to be made as they were part of the curriculum. They were things like, “The economics professor was talking about the growth of ghettos in urban centers, and he looked at me while he said it.” (said by an African American student).

At the end of the film, the PhD student took the podium in order to expand on what we had just seen in the film. He began with a story: “Imagine a professor in a lecture hall, and he says to the students…” A voice from the back of the room called out “He or she!” 

Early in my teaching career, the idea of political correctness was in full force. And one of the tenets was to discontinue using the pronoun “he” to refer to someone with an unknown gender. Instead, we were to us “he or she.” Today, using “he or she” is akin to hate speech. But at the time, this was a huge change, and quite frankly, led to some terribly awkward sentences. So this is the policy to which the voice was referring. 

The PhD student gave her a nod. He then began again: “Imagine a professor in a lecture hall, and he says to the students…”

Again, the voice: “He or she!”

“Yes,” he responded. “He or she.” He began again: “Imagine a professor in a lecture hall, and he says to the students…”

“He or she!”

This time he was irritated. And so he explained, to a lecture hall filled with English professors, “No, HE is the pronoun we use to refer to someone who could be a man or a woman.”

From that point on, this story was a part of every English class I ever taught. Why? Because the man who had been hired to lecture a group of professors on the need to stop offending students, even if inadvertently, was directly being told that he was being offensive to his audience. Yet he summarily dismissed the complaint and continued to use the offending language. Any credibility I may have initially given him was immediately gone. He clearly was not concerned about not offending people. This was political, and he was only concerned with what HE found offensive.

Interestingly, the use of the term “he or she” is now, not so many years later, considered offensive. I can’t keep up.

But group identity also hampers the ability of a teacher to honestly evaluate students as individuals. The common verbiage is that grades are “given” to students by teachers.

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Why do I say this? Think about how students (and parents of K-12 students) talk about grades they are unhappy with: “Why did you give me a C on this paper?” 

This implies that grades are not “earned.” Therefore, a D, for example, is not just given to an essay by an 18-year-old Honduran student. No, the offending teacher has just declared war on all Hondurans, or on Latinos, or on immigrants. After enough accusations, it becomes a matter of self-preservation for a teacher to give a pass to the student who is well indoctrinated in group identity. Giving an honest grade is not worth having to defend yourself against the inevitable complaint in a bureaucratic and rigged system full of groups with protected status. 

And of course, providing proof of a student’s failure through coursework is not good enough. Failing grades throughout the semester are simply further proof of racism. Group identity theory holds that if I do not belong to said group, than I do not understand the group and cannot properly evaluate anyone from the group. 

Speech

This idea of “giving” students grades on their essays, in an English class as an example, is completely detrimental to the learning process. The grade, as a result, is not considered as feedback or as something that reflects the level of skill as compared to the expectation required to pass the class. Instead, the grade is something the instructor possesses and distributes. The inclination is to believe the grades are given based on how the instructor “feels” about the student. That is why so many students believe they must parrot back the instructor’s opinions to them. If they contradict a teacher’s view on a topic, they assume they will be given a bad grade.

So it is only natural that should a student repeat the teacher’s opinions yet still be given a lower than expected grade, it must be because the teacher is biased (or dare I say racist) against the student’s “group.”

If a student “earns” a grade, then the grade is a reflection of that particular individual student’s skill level. My goal has always and only been to move the needle on students’ writing skills from where they start at the beginning of the semester to the skill level they achieve by the end of the semester. And the grade lets that particular student, not their entire group, know where he or she (dare I say) is on that journey at that moment.

You would think a math teacher might be immune to those kinds of attacks as it is much easier to give seemingly objective grades in a class such as math in which 2+2= 4, no matter what your race. But judging from my experience in the relativist world of education, the day when 2+2 =5… occasionally… is coming, if it is not already here.

Speech

And… it is already here. In 2020, a math education professor at Brooklyn College in New York City claimed that the equation 2+2=4 “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy.” Others promoted the ideas that the belief that there is a right and wrong answer, in math, is racist. The concept of 2+2=4 is steeped in western colonization. Upholding the idea that math is universal is upholding white supremacy. You get the idea.

In the next installment, I will discuss how group identity damages relationships between students.

One thought on “Group Identity (Part Five)

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

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