Group Identity (Part Seven)

One of my favorite books to use in class

This series on education is based on a speech I gave at a conference in 2007. I recently came across it and reading through it, I was surprised at how relevant it is to what is happening in education today. The first six Installments focused primarily on relationships between people on campus (instructors, students, administration) when a college or university is more focused on group identity than on individuals.

This seventh installment focuses on the impact of identity politics on the curriculum.

If you want to go back to the beginning, you can find the FIRST essay here.

            Departmental Organization

Another area affected by the promotion of group identity is departmental organization.

Group identity has resulted in an increasing inclusion of departments such as Chicano Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, African-American Studies, and Asian-American Studies. On the surface, this appears not only innocuous, but beneficial. What could possibly be wrong with expanding our knowledge of histories that may not have been previously explored in depth? Nothing.

Speech

This topic was also addressed in essay SIX.

The problem comes with the agenda of these departments.

For one, rather than provide another viewpoint for students, these departments often replace traditional courses and usually undermine them as well. And they further emphasize the importance of group identity rather than focus on imparting knowledge.

One such example is the offering of freshman composition, English 101. It is still a requirement, but students can take it any department. Students can instead sign up for Pan-African Freshman Composition, or Asian American Freshman Composition, or even Chicano Freshman Composition. And outside of the English Department, most of these classes are taught not by composition specialists but by, for example, Chicano Studies majors.

These courses may be legitimate, but they should not exist in a vacuum. The faculty are not required to coordinate with the English department, so they are not integrated into the overall composition or literature program. Standards are inconsistent. There is not necessarily a common vision or a common purpose.

Speech

In my years teaching, never once did the faculty teaching composition or literature in one of these other departments work with, collaborate with, meet with, plan with, brainstorm with, or even have a discussion with anyone in the English Department. I take that back. That is not entirely true. They did not talk with the leadership of the department: the chair or vice chair. They did “collude” with the new members of the department who claimed to be no longer members of the English Department and instead formed their own, new department so that they could do whatever they wanted in their classes. (You can read more about that craziness in essay THREE.)

Not only that, but proponents of multiculturalism and diversity claim that these programs will create a better world, where everyone will now get along because we will finally understand each other. But this has clearly not been the result. 

These classes do not promote inclusion and understanding between the races. Instead they promote the belief that we cannot inherently understand each other so we must separate ourselves out. This hurts classroom discussions and interactions. A diverse class offers the most potential to be effective and productive because so many different viewpoints are brought to the table. 

Speech

I simply cannot emphasize strongly enough how important this is. For some reason, at the college where I was tenured, the demographic that I often attracted was 18-year-old ex-gang members and middle-aged Central American mothers. I can’t explain it. But the conversations were fantastic. Lively, contentious, emotional, educational.

After years of experimentation, I settled on Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte as one of my favorite books to use for freshman students when teaching literary analysis. Everyone groaned at finding out they would have to read it, but every semester, students came to love the novel. I think that is in large part because of the entertaining yet intelligent conversations we would have about its themes, particularly when it came to love.

If you don’t know the book, different types of love relationships are presented. And to simplify it, a young, passionate, wild love affair is contrasted to a mature, rational, controlled love affair. In the end, we realize that some combination of the two is best. Typically, the 18-year-olds pine for the passion while the middle-aged laugh at the folly of such emotional roller coasters and long for stability and maturity. The subsequent enthusiastic arguments made for each, often peppered with personal experiences, was a thing of joy. That was precisely why I was in the classroom. But that could only happen with a variety of people coming from a variety of backgrounds: from different ethnic groups, different religions, different ages, different genders. 

I had one of the most profound examples of this in my last semester teaching before COVID lockdowns shut the college’s doors and forced everyone to attend classes remotely, an irreversible, detrimental move that will need to be discussed another day.

One particular class I was teaching, a freshman composition class, was assigned to me only a week before classes began because the previous lecturer was no longer available. This meant that I was stuck using the books she had ordered since students would have already bought them. One of the books was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime

I groaned at the selection.

Nothing against Trevor Noah. And nothing against the book. But I typically like to assign something more “literary,” something with more depth that has been proven over time. That eliminates most pop culture, New York Times bestsellers. But I have proven that I can pretty much find value in any book and can communicate that value to students.

The book is a memoir, and it is interesting. I enjoyed reading it. In it, Noah discusses growing up in South Africa during apartheid. For the first class discussion of the book, I decided to give a history lesson on apartheid. We could delve into the book after that. As it turned out, that introduction was the last class of the semester.

My first question for the very-diverse class was “Who knows about apartheid in South Africa?” In a class of 20, half of whom were African American, only one raised her hand. She was a 65-year-old woman from Ghana. I went through the history, showed a short film on the topic, and read the intro to the book out loud, interrupting to explain historical points Noah was making. When I finished, I turned to the woman from Ghana and asked if she had anything she wanted to share about her experiences.

She did. She spent the next half hour telling us about being a midwife in Africa, about relatives in South Africa, about apartheid and racism in her childhood. She told about her trip to the United States and her dream of returning to college. 

Students were in rapt silence as she spoke. Some had tears in their eyes while others let the tears spill out. When class ended, many wanted to hear more. A line formed to give her a hug and to express feelings of love. It was a remarkable class. A class I will never forget. A class that profoundly illustrates why I spent so many years grading essays, explaining sentence fragments, and lecturing about literary criticism. It was all for days like this. 

Ironically, I have not been in a classroom since that day. And that could not have happened with a segregated classroom. 

So if the goal is to teach others about the group, as is so often purported, then these programs are failing miserably. Instead, race relations continue to deteriorate in this country. 

Speech

Wow. Isn’t that the truth. These policies were in place fifteen years ago, and look at the state of race relations in our country today.

The next installment will cover not only how classes are taught but also what content is taught. 

One thought on “Group Identity (Part Seven)

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

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