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Identity Play

posted: 10.18.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Liz’s last post on “Cross-Dressing and Identity in Understanding Rhetoric” reminds me how important it is to consider identity in the teaching of writing.  Indeed, one of the chapters we insisted on including in Understanding Rhetoric is the fourth chapter on “Writing Identities,” which focuses on the many ways that writers use language and other forms of communication to experiment with identity. One of the examples we draw on is Barbara Ehrenreich’s “experiment” in Nickle and Dimed, in which the author adopts the identity of a working-class American so she can understand the difficulties of making ends meet with a minimum-wage earning job.  In so doing, she allows her own perspectives on class structures to shift, change, develop, and ultimately transform.

Consciously or not, our students are experimenting with identity all the time in their education.  David Bartholomae famously identified students’ need to “invent the university,” to learn how to move within the academic discourse communities they encounter in their classes.  Bartholomae notes how ethos is at play in such experiences, as students sometimes struggle to understand themselves as not just willing but able to engage in the academic conversations going on around them.  I think this is what Henry Jenkins was referring to as “academic drag” in Liz’s last post.  Students “try on” academic identities to test out how they might participate in the university’s discourse communities.

Of course, we need to recognize the limits of such identity play, even as we foster it.  Ehrenreich gets to return to her privileged position, even as she brings us valuable insights from her experience. We experiment with identity, surely, but what identities do we carry with us—or have imposed on us—that cannot be left behind? How must that affect our experiences, insights, and what we want to write about?

I have certainly thought a lot about such issues as I crafted my “cartoon persona” in Understanding Rhetoric as an openly gay writing instructor.  My queerness shapes how I perceive, understand, and engage with the world around me—and how that world perceives, understands, and engages with me. I have argued in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies that sexual identity is a key component of how we are identified by our culture, not just a choice of identity within it.  Recognizing how our identities are shaped is crucial to understanding how such norms function in our lives.  For instance, my character in Understanding Rhetoric works to normalize the presence of LGBT folks as educators and articulates differences in how I experience and understand the world.  A glimpse of an educator in a wheelchair—unremarked in the text but visually present—reminds us that bodies are differently abled. In Chapter 2, our visual analysis of Frederick Douglass’s visual representation in his books demonstrates one highly self-conscious way in which he crafted his public image. The comics medium allows such visual cues to complement more explicit considerations of identity performance. Thus, we open up opportunities for you and your students to consider experience based on identity as they relate to our work as writers.

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