Characteristics of Personal Identity
Multiple variables influence an individual student’s behaviors and attitudes. These
overlapping categories of identity include, but are not limited to, characteristics such as gender,
race, ethnic group, social class, region of origin, religion, and level of ability. We need to be
careful, of course, that generalizations about our students’ behavior do not substitute one set of
assumptions for another. Although groups who have characteristics in common often share norms
of behavior, attitudes, or speaking styles, not every person endorses these views. It is important to
remember that some “[m]inority groups draw great strength and character from racial, religious,
or national solidarity” (Brookfield and Preskill 131), but that not all members of these groups
identify with them. Some people of color, for example, do not experience strong cultural
affiliations, and many biracial students prefer not to identify with a particular race. Furthermore,
even those who do identify with a particular group will not share the same thoughts or actions.
Assuming all members of a group think alike robs people of their individuality.
In short, though the following sections focus on issues particular to certain groups, we do
not mean to suggest that homogeneity exists within any of these groups. The complexity of ethnic
groups in the US challenges concepts such as ethnic learning styles or the ability to identify racial
or ethnic group membership by physical characteristics or behavior (Banks 155). Rather than
assuming that our students learn in only one style or another, we need to learn to recognize the
differing ways in which students learn. By structuring our classes to include a variety of modes of
learning, all the students in the course will be able to learn effectively. Being aware of some of the
issues facing members of particular groups helps make us sensitive to the pressures faced by
many students while treating each student as a whole person rather than as a stereotype.
Race or Ethnicity
The biracial and multiracial student population is increasing significantly, as are all
groups of color. In fact, if current trends continue, the US Census projects that groups of color will
make up about 47% of the nation’s population by 2050 (Banks xxi). The categories of race and
ethnicity apply to more than just students of color, however. All students enter the classroom with
an ethnic and racial identity, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even though “race” is a
contested term biologically, it is still used in daily interactions as a way to “categorize people
according to certain visual or accented language traits to ‘mark’ them as racially/ethnically
distinct” (Tatum 4). Given the social history of the United States, we cannot quickly discount
“race” as a special factor in some of our students’ development. All of our students bring their
histories into our classrooms. Some of these histories can be problematic, because for many
people of color “racism and cultural bigotry remain pervasive” (Brookfield and Preskill 129).
Life is often stressful for students of color on predominantly white campuses. Many
times the power and presence of racism in this setting is underestimated (Tatum 77). People of
color often feel overlooked, made representative for their race or ethnic group, or attacked
personally or by association, while whiteness remains an invisible or normative category.
Research even indicates that many instructors “communicate negative feelings to students of color
and have a disproportionate number of negative verbal and nonverbal interactions with them”
and even accusing those who do well of cheating (a phenomenon also known as “spotlighting”). for example. to address the teacher’s ideas directly. Student behaviors or attitudes may also differ widely according to gender. At U. For example. often holds sway at universities as well. Such lack of attention and lower expectations from a succession of teachers can cause students of color to feel alienated from their academic environment and to have diminished confidence in their abilities. alienating. Students from such cultures may hesitate to speak out in class. indirection in expressing one’s thoughts.Va. a professor might consider a Latino student who avoids eye contact during discussion as “apathetic” or “indifferent. To a learner whose home culture differs from the one dominant in many university classrooms. Studies indicate that “relationships with faculty are one of the most effective predictors of student outcomes” for black students on largely white campuses (Watson 79).” “minority. think alike. concurs or disagrees. in-state students who transfer from Piedmont Virginia Community College and other local two-year community colleges and who come from working-class backgrounds . or unfair. and even how long ago their families immigrated to the US. silence before one’s superiors. or have similar life experiences. The American myth of a classless society. isolation or tokenism is to establish positive facultystudent relations with all of your students. These negative interactions include ignoring students of color. shows deference. On the other hand. or an attempt at seduction (if directed between the sexes). As mentioned earlier. Asian-American students may exhibit very different reactions and backgrounds than African-American students. On neither side would the assumptions be correct. Thus. do not know each other. Zeichner & Hoeft). where the issue of class is forgotten or is subsumed under issues of race. In general. and avoiding direct eye contact all signal respect for authority. If we remain unaware of such possible cultural influences. unspoken expectations of classroom interaction and communication-how one gets the floor. it is also important to realize that vast differences exist between the various cultures lumped together under such words as “ethnic. the teacher’s continued eye contact. may make the student uncomfortable since a direct gaze could indicate either a direct confrontation (if directed to the same sex). counseling them to take less-advanced courses in mathematics or science. Social Class In the United States. increasing your knowledge about and sensitivity to ethnic. Color-blindness is not the goal of a multicultural education. nor do they all speak alike. largely invisible social characteristic (Brookfield and Preskill 143). social class. Another way to create a supportive environment is to acknowledge and address differences in the classroom and provide course material or examples that draw from a wide variety of cultures and experiences. but awareness and appreciation of unique individuals is. racial. etc.(Haberman. their specific cultural group. social class remains an unspoken. they can cause misunderstandings in the classroom.” All African-American students.” while the student might simply be conforming to culturally delineated patterns of respect (Collett 178). Irvine. Positive relationships lead to lower levels of alienation and higher retention and graduation rates.-may seem confusing. and cultural groups other than your own will help you become a better teacher. or to state strongly their ideas in writing.” or “students of color. challenging them less often during discussion or problem-solving sessions.. meant to elicit comments or signal interest in the student’s ideas. One way to combat these feelings of alienation. in many cultures (including Asian and Latino/a). Similarly.
Because most instructors. etc. we must understand their lack of experience as an effect of class and school quality and as the reflection of a lack of educational experience. Other ways to address class-based differences include the following (Warren): Help students learn “how to play the game. often perceive a difference between their class origins and identities and those of many of their instructors and peers. this hostile climate exists while students may be struggling to come to terms with their sexual identities. even those who also come from a working-class background. even affectionately. By contrast. transgender. 1). not of inherent ability. Techniques such as these can help you create a supportive environment for students: . which is itself tied to class. in Chism 26).). Such students.comprise an easily overlooked underrepresented group. a social environment that still condones prejudiced remarks about sexual orientation that it no longer condones about race or gender. and tend to assume that if they work hard they will succeed (Warren 1998. gay. Acknowledge and discuss class differences. don’t mock. they face the particular difficulty of “coming out” in a potentially hostile college environment. students with middle-class upbringings are often the least aware of class status. Sexual Orientation/Gender Identification It is easy to ignore the presence of what Laurie Crumpacker calls the “invisible minority” of gay and lesbian students in our classrooms (qtd. Let students know how their work ranks. who may be slightly older than their counterparts. Point out value-laden language or classbased differences in discussion. unfamiliar slang.. since such students must choose whether to make their orientation known to us and their classmates. To complicate matters further. Lesbian. why it is adequate or not (or why some of the work is adequate and some is not).” Be very explicit about rules of operation and norms for your class and for the university. This very choice is both the product and the source of special difficulties. One way to relieve student anxiety is to acknowledge and encourage a wide range of speaking forms. As a result. hold an “idea of appropriate forms of classroom discourse…much closer to middleclass than working-class norms” (Brookfield and Preskill 145). bisexual. and from feelings of social and academic isolation. and questioning students face overt hostility and rejection and the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes. some rural or inner-city students may enter our classrooms less educationally experienced and with less confidence in their abilities than other students.g. and what you think they can do in the future. Most importantly. Because the educational quality of American high schools varies widely according to geographical location. they may rely on academic conventions or forms of speech that are disorienting and even intimidating to working-class students. To respond effectively to such students. many working-class students suffer from anxiety over whether their performance in this new environment is adequate. a student’s preferred mode of talking. No matter when such students may have discovered their sexual identity. while being explicit about codes of discourse you or other students find offensive or too informal (e. have a better sense of how to negotiate the university system. excessive cursing. from feelings of condescension from other students.
We can lead our students through one of the most difficult. almost all universities hold classes on the important religious holidays of non-Christian students. students may make remarks concerning sexual orientation that they would never make concerning race or gender.interfaithcalendar. while universities tend to be closed on important Christian holidays. give an alternative topic as well. To relieve this problem. such as the Eid ul Fitr at the end of Ramadan or Yom Kippur. You might also announce in your syllabus that students who ask to miss classes because of important religious holidays will not be penalized. If you do give such an assignment. For example. and foreign language) where students’ personal reactions to controversial subjects are often discussed. when a student’s faith collides with the material presented? Such difficult questions may never be easily addressed. see chapter IV. make it clear that you will honor important religious holidays without lowering your attendance standards.org) for schedules of religious holidays to locate ones that occur during instructional time.” Religion The increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our society brings with it an increasing religious diversity. we can become more effective teachers. Don’t give assignments that force lesbian and gay students either to lie or to “come out” to the class. explain in clear terms why you find such comments objectionable or engage the class in a brief discussion about the negative effects such comments may have. at discussing texts that contain the term “lesbian” or that discuss gay issues. for instance. For more tips on how to deal with a discussion that becomes heated or out of hand. Yet if we acknowledge such differing viewpoints. Students may balk. As you prepare to do so. Many religious students go through their college years feeling at odds with the basic structure of their institutions. Don’t ignore homophobic remarks made in your classroom. English composition. be cautious about giving assignments or calling on students in a way that forces them to describe their social life (such as “Describe your ideal date” or asking a female student to “tell me about your boyfriend” or a male student to “tell me about your girlfriend”). reflect one of the deepest divisions in contemporary American society and one of the most problematic for the college classroom. Don’t assume that all students are heterosexual. For example. Instead. Ignoring such comments only perpetuates the problem. A less explicit uneasiness about issues of sexual orientation may also occur. as well as the general differences between non-religious and religious students. for instance. how do we talk about them in our classrooms? What do we do. issues in the diverse classroom-how to acknowledge and respectfully examine vastly different beliefs. In class. but that they must notify you well ahead of time and make up the work. Such a reaction seems to be particularly common in firstyear students and can occur more often in certain disciplines (such as psychology. “Dealing with Conflicts. It is usually up to faculty and TAs to make individual arrangements in order not to place students who wish to attend services on these days at an inherent disadvantage. Since religious beliefs (along with many fundamental beliefs that people hold dear) cannot be proven by the strict bounds of logic. You can consult the Interfaith Calendar website (www. but most important. in courses that use personal essays or discuss personal experience. Religious differences. consider the following suggestions: . such as Christmas. Such splits occur throughout the university but are particularly apparent in disciplines such as philosophy and religious studies.
When possible. For instance. Make a clear distinction for your students between faith and proof. such as “describe your ideal date. (http://trc. use a tone and choice of words that show respect for those who hold those beliefs or practice that religion. When it is.” can also produce anxiety or resistance in religious students from cultures where dating is uncommon (such as traditional Islamic cultures).virginia. Similarly. Emphasize dialogue and collaborative thinking. allow your students alternate but equivalent assignments on topics that might offend them.Don’t criticize any religion or religious belief if such criticism is not important to the course material. but challenge unwarranted or illogical assumptions. Try using the word “suppose” (or words to that effect) to introduce ideas that might seem challenging to some students’ belief systems and to keep the conversation open. examples of contemporary student behavior that assume all students are sexually active may offend those celibate for cultural or religious reasons. Acknowledge students’ beliefs in subjects they feel strongly about. the type of assignment discussed in the section on sexual orientation.edu/resources/teaching-a-diverse-student-body-practical-strategies-forenhancing-our-students-learning/teaching-a-diverse-student-body-2/characteristics-of-personalidentity/) .