The Professor Prism: A Lesson on Identity

Identity is an essential piece of context for the classroom.

By Cherie Fernandes

I’ve been thinking about “getting to know you”s lately: the say-hi-to-a-stranger bingos, show-and-tells, and “one fun fact about yourself”s that would reliably fill up the first few days of elementary school, all wrapped up in the childhood bedroom-induced nostalgia that hit me like a mac truck upon returning home for break. Not so for college, of course; when squeezing a full course’s syllabus into nine weeks of class time, every minute is precious and community-building is cast to the side in favor of more productive discussions. Yet this dismissal of identity in sterile, intellectual settings actually works against the goals of academia itself. Professors, in particular, should be encouraged to discuss their own identities in class, in the interest of both being open about how their background might affect engagement with the content and reaping the social benefits of diverse representation among faculty in academic environments.

Our campus culture is disinclined to emphasize these conversations. Among the criticisms leveled at UChicago is our tendency to become “brains in jars,” which we’ve embraced with a quippy mantra of: “That’s all well and good in practice…but does it work in theory?” Unfortunately, our fondness for dealing in the abstract occasionally idolizes the purely cerebral at the expense of the messier collection of appendages to which those brains are attached—the idea that while getting to know the rest of the room is nice, the fact that Professor So-and-so just celebrated her cat’s third birthday doesn’t have much to do with today’s Classics lecture. We forget that ideas don’t exist in a vacuum; they (almost) invariably depend on people, all of whom are shaped by circumstance, and act as originators, translators, and vehicles. Hobbes, for instance, didn’t just sit in an ivory tower and evenhandedly ponder the nature of humanity until he came up with Leviathan; his positions on government authority, the social contract, and psychological egoism are at least in part due to the English Civil War that raged around him at the time of writing and, I’d wager, the circumstances of his less-than-cheery childhood. No wonder the guy was such a killjoy. Likewise, the major artistic and philosophical movements that we unpack in our classes are characterized by the nation, language, or historical era in which they arose, fundamentally informed by how groups of people interact and change over time and space. Even the default moral, political, and intellectual positions that we ourselves consider reasonable are assigned by our generational and family cultures. All this to say, ideas cannot be discovered and communicated independent of people, all of whom are shaped by the unique circumstances and experiences that manifest as their identities. Because any individual’s engagement with a topic is inevitably filtered through the prism of identity, it is prudent to recognize and account for its influence in academic environments.

This brings us to professors, the conduits for students’ experience of academic environments. As the intermediary that parses, digests, and critiques content before it’s communicated to students, an educator inevitably colors pupils’ understanding of, and can even make or break, a subject; I’ll bet the Introduction to Econmics courses with Professor Sanderson has been changing the trajectory of college students’ lives (in both directions) since ’84. The University’s initiatives to prioritize diversity among its faculty—albeit slow-moving and not without oversights—exist for good reason, and students reap the benefits when those identities are discussed in relation to their subject matter and in context of various teaching styles. Different instructors have different ways of engaging both the subject and the classroom by virtue of their unique experiences and social identities. For instance, the field of contrastive rhetoric explores how an individual’s culture and first language influence their approach to speaking and writing persuasively. A Romantic dialectical method, for example, is more likely to explicitly present and expound on an antithesis, while an English dialectical method prefers to hammer down the initial claim and dismiss deviations. Thus, whether your English, history, or philosophy teacher is the type to praise you for lengthy attention to a counterclaim—“some argue that Achilles is not truly a heroic character because X, Y, and Z, and this changes my claim in the following ways…”—likely has to do with the culture in which they grew up, their first language, and whether they were internationally educated. Additionally, to further indulge my pet interest in linguistics, it’s worth noting that even regional dialects within the U.S. influence how educators engage with students. The difference between “soda” and “pop” seems negligible, but for the disparity between Standard/Formal English and intricate dialects like African American Vernacular English, the consensus among educationalists and sociolinguistics is that identifying and valuing dialect in academic settings makes for greater educational achievement among speakers. Having professors that employ identity based, non-standard dialects can thus not only be enriching for English seminars, but a source of inclusivity across disciplines.

The practicalities of bringing identity into classroom conversation vary by circumstance. Few would argue that a professor’s own identity isn’t worth sharing if the subject of the class is directly relevant to said identity; provided they’re comfortable with it, a trans professor teaching a Gender & Sexuality course could certainly discuss their experiences in the interest of presenting a deeper and more personal account of the topic. Likewise, for classes about history or music that are relevant to specific cultural groups of which the instructor may be a part, that professor could use their background to mobilize deeper and more informed conversations. The only caveat is that it ought to be impressed upon students that the experiences of identities like Blackness, female-ness, or trans-ness are not unitary and homogenous. The idea that all people of a given identity necessarily have the same experiences and opinions is restrictive, unproductive, and frankly just irritating for those of us who would rather not have our positions assumed. Just as one veteran’s memoir can’t speak for every soldier or one success story can’t speak for all budding talents, one person’s account doesn’t speak for all members of a certain identity. In this context, where the identity itself is the focus of academic conversation, the power of discussing experiences is instead often in how their emotional resonance fosters empathy and how common themes emerge between multiple individuals’ accounts.

The situation gets thornier, however, when the professor’s identity is distinctly not part of the subject, as with a white professor teaching Asian Civ. We find ourselves in a quasi–Mary’s Room scenario: Is a scholar who has devoted years of their life to studying a subject in an academic context still, on some level, lacking in knowledge by virtue of not having personally experienced that subject? For questions in the human sciences, I’d argue yes; I’d find it difficult to learn about music from someone who is clinically tone-deaf, regardless of how encyclopedic their knowledge of all documented theory and technique. The same applies for a white professor discussing China, Japan, and Korea’s cultural transformations as of the last century. Their work and abilities aren’t devalued in any way, but we acknowledge that in engaging with the subject from an initial perspective that is, knowingly or not, steeped in Western cultural norms and ways of understanding the world—as compared to someone who grew up speaking an East Asian language and whose upbringing is studded with core memories of the culture—this professor’s appreciation of the topic has built-in limitations. Educators can make students aware of these limitations by devoting time to discussion of their personal history of immersion with the subject as a consequence of their identity. Additionally, a policy of recognizing when one’s identity may unintentionally color a student’s understanding of a subject extends to transparency about one’s bias when a value judgement is inherent to the topic—which crops up in everything from theology to economics. A professor prefacing the conversation with a statement about their personal religious, moral, or ideological inclinations can help students parse out where the professor, and by extension the framing of the course, stands in relation to the rest of the field.

And now to address the elephant in the room: this is all well and good for humanities-oriented classes, but there’s not much room for lived experience in the natural sciences—white, black, or blue, there’s no changing the fact that Bromine has 35 protons or that the number 1,439 is prime. I remember feeling much the same when I spotted a week-long “identity and diversity” unit on my high school physics & mechanics syllabus; conversations about inclusion certainly have their place, I had figured, but we’re here to learn about electromagnetism, not to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya. I clearly hadn’t been alone in my thinking, because our teacher kicked off the week armed with a collection of attention grabbing statistics: Under 20% of annual physics doctorate awardees are women and a mere 13% of engineers in the workforce are female, with only 30% of those who earn bachelor’s degree still working in the field 20 years later. Additionally, slightly under 8% of bachelor’s degrees in physics go to Hispanic students, and a staggeringly-minute 3% to Black students, reflecting a decrease over the last three decades. It doesn’t take a statistics degree to identify a disparity here. The class proceeded with a discussion of potential sources and solutions, sharing of personal accounts, and interrogating the question of why diversity is important in scientific communities at all. I ultimately count my teacher’s discussion of her own experience as a woman earning an astrophysics doctorate from Harvard among the most engaging class periods of that year. Many a girl who’s considered the hard sciences is all too familiar with being woefully outnumbered in lecture, and the disparity tracks at the door to Silicon Valley and up the higher echelons of academia. For me and the only other girl in our class of fifteen, seeing ourselves in an authority figure and role model who discussed how her identity affected her experience in the field was invaluable. She deliberately carved out class time to tell that story because it was, ultimately, relevant to the field of physics and important to members of the classroom—and the same might be said for several other professors in UChicago’s STEM departments.

I anticipate pushback on the idea that identity ought to be assigned such importance. In some circles, there is an assumption that emphasis on lived experience seeks to impose some sort of unjust hierarchy on the credibility of people’s thoughts: Modern liberals make it impossible for white, straight males to have respected opinions; they gatekeep thought. This is a dangerous oversimplification. For one, the position described above is far more hardline and solipsistic than anything reasonable people or institutions currently implement. Recognizing that certain demographics are more implicated in a given issue or better situated to speak to certain experiences is hardly an injustice: If I were consulting a group about new ramps and assorted accessibility accommodations for a building, I wouldn’t exclusively seek out disabled architects—just as I wouldn’t exclusively seek out female ethicists on the question of abortion. But I would certainly ensure that people with disabilities were represented and conversing with the architects, because—just as with women and abortion—input regarding their unique experiences and needs is relevant to the pursuit at hand.

Additionally, to those who fear some kind of reduction of every thinker to three labels, I posit that your definition of “identity” may be a touch uninspired. While my gender, race, and sexuality are certainly aspects of who I am, I’m also a young adult in the 21st century, raised Catholic and fortunately educated, as well as as ’80s rock-enthusiast, a disseminator of National Geographic facts about bats, and a slew of other particulars that factor into the matrix that is my experience of life. To put it bluntly, this isn’t just a game for minorities; a discussion of identity invites everyone to consider the unique personal and community experiences that shape the viewpoints they bring to the table and, in the case of educators, use to guide an educational experience. Professors discussing their identities—whether to enrich, preface, or inspire—fosters crucial transparency and connectedness in our engagement with the ideas this community so prizes.

Cherie Fernandes is a first-year in the College.