My students have been studying argument for the last few weeks. We’ve covered most of the basics and a bit more: the rhetorical triangle, ethos, pathos, logos, classical v. Rogerian structures, induction v. deduction. syllogisms, and claims, evidence, and warrants a la the Toulmin model.
Still, I felt like something was missing. Last week, after our initial discussions of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I had students respond in their notebooks to the following prompt:
“What demographic categories might apply to you and how? List at least ten categories and how you might identify within that category.”
As examples, I gave them categories like race, gender, and generation. So for me, I’d be Asian American, female, and Generation X. Students wrote for several minutes, and then we went around and shared the categories we’d brainstormed. And they came up with a lot, from the expected—ethnicity, sexuality, income, occupation, educational attainment, political party, religion—but also categories like right v. left-handedness, right v. left brain, birth order, introvert v. extravert, relationship status, astrological signs, and so on.
After taking a few more minutes to consider how they might identify themselves within these categories—or how others might identify them—I then had students write about which specific parts of their identity influence their everyday actions, attitudes, and beliefs and how.
As students wrote, I thought about my own answer. I think this question forces us to examine our default settings. In other words, what identities do we use—more often than not—to see the world? For me, it comes down to ethnicity and gender. My worldview—the things I believe in my gut about what’s right v. wrong, good v. bad, necessary v. unnecessary—is inextricably linked to how my ethnicity and gender have affected my life to this point. These are the parts of my identity are essential, omnipresent.
After writing and sharing in small groups, I then asked students to revisit their list of “identities” and to star which one was most relevant when they read, reacted to, and discussed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In asking them to shift their thinking with this question, my hope was that students could see how their responses to any text are inextricably linked to the varied identities with which they can relate. For some students, reading “Birmingham Jail” made them more acutely aware of their social class or political ideologies. Other students responded to the text through their own cultural or racial identities.
Obviously there isn’t a right answer to any of these questions, but what I hope this brief bit of reflection forces students to do is to consider what informs their responses to a text—and by extension, what informs their deeply held opinions and beliefs. Too often, we think, judge, and act from our gut without taking the time to consider what’s informing those gut reactions. We might read a news editorial, a Tweet, or a Facebook post and immediately feel defensive or angry without taking the time to ask ourselves where that reaction is coming from.
Suppose we shifted how we looked at the world, and we framed our conversations and inquiry like this:
As a __________ (identity), I see __________ (issue) with/as __________ (opinion/perspective) because in my experience,__________ (support).
As a child of immigrants and Catholic, I see the current immigration and travel ban issues with sympathy for those who may be fleeing danger in search of safety for their families, because in my experience, it is the responsibility of those with the means to help those who seek help.
Or here’s another example:
As a teacher, I see the school choice debate and charter schools as a distraction from addressing deeper issues of poverty and systemic inequality, because in my experience, student academic success depends on environmental factors as much as it does on the quality of the school.
If we can identify not just how we feel or think about an issue, but also where those feelings or thoughts come from, we can see the issue with the complexity it warrants. That said, stopping at this point isn’t enough. As much as our identities inform our feelings and thoughts, they can also limit us. Even our strongest opinions need to be approached with humility.
So what if we followed up with this:
However, I recognize that my view may be limited because__________.
and more importantly, with this:
In order to deepen my understanding of this issue, here are some of the questions I need to explore: __________.
In my own examples, regarding the travel ban, I might reflect on the fact that my perspective is limited in that I’m not sure of relevant legal and historical precedents. Or regarding the charter school issue, I might need to know more about why families choose charter schools in the first place.
Asking students to consider how their multiple identities affect how they read the world is more important now than ever. We live in an increasingly divided society; more often than not, people seem to interpret the same news in drastically different ways. We’re talking over, around, and at each other. Perhaps with a better understanding of the ways our identities can give us insight but also blind us, we can engage in more critical, reflective inquiry.
This post was originally part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.