Identity Politics in the Classroom

Introducing and teaching complex, and sometimes controversial, issues relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality can be a difficult task for a teacher. The politics of the classroom don’t always allow for a feasible approach to such topics. With that in mind, I strongly believe, as teachers, it is our responsibility to not only educate students but also foster their growth as individuals and develop caring, open-minded members of society. Finding creative ways to incorporate issues of identity, such as through literary criticism, can provide students with a different perspective on identity. It will also provide opportunities to discover identity issues that exist, relate to characters that may struggle with these identities, and also develop and understanding and open-mindedness. Through introducing identity issues, students are given the opportunity to develop an understanding of social justice, which is very important to teach in a society that still consists of racism, discrimination, and a distorted view of what it considers different.

Despite society’s constant changing of norms and opinions, politics still exist in every aspect of our lives. Identity, just like everything else can be very political. Discussing issues involving identity such as race, gender, and sexual orientation can be politically driven and can often be influenced by the views of teachers and schools. I teach at a school that over the past few years enrolled several transgender students. The transition was difficult in the beginning but the school community took an approach that promotes equal rights for all students and establishes a caring and accepting environment where students are treated equally despite their gender preference. At first it was difficult for some students to accept but through the establishing of clubs like Gay Straight Alliance and teaching principles of social justice, transgender students are viewed as students rather than by their gender preference. I think it’s crucial to be able to separate our own personal beliefs, opinions, and gender preferences in order to provide students with an unbiased perspective on literature and issues of identity. This is a difficult challenge that is easier to accept when we personally agree with the philosophy of what we are teaching. For example, I would find it easier to teach feminist literary criticism compared to psychoanalytical criticism. As a professional though, It is my job to provide students with an unbiased perspective on both perspectives and allow them to understand that they are both lenses we can use to analyze literature and let them construct their own opinions on which we prefer.

I strongly believe that the culture of a school plays a major role in fostering open-mindedness and acceptance when discussing various issues relating to identity. Given my school has already established a culture that allows for discussion of issues of identity, I feel comfortable using literature to introduce and discuss issues relating to identity. Feminist literary criticism, for example, would allow me to teach my students to read texts through a lens that allows for understanding of the philosophy and perspectives of feminism in the literature we read. Feminist criticism allows for the understanding that the relationship between men and women in society is often unequal. Through this perspective we can think critically and analyze various aspects of a text like the gender of the author or reader, portrayal of female characters, and stereotypes of women. Although our society has come a long way, this inequality between women and men still exists. Using texts like Jane Eyre, we can explore literature through a feminist critical lens and grasp an understanding of the inequality that existed in Victorian England. Reading Jane Eyre through a feminist lens allows for understanding of Jane’s journey through a society that consisted of many patriarchal obstacles. Jane exists in an oppressive society that undervalues woman and marriage exists as their only path to social mobility. Analyzing the female character in the novel also sheds light to their roles in society. Jane is a governess, which had ambiguous status at the time. Miss Temple, who is described as with the upmost qualities, also knows her role in society and dares not speak up to Mr. Brocklehurst. Adele is a perfect example of society’s hand in the construction of a woman. She displays a sense of instilled vanity and what is expected of a woman. Through these aspects and perspective Bronte allows us to take into consideration of the role of women and the inequality that accompanies it.

In teaching my student to analyze texts through a feminist perspective I would incorporate activities like those of Deborah Appleman. In doing so I would teach my students to think about the portrayal of male and female characters in novels, their relationships, and also the attitude of the author. Learning to analyze a text through different perspectives, such as a feminist criticism of Jane Eyre, allows students to think critically and uncover identity issues that exist. Issues relating to identity are very difficult to navigate in a classroom but through literature I believe we can establish an outlet of discovery and understanding.


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