Teaching Identity: Difficult But Worth It

Identity politics–defined by Leitch as “a politics of difference firmly based on some fixed or definable feature(s) of identity” (26)–is a topic which comes up naturally in some form or another when reading literature with high schoolers. Not only is identity a ripe topic for adolescents, who are constantly grappling with what they are and are not, but it is also a focus in much of the works we read in high school. In Jane Eyre, for example, as Sandra M. Gilbert would affirm, our protagonist completes a “pilgrimage” to womanhood, ultimately realizing her identity and agency as a woman (Gilbert). Nonetheless, discussion of identity politics–because of the impassioned views it may incite–must be framed and guided with caution.

In my mind, a person’s concept of his or her identity makes him or her relate to certain “groups” of people more than others and take up certain political or social causes more fervently than others. I think that A.) one’s identity can be comprised of many categories, associations, and experiences and B.) the identifiers which correlate most strongly to either powerfulness or powerlessness in society stand out more in a person’s concept of identity. Jane Eyre, for example, seems to be powerless in the first half of the novel because of her status as an underprivileged orphan girl and powerful in the second half of the novel because of her transformation into a fully conscious, self-reliant woman. Therefore, I believe, Jane’s personal politics would be based most on the identity categories of class and gender; class and gender correlate respectively to Jane’s struggle and triumph.

As the very act of asserting one’s identity seems to me to be necessarily political in nature–one is taking a stand for oneself–I think it is difficult to discuss identity as an apolitical topic. Additionally, not all possible categories of identity hold equal political power in a society, so inequalities will naturally be discussed alongside social realities. Consequently, issues of social justice–even calls to action–could arise in a classroom. Although I don’t think it is appropriate for teachers to suggest specific political actions or candidates, I do think that is is appropriate to discuss what social justice could look like for different categories of identity.

By both anticipating discord before holding such discussions and giving students some scripted phrases for how to validate others’ opinions while respectfully disagreeing with them in non-emotional language, teachers may make such conversations possible in the classroom. I would also consider incorporating a database mini research project into the pre-discussion activities to help students discuss facts as opposed to biases. Before discussing social realities and issues of social justice in Jane Eyre, for example, students could research the economic and political status of women in Victorian era England or the treatment of orphans during that time period. This could help to give the fictional world of Jane Eyre a firm foothold in the gender and socioeconomic realities of its time.

Despite attempted awareness of my own identity politics, I am sure that my own identity as a white, middle-class woman impacts the way I teach feminist theory. I may not be as instinctually aware, for example, of the fragmented nature of the Feminist movement (Leitch 25-26) or of the political advantage I might have in being relatively “mainstream” (25-26). Also, as a woman who already identifies as feminist, I tend to easily get on board with the theories of many feminists, so I have to work to read such works with a critical eye. Fortunately, though, I think that I am open to switching lenses as need be, so I don’t feel locked into any one way of reading.

Although aspects of my identity can sometimes be mental roadblocks for my enjoyment of certain canonical works of literature, I would say that literary theory enables me to access and think critically about most of what I read. Being, as Judith Fetterley terms it, a “resisting reader” (qtd. In Leitch 25), I don’t need to feel oppressed as a reader and I can continue to be me, even if I am not clearly reflected as an agent of power in the text. Just as Jane Eyre journeyed to find her place in the world, readers can peer through the lenses of others’ identities to strengthen their own.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 21-437.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” 1977. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 560-586.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

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