Activities for Helping Students Think Through Positionality from Shetal Vohra-Gupta’s Difficult Dialogues Workshop

Written by Difficult Dialogues Program Coordinator Sarah Ropp.

On Friday, March 26, the Difficult Dialogues program was very pleased to host Shetal Vohra-Gupta (Assistant Professor of Social Work) for our third faculty-led dialogic pedagogy workshop of the Spring 2021 semester. Entitled “Helping Students Think Through Positionality,” Vohra-Gupta’s workshop was one of our bimonthly Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community events. Vohra-Gupta presented some of the activities she uses throughout the semester to engage students participating in her UGS/DD 303 course “The Invisible 80%: Students, Policy, and Action,” which she has been teaching regularly since Fall 2017, in meaningful reflection around their intersecting social identities. Highly adaptable across disciplines and content, three of Vohra-Gupta’s techniques are summarized below. 

 

    1. Identity Mapping. At the beginning of the semester, Vohra-Gupta explained, she invites students to name a few of their major social identities and reflect on the impact each identity has had on their lived experience, both pragmatically and affectively. Students engage in this reflection through a three-tiered graphic organizer, modeled after an approach presented in Danielle Jacobson and Nida Mustafa’s 2019 article “Social Identity Map: A Reflexivity Tool for Practicing Explicit Positionality in Critical Qualitative Research.” Here’s how it works: 
  • Tier 1: Students draw 8 boxes and write one of the social identities they possess in each box (for example: Class, Age, Citizenship, Ability, Race, Sexual Orientation, Cis/Trans, and Gender). 
  • Tier 2: Students draw two smaller boxes connected to each Tier 1 identity box. For each of these Tier 1 social identities, students name two ways in which this identity affects their day-to-day life, writing a simple word or phrase into the smaller boxes (for example, a student might name “health care” as an impact they associate with Canadian citizenship). These impacts may be experienced as positive, negative, a mix, or neither.
  • Tier 3: From each of the smaller Tier 2 boxes, students draw additional lines to connect emotions that they experience as a result of the pragmatic impacts (Tier 2) of their various identities (Tier 1). For example, “shame” and “desire to be an advocate” might be two emotions experienced in connection with a White racial identity. 


  • Positionality Statements. Vohra-Gupta stressed the importance of participating in critical self-reflection around identity as an instructor–not just having students do so. She explained that she does this for multiple reasons: to model reflection for students, to acknowledge and ameliorate to some degree the power imbalance between instructor and student, and to engage with her own positionality as a scholar and teacher on a regular, ongoing basis. Vohra-Gupta shared a short positionality statement of about three sentences that she uses to introduce students both to herself as an instructor and to the content and format of a positionality statement. Her statement contains a list of three or so of her primary social identities, as well as a definition of her scholarly and pedagogical identities (for example, as a feminist and critical race scholar). She invites students, after they have participated in the social identity mapping activity, to craft their own positionality statements. 


  • Written Reflection. Following the social identity mapping and positionality statement activities, Vohra-Gupta has her students apply their reflections more systematically, through a written essay assignment in which students must describe how their various and intersecting social identities impact their relationship to and experience with a given policy. For example, Vohra-Gupta shared, female students had written about their experiences of feeling exposed and embarrassed due to the “clear-bag” policy at UT stadium sporting events. Vohra-Gupta’s course is about university policy, but this exercise can be adapted to any course topic–our identities affect our lived experiences in every area, after all.  

 

Additional Resource: 

Workshop participant Amy Nathan Wright (Assistant Professor of Instruction, Human Dimensions of Organizations) shared this original identity inventory exercise as a potential follow-up to the identity mapping activity.

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