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.
- 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.
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.