Crossing Boundaries

Getting Uncomfortable

Identity Exploration in a Multi-Class Blog

Rochelle Rodrigo and Jennifer Kidd

In the United States, the K-12 student population is increasingly children of color while teachers remain largely Caucasian. In 2010, only 52% of American students were white,[1] while 84% of teachers were white.[2] Research suggests white, middle class teachers are often poorly prepared to effectively teach students from minority and lower income backgrounds,[3] meanwhile, a significant achievement gap persists between students from these backgrounds and their white, Asian, and middle-class peers.[4]

To become effective and culturally responsive, preservice teachers need to explore power, privilege, and prejudice, and to contemplate institutional and societal structures impeding the success of affected populations. However, teacher educators frequently report student resistance to discussing race.[5] Students deny race as a salient factor in their lives and see racism as a problem of the past.[6] They claim not to notice race[7] and to adopt what is known as a colorblind perspective.[8] Colorblindness suggests that because race should not matter, it does not matter. From a colorblind perspective, acknowledging a person’s race is offensive and suggestive of underlying prejudice.[9] Accordingly, race is treated as an invisible characteristic that polite people neither see nor discuss. Such beliefs make frank discussions of power, privilege and prejudice challenging for educators and students.

The Assignment

We designed a pilot project for pre-service teachers to write and share identity narratives in a multi-course blog in Spring 2013 with five sections of an educational foundations course at Old Dominion University. Shelley, the writing instructor/digital humanities scholar, and Jennifer, along with two other participating instructors, designed The Identity Exploration Assignment. This scaffolded web writing project asked students to engage with texts about identity development, reflect on their memberships in various social and demographic groups, produce “This I Believe” style essays exploring their most self-defining group membership, and submit their writing to a course blog.[10] Participants tagged their posts to help classmates identify and respond to peers both similar to and different from themselves and then concluded with a piece of reflective writing.

We hypothesized that students who reflected on their childhood identity development while reading narratives from diverse peers would discover how group memberships shape K-12 students’ identities. We hoped witnessing diverse experiences via writing would increase participant receptivity to discussions of race and ethnicity in students’ educational experiences and provide opportunities to improve writing skills. When students discuss racial/ethnic issues in interracial groups there is often a positive effect on student attitudes and learning.[11] Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, enable such interactions.

Click to open: The Identity Exploration course site.

Click to open: The Identity Exploration course site.

Click to open: The Identity Exploration course site.

The Identity Exploration course site.

Identity development was a natural fit for this assignment for several reasons. First, attitudes associated with colorblindness are typical of white students in the first stage of racial identity development, what Helms[12] calls the contact developmental status.[13] We hoped studying identity would help students be cognizant of their own development and understand that developmental growth can be accompanied by feelings of anger, guilt, and discomfort. Second, as future teachers, these students will profoundly impact the identities of young people. Reading stories of young people’s identity development — especially ones recounting the influences of teachers and peers — illuminates the powerful role and responsibility teachers have in shaping students’ identities. Finally, engaging in reflective writing and thinking, exploring personal histories, acknowledging membership in different groups, and learning about the lives and experiences of other groups are specific activities suggested for education students to become culturally responsive teachers.[14]

We wanted participants to do most of their intellectual work, as well as demonstrate their learning, through writing for three reasons. First, writing-to-learn is a well-documented pedagogical strategy that provides students with writing assignments that allow them to think through what they are learning.[15] Students needed to slow down and critically think about the importance of group memberships and connect them to their own identity. Second, students would improve their writing while writing to learn.[16] Part of learning any discipline is understanding its theoretical and philosophical underpinnings which are present in the type, style, and genres of writing privileged in that discipline. Writing to learn would help the students process their own learning; learning to write would help them mature as future educators.

We layered the project so that students could write their way through their learning and continue to build upon their thinking in a scaffolded manner. Faculty who teach writing typically argue for scaffolding larger assignments,[17] especially research projects,[18] as a way to help students break up the tough intellectual labor of finding, analyzing, and synthesizing information from the similarly difficult work of arranging and presenting their thinking through writing.[19] Through the scaffolded process, students used write-to-learn activities to process what they were learning about diversity and their own identity development and then worked to present what they learned in a more polished manner.

We used a blog for two reasons: functionality and audience. Many scholars suggest benefits of various Web 2.0 applications[20] including the ability to share work more widely, and with a more diverse audience.[21] Of the students who participated, approximately 80% were female; 75% were white, 15% were Black, and 10% were other racial/ethnic backgrounds. These demographics are not so dissimilar to the current teaching population. With the tagging capabilities of the blog, however, students were able to select posts based on group memberships and purposefully seek out experiences both similar to and different from their own. All students were able to share their stories and then read others from students in different sections (and, eventually, prior semesters). User accounts in WordPress, outside of any institutionally affiliated software, gave students the option of using pseudonyms to discuss sensitive issues freely.

Results

This Identity Exploration assignment was implemented in five course sections with a total of 153 students. Many students who completed the assignment appeared to meet both the primary objective of improving understanding of diversity as well as the secondary objective of improving writing skills. Prior to an instructional unit on diversity, students completed three diversity related surveys: the Professional Beliefs Scale,[22] measuring students’ beliefs related to teaching; the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale,[23] assessing students’ racial attitudes; and fifteen items from the Multicultural Sensitivity Scale,[24] assessing interracial personal and teaching interactions. At the end of the course, students completed the same scales and responded to a researcher-designed survey evaluating students’ attitudes toward the project. Ninety-one students participated in the study.

Identity Development and Diversity

The three diversity-related instruments revealed a surprising combination of results. A significant difference in Professional Beliefs indicated participants had attitudes more accepting of diversity and more knowledgeable of institutional inequities at the end of the course. In contrast, there was no significant change in Colorblind Racial Attitudes suggesting beliefs about the salience of race did not alter much over the semester. Most interestingly, a significant difference in Multicultural Sensitivity scores suggested participants were more insensitive to multicultural interactions at the end of the semester. Specifically, students reported greater discomfort interacting with people from racial/ethnic groups other than their own at the posttest.

Although the students’ experiences during the diversity unit seemed to make them uncomfortable, students evaluated the Identity Exploration Assignment very highly. The great majority of students found it a beneficial learning activity (84%) and enjoyed participating (84%). Participants reported learning about themselves (83%) and the effects of group memberships on identity (91%), often in ways they hadn’t previously considered (86%). And, almost all the students found benefit in reading (90%) and reflecting on (91%) other students’ stories, emphasizing the importance of the interaction facilitated by the blog.

Approximately twenty percent of students wrote about race or ethnicity; two thirds of these students were black, Asian or Hispanic. Interestingly, several black students did not mark their post with a race-specific tag (e.g. black), even if they named their race in their title (e.g.“You’re not like most black girls…”), instead opting for broader themed tags such as “Stereotypes” or “Expectations”. This may indicate resistance to labeling, but it is likely the students did not realize the importance of the tags in helping readers find stories written by people from different demographic groups. Many students may not have posted in a blog previously nor used tags to label their writing. This is a technical detail the instructors need to address more thoughtfully in future iterations.

A few students appeared defensive about associating themselves with perceived privilege:

Poor me, poor little white boy, that grew up in a white community, that was an only child, that had parents that loved him and supported him while encouraging him to be everything he wanted to be. So what defines someone like me you might ask?

This highlights the instructors’ need to be sensitive to and supportive of members in dominant groups, to help them understand that privilege does not discredit their accomplishments nor make them a “bad person” and to broaden the definition of diversity so all students can celebrate their uniqueness.

The students who wrote about their race and ethnicity produced powerful narratives with lessons their peers could (and in some cases, did) learn from. Several African American females in the course challenged the notion of “acting white”:

They said to me that I am ‘acting white’. I guess that acting white meant that I talked like them, I was smart like them, and I was listening to the same music, and dressing like them. But I didn’t see it as me being more like them-but me just being me.  I thought to myself, why is it that I have to be acting like them and not them acting like me?

About half of the responses to stories of “acting white” were made by black women sympathizing with similar accounts. Occasionally, comments from students outside the demographic group documented new personal insights:

Your story was really inspiring to me. As a white male its often hard to think in terms of how other races might be dealing with having friends of different races and/or back grounds.

Another student wrote:

It’s so mind blowing to me that just because you are a certain race or ethnicity you are expected to ‘act’ a certain way or associate yourself with those specific people.

One student described how even her teachers adopted the stereotype that good students are white:

In high school, my teachers always expected me to do very well. I have had 3 teachers that I can remember tell me that I wasn’t black, ‘because I show up for class,’ or ‘because I make good grades and behave well.’ They really must have thought I was white. They were bashing my race right in front of me like it wasn’t a big deal. I was born an African American, and no matter what I do, how I pronounce my words, nor how I act can change that.

This powerful and expressive post unfortunately received only one response. None of the posts about acting white received more than five comments, further evidence of the need for the instructors to do more to centralize stories of individuals from traditionally marginalized demographic groups.

Students frequently offered statements of support to their peers and the theme of overcoming hardships, especially when participants wrote about low expectations or criticism. For example, this comment was posted to the story of a Hispanic student whose aspirations to be a police officer were scoffed at by family and friends:

What a great story. I am impressed by your motivation and the fact that you stuck to what you wanted in life. Sometimes children just except the answers their parents give them. When your parents told you that it was just a dream and assumed it would not come true you still went for what you wanted. This is a very inspirational story. I love the stories that show what individuals can do if they keep their focus set in the right direction.

Instead of critiquing expectations—their origin or influence, students focused on their peers’ ability to resist prejudice and defy stereotypes. This fits well with colorblind ideology, suggesting people should be able to succeed regardless of circumstance, and a commitment to individual accountability rather than collective responsibility for equitable opportunities.

The most popular category of group memberships was extracurricular activities. Many students reported developing a strong sense of identity from participating on a team (e.g. sports, cheerleading, and band). The post that received the most comments (19), focused on the pervasive stereotypes of cheerleaders as unintelligent and promiscuous and provided a compelling account of hurtful comments and unfounded prejudices conveyed not only by the author’s peers, but also her teachers.

I got called all the names you could think of. I was told by my peers I wouldn’t get good grades, I’d be called a slut, the whole nine yards. Teachers would pick on me and make fun of me because I was the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde cheerleader.’ Funny thing was though, I was a brunette and had all A’s and B’s throughout high school.

Students appreciated one another’s narratives and most reached similar conclusions in their reflections. They acknowledged that everyone faced hardships; everyone “has a story”. They preferred to frame experiences of discrimination as opportunities for personal growth rather than indictments of an unjust society. They focused on similarities and strengths, rather than on differences, injustice, or ignorance. There were critical reflections, however and calls to action:

I really liked reading your story, because it gave me a whole new perspective. Unfortunately, I was always one of those to stereotype cheerleaders into the same categories you described. . . I never really thought about what you guys go through. It shocked me that so many people would be so cruel directly to you, or even behind your back.

As a teacher it is beyond important to understand the stereotypes for all the different students in class. Certain stereotypes can discourage students from not wanting to do their best in class, not wanting to really be themselves. As a teacher, if you don’t try and understand why students are acting out or not doing their best, we can only make it worse on them.

Writing

The primary goal of the Identity Exploration Assignment was to increase student understanding of diversity-related issues within the American education system, and in particular how students’ identities are shaped by their group memberships and interactions with others. However, in using writing as a primary tool to help facilitate this learning, a secondary goal was to help students improve their writing. Many (78%) of the students somewhat or strongly agreed that the assignment “was a good opportunity to practice my writing skills.” About one-third (35%) of the students made general comments about the benefit of reading and learning from one another’s texts; they may have become more aware of themselves as potential audience members. Six made comments that demonstrated their awareness of the others reading their work; some of these comments included:

When people commented on my story they gave praise and I knew that they were engaged into what I was saying. . .

I was a little disappointed because I really put myself out there and only received feedback from one person. . .

At first I was apprehensive about others being able to read my story. . .

I did not feel comfortable sharing my story at all, and did not feel comfortable reading others as well.

Conversely, one student who claimed “It should be simply turned in on Blackboard” missed the assignment objective of learning from reading other students’ work as well as learning from comments left by other students. Four more students emphasized that the assignment was “hard work” and took a lot of time. Three more participants mentioned the scaffolding, one praised the assignment being broken up into smaller pieces and two other students suggested that the assignment should have been smaller/shorter and had fewer sections.

We did not explicitly assess the writing of students during this implementation of the assignment; however, we plan to do so in the future. The general positive feedback on the assignment, especially the benefit of reading their peers’ work, suggests students both learned, and were metacognitively aware they learned, through writing, reading, and comparing. To build on what we’ve started, we are revising the assignment so that students understand and practice the scaffolding process to both improve their thinking and learning as well as their writing (for example, we have explicitly built in a peer- and self-review process).

Conclusions

The multi-course blog allowed students to explore the influence of group memberships on identity development with a more diverse cohort of peers than possible within their individual cohorts. Findings suggest students better understood the effects of group membership on interpersonal interactions and educational experiences as a result. Students’ awareness of educational inequities increased. The most interesting finding was the increase in students’ Multicultural Sensitivity Scale scores showing that students perceived greater discomfort interacting with others outside their racial/ethnic group at the posttest. It is, however, unclear exactly what caused these results. The class discussions on diversity-related topics, the Identity Exploration blog assignment, and 30-hour classroom observation placements may all have been contributing factors. Caution must be also used interpreting this finding as it is not clear whether students actually became less comfortable interacting interracially, if they became more aware of their discomfort, or if they are more willing to admit discomfort.

From a colorblind perspective, acknowledgement of race/ethnicity suggests underlying prejudice.[25] That participants in this study were more willing at posttest to admit they notice race/ethnicity and concede that interracial interactions are less comfortable for them to negotiate can be seen as a positive development. This discomfort may be indicative of the second stage of racial identity development, disintegration[26] where individuals become conflicted over unresolvable racial moral dilemmas, like believing one is nonracist yet not wanting to work with students of a different racial group. By sharing stories of identity, students may have progressed in their own identity development.

Although we believe that this version of the assignment was successful in making students more “uncomfortable” and therefore more aware of issues of diversity, we also believe we can more explicitly take advantage of the affordances of the blogging technology to help students emerge from their “filter bubble.”[27] More thought needs to go into the tagging protocol to centralize narratives from authors of traditionally marginalized groups without making these individuals feel defined by their demographics and simultaneously allowing members of dominant groups to find and celebrate their own diversities. Students need more guidance identifying and critiquing power and prejudice in interactions in schools and discussing methods for teachers to dismantle dominant power structures in their schools and classrooms.

It is important to acknowledge that these changes are occurring in the first course in a teacher preparation program and that more instruction and intercultural interactions are needed before students graduate if these pre-service teachers are to feel comfortable and competent interacting with students from diverse backgrounds in their future classrooms. While discomfort is a hopeful first step in the right direction, it necessitates subsequent steps. If the initial step is left unsupported, it could result in pre-service students stepping away from opportunities to work with diverse populations. The use of writing-to-learn activities supported by Web 2.0 technologies, like blogs, can be essential tools to facilitate greater intercultural interaction that enables this process.

About the Authors: Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo is an assistant professor of English at Old Dominion University. She was a full time faculty member for nine years at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Shelley researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, more specifically teaching and learning. In addition to co-authoring the two editions of The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Shelley was also co-editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability.

Jennifer Kidd is a senior lecturer in the department of Teaching and Learning at Old Dominion University. Previously she taught elementary school in Chicago, Virginia and Budapest, Hungary. Her research focuses on web 2.0 technologies to support teaching and learning. She received grants from HASTAC/The MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation to support the production of a student-authored wiki textbook in her classes.

How to cite:

Rochelle Rodrigo and Jennifer Kidd, “Getting Uncomfortable: Identity Exploration in a Multi-Class Blog,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/rodrigo-kidd.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[28]


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  28. Rodrigo and Kidd, "Getting Uncomfortable," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/rodrigo-kidd-2013/.

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