Teaching Identity

I am what I think I am?
I am what I think I am?

My students are more interested in learning about individuals than in concepts—this is the USA, where ideas are filtered through the “me, me, me” lens of personal experience, whether real or imagined. Teaching abstract concepts tends to be difficult, but moving from specific biographical examples to institutions and principles is usually easier than going in the reverse direction. Here’s an example from the second day of my comparative politics course, when I introduce political identity:

Before class

Read and watch:

  • Jasmin Darznik, “Home Is Where They Let You Live,” The New York Times, 26 May 2012.
  • Elie Fares, “From Beirut, This Is Paris: In A World That Doesn’t Care About Arab Lives,” A Separate State of Mind, 14 November 2015.
  • Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Villard, 2004, prologue and epilogue.
  • “Tan Le: What Does Identity Mean For An Immigrant” and “Elif Shafak: Can Stories Overcome Identity Politics,” in “Identities,” TED Radio Hour, 11 October 2013.
  • Charles Tilly, “States and Nationalism in Europe 1492-1992,” Theory and Society 23(1) (Feb 1994): 131-146.

Write a response to this question:

  • Of the people discussed (Darznik, Fares, Griest, Le, and Shafak), who has been most affected by state-led nationalism? Why? Who has been most affected by state-seeking nationalism? Why? Refer to Charles Tilly’s descriptions of these forms of nationalism in your answer. (This is a graded writing assignment that is one-half to a full page long.)

During class

  • Discuss answers to the question in small groups, followed by a class-wide discussion.
  • Listen to a brief lecture on the meaning of nation and nationalism.
  • Participate in Victor Asal’s identity salience exercise (which isn’t listed on this blog’s simulations and games index page, so it looks like I’ll be writing an explanation of it in a future post).
  • Watch and discuss Zina Saro-Wiwa’s video essay on hair and identity, which is referenced in this previous post on teaching about identity.

In this case, students go from the particular to the general and then back to the particular again, a process that seems to work well. It’s a lot to do in a single class and could easily be stretched over two.