Identities & Positionality

Resources to Support Reflection on Identities & Positionality

One of the foundational practices for creating an inclusive and bias-reduced classroom is to reflect on your own multiple and intersecting identities that may be most significant in your classroom experiences as an instructor and your past educational experiences as a student. This is a working document of resources to help you reflect on and build awareness of the multiple and intersecting identities that shape your positionality as an educator. It is by no means exhaustive, and sources will continue to be added.

Infographic from Understand Social Identity to Lead in a Changing World, Center for Creative Leadership, (2021).

Why is it important to develop self-awareness of identities and positionalities as an instructor?

Hurtado and Gurin (2004) define social identities as “one’s group memberships and the emotional attachment one has for these group memberships,” highlighting how identities are more or less keenly felt in different social contexts. Moreover, “when different values are attached to different group memberships, people have to do psychological work to come to terms with their social identities.” You can read more about social identities and systems of oppression here.

In the context of teaching in higher education, your various personal and social identities affect your educational experiences and perspectives about how students learn, classroom climate, curricular choices, and course policies. Dewsbury and Brames (2019) explain that “to understand students’ voices, we must recognize and understand our own. This is to say, our accrued experiences from personal and social histories matter to how our relationships with our students develop. If we ignore this context, we can fail to see how we contribute to socially disconnected classroom environments,” (Dewsbury & Brames, 2019, p. 2). Research demonstrates that an educator’s social identities shape how they experience their classroom and approach curriculum, teaching practices, and perceptions of student interactions (Chesler & Young, 2007). For example, a Black woman educator may be more aware of the racial and gender dynamics in her classroom than a white male educator because she recognizes these experiences from her own lived experience.

You might begin by asking yourself:
  • What identities and values do I bring to the classroom?
  • How do they shape my assumptions about teaching and the students I teach?
  • How do these identities affect how students interact with me and other students?

To read more about the importance of developing awareness of identities and positionalities as instructors, read Section I of Oleson’s (2021) book Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education (access e-book through MIT libraries).

Activities that guide reflection on social Identities

These activities support critical reflection on your social identities and how they shape your experiences and perspectives as an educator. Note that reflecting on identities is a continuous process, and the activities and readings are designed to help increase self-awareness for most people.

The pathways below are designed with an eye toward the realistic time constraints that may inform the depth and utility of your engagement in the identity reflection activities. While these questions over simplify the complexity of awareness and engagement with identities, power, and privilege, they create pathways intended to meet you where you are.

Where to BeginCore ActivityOther Identity Reflection Activities

Where to begin? Pathways for reflection

Begin by briefly considering the following questions about privileged and marginalized identities.

  • Which of your identities are sources of power and privilege in your discipline, prior experience as a learner, or in higher education in general?
  • Which of your identities are marginalized/not advantaged in your discipline or higher education in general?

If these identities are salient to you and you feel prepared and informed while answering these questions, proceed to the core activity on identities important in the classroom.

If you want support and context for considering identities as sources of power and privilege, begin with other identity reflection activities and finish with the core activity.

Core activity: Reflect on the identities important in the classroom (recommended for all)
  • Consider which identities you consider important and/or that you think others consider important in the classroom. Select two or more of your identities or multiple intersecting identities to be a focal identity for this guided inquiry. In this activity, you will practice skills in reflection on how your identities influence your perspectives about how students learn, classroom climate, curricular choices, and course policies.
  • Open the guided inquiry activity handout by following this link and selecting “make a copy.” You may then answer the questions by directly typing into this document.
Other identity reflection activities

Consider the following questions and time constraints to inform which pathway of identity reflection meets you where you are.

Is racial identity salient to you? How often are you reminded of your various social identities in different contexts? If racial identity is not salient and/or you are not often reminded of your various social identities, the brief activities below will give you practice identifying your social identities and provide some helpful context for reflecting on your identities.

  • The identity pie (sometimes called the social identity wheel). [Time estimate: 20 – 40 min] This is a useful tool for critically examining your identities and how identities are more or less keenly felt in different social contexts. Watch this video of TLL colleagues Ben and Dipa constructing an identity pie (13:38). Now create an identity pie for yourself. You can draw it as Ben and Dipa did in the video or print and use this handout.
  • Social identity worksheet. [Time estimate: 30 – 60 min] Use this handout to map out different domains of your social identity (i.e., social group membership) and reflect on how these domains intersect to shape your life experiences.

If your racial identity is salient to you and you are often reminded of your various social identities in different contexts, these activities support deeper engagement with intersectionality1 and other sources of privilege that inform your positionality as an educator, ordered based on the time commitment from most to least:

Reflect on your racial identity development. Singh’s (2019) Racial Healing Handbook involve reflecting on your past lived experiences with racism and how they shaped your racial identity, describing your current racial identity, and examining your multiple and intersecting identities. Singh’s racial healing handbook provides many other valuable tools, available free here. (A New Harbinger Publishers account [also free] is required to download the tools.)

Guided inquiry on intersectional identities. The first module of the MITx Inclusive Teaching course offers guided reflection on more/less salient identities and intersectional1 identities, going beyond the identity pie activity to highlight intersectionality. The rest of the modules are also valuable and informative introductions to inclusive teaching practices.

Unpack social privileges as an educator. Consider the automatic, often unacknowledged, advantages of being able-bodied, native English-speaking, male, and/or white as you read and engage with Pamela Barnett’s Unpacking Teachers’ Invisible Knapsacks: Social Identity and Privilege in Higher Education.

1 Intersectionality is “a theory developed by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw […] that explains that since identities interact and do not operate independently, there are interconnected systems of oppression (e.g., racism and misogyny) and privilege, which are impossible to disentangle.” (from the Glossary of the MITx Inclusive Teaching course). For more details, watch the TED Talk on The Urgency of Intersectionality.

Relevant Reading

On teaching and higher education

Adams and Bell (2016). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. (link to publisher). A resource for theoretical foundations and curricular frameworks for social justice teaching practice. The companion website (available with book purchase) includes a treasure trove of activities and assignments to support social justice education.

Hogan and Sathy (2022). Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom (link to publisher) “Hogan and Sathy provide tips and advice on how to make all students feel welcome and included. They begin with a framework describing why explicit attention to structure enhances inclusiveness in both course design and interactions with and between students. Inclusive Teaching then provides practical ways to include more voices in a series of contexts: when giving instructions for group work and class activities, holding office hours, communicating with students, and more.”

hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (available online at MIT library). A powerful and inspiring series of essays that raise critical questions and practical knowledge of the classroom to address how to teach students to transgress against racial, sexual, and class boundaries to achieve freedom. (see also, Teaching Community and Teaching Critical Thinking by bell hooks)

Oleson (2021). Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education: A Research-Based Pedagogical Guide for Faculty (access e-book through MIT libraries; link to publisher). This practical resource, grounded in theory and research, highlights adaptive strategies and reflective activities to help faculty create community in the classroom and help all students succeed. Oleson discusses the importance of instructor and student identities, the classroom context, and particular situations (for example, microaggressions) that challenge inclusive classroom dynamics. Section I on Instructor Identities is particularly relevant.

On knowledge about race and racism

  • Banaji and Greenwald (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Baldwin (2013). The Fire Next Time. (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Bridges (2019). Critical Race Theory: A Primer. (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Kendi (2016). Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Kendi (2019). How to be an AntiRacist (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Singh (2019). The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing (access e-book through MIT libraries)
  • Steele (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (copy available at the library)

See the MIT libguide on Racial Justice and Anti-racism resources for remote access to books and films.