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Identity As A Multiple Context For Learning And Teaching

Adrienne Chan
University of Kent at Canterbury, U.K.

Abstract:  This paper explores the multiple contexts of identity for educators working in an educational institution, and how their experiences influenced epistemology and practice. Through reflective narrative, individuals considered their identities and the implications of identity.

Résumé:  Cet article explore chez les éducateurs les différents contextes de l'identité, au sein de leurs institutions d'enseignement. Il montre comment leurs expériences influencent épistémologie et pratique de l'enseignement. Par reflexion sur le recit de leurs propres experiences, les individus se sont penchés sur leurs identités et sur les implications de la notion d'idendité.
· Introduction
· Parallel lives
· "Don't touch my hair"
· Corduroy
· Up the down staircase
· References
This paper accepted by, but not presented at CASAE 18th Annual Conference, Sherbrooke. June 10-12, 1999 (Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education - Conference).  The paper is part of conference proceedings archives at


The anti-essentialist critique (Hall and du Gay, 1996) of identity has provided for a more open dialogue about the politics of representation and location. As educators we are often placed in positions of responsibility regarding the politics of education. I suggest that educational institutions are a site where we may consider the political conditions of representation and location. Further, these political conditions may be used to push against the boundaries of single signifiers such as gender or race. As educators become more aware of their own personal contexts and of their own identities, the face of learning and teaching may change significantly.

Perhaps one of the most influential bodies of literature, which has changed how we consider knowledge, is feminist epistemology. Feminist epistemology has provoked our critical analysis to consider gendered ways of knowing (Belenky et. al. 1986). At the same time, feminists do not present a unitary view and some do not maintain gender as the single primary analytic category. Collins (1990), in articulating Black feminist thought and the construction of knowledge argues for an epistemology through both race and gender. Collins is Black and she is a feminist. The identity of the theorist, the "knower" then, is a critical location from which the analytical lens is shaped.

My position as a feminist researcher primarily carries with it my racial, ethnic, and class dimensions. As well, my heterosexuality, spirituality and abilities/capacities have to be taken into account. The interweaving of the categories of my identity shape my work as an educator. However my arrival at this interwoven position has entailed a journey of reflection, self-doubts and interrogation. I believe that we construct our basis of knowledge, our ways of knowing, through our lived experience and through the experience of others who influence us. As well, the stories we tell about our experiences are constitutive of experience and not simply reflective of it.

My research entailed the exploration of contexts in which educators live and work; their narratives about personal, social and institutional life. In the research process, issues of identity surfaced - how identities influenced learning and teaching; how learning and teaching also influenced identities. This led me to ask people to reflect on their multiple identities; how they saw themselves; how they thought others might perceive them; how aspects of identity might be repressed; what kinds of disjunctures, if any, existed between these two perceptions.

Representation and identities

Representation is acutely experienced by those who cannot substantially live their lives as individuals, and are continually placed in positions of representing their group. Hall (1992) discusses his experience as a part of the "Black diaspora" and the "burden of representation" (1992, 289). He criticizes the oversimplified relations of representation and asserts that the Black experience has been used as an essentializing category. By essentializing, there is an attempt to unify Blackness as a category. At times this may give a sense of group belonging, but it also serves to collude with hegemonic discourse in which Blacks may be decontextualized and objectified. The discussion of the "Black experience" is key to the politics of representation for Blacks, but relates to any other group in which similar constructions are made.

The academy is a place in which the politics of representation is constructed in a number of forms. Mojab (1997) for example, talks about her experience as a "minority" woman, for this is how she is seen. This representation places her in a position where her credibility, authority and objectivity are questioned. Every day interactions are subject to the lens of representation and how she and others like her are essentialized into their categories of "minority" and "women of colour".

Challenging these constructions is difficult terrain. Yes, Hall is a Black man, yet he never identified himself as Black until he emigrated to the United Kingdom from the Caribbean (Hall, 1998). Yes, Mojab is a minority woman, but that category is not of her choosing, it is imposed by the Canadian politics of colour and representation. Yet both Hall and Mojab are more than these categories which have been constructed for them and over which they have little control.

In my research I wondered how the experiences of Hall and Mojab might affect the stories they told about learning and teaching. What lenses did they have; what lenses have they removed, in order to be more reflective and aware in learning and teaching situations? How do the political conditions of their lives manifest in the lives of their students, colleagues and in their research? Both have answered these questions partially in their writings where they convey their experiences and situated-ness in developing conceptual frameworks and posing epistemological questions. They suggest ways in which their teaching and "knowing" is both feminist and liberatory.

The politics of identity mirrors the interconnections between the political, economic and cultural contexts in which we live (Moghadam, 1994). I contend the politics of identity exist in educational institutions, are manifested in individual lives, and are influenced by the national and global considerations of race and gender today. The power dimensions which exist the academy are also a reflection of the wider political conditions in which we live.

In my research, the men and women who were like research collaborators, identified and considered how different representations and identities affected their lives. As with Hall and Mojab, some talked about being a person of colour, being a woman, but these individuals were also trying to reconstruct what it meant to be identified in singular terms; singular terms which trivialized the complexity of their lives and experiences.

Parallel lives

"If I was prepared to ask students to throw off their masks and expose themselves to me, then I needed to know what this entailed for them" (Maylor, 1995, 39). There are parallel considerations for what is entailed in the teaching process and what is involved in the research process. As an instructor, I had certainly asked students to engage in processes that I had not probed myself (e.g. asking students to write about everyday ethical decisions that they made). Later, I realized there was a kind of fraudulence in this type of learning. How could I ask a student to write a journal if I did not know how difficult that might be?  This kind of question reshaped my view of instruction and of research.

My own willingness to go through the process of reflection and narrative was necessary if this was the type of engagement I wanted with research participants, especially if the process was to be collaborative. My ability to understand and consider the identities of others became contingent on my ability to examine my own identities and influences, and contingent on the interchange between us in sharing narratives. My ability to make links in my life was one indicator of whether or not I was able facilitate the same process with other people's lives and the connections in their narratives. There were, of course, power considerations in these interpretive relations and one of the ways that I dealt with this was to ask participants to think about the links I had made, as well as making linkages of their own.

In my research, I met with faculty, staff and administrators a number of times over the academic year. All came with stories about their own teaching and learning experiences. I asked about role models and influential times in their lives. Out of their narratives, themes began to emerge, considering the formulation of identities and attitudes. They reflected on influences from parents, teachers and peers. I reflected on my own experiences with them and made other observations on my self outside of our meetings.

Some faculty recognized a tendency to essentialize their students - a way of coping with the daily stresses of many classes, many faces. However, the process of examining their own multiple identities reminded them to move away from this place of simple signifiers, to see their students as having complex and complicated lives.

"Don't touch my hair"

The narrative of G is one in which race and gender are most significant. G grew up in a environment of the civil rights movement and segregation of Black people. G is an instructor and manager of a program in her institution, and in these roles she is aware of some of the conditions which have shaped her. As well, the research process stimulated awareness of contexts which she had forgotten.

G recounted one story about her childhood, in the Southern states. White people, often total strangers, would frequently stroke and touch her hair. She remembered how much she hated their touching her. On one occasion, she got on the bus with her mother and the bus driver said that instead of sitting at the back of the bus, "this little beauty can sit up here with me". This heightened sense of objectification in this experience and in which race and sex was an occurrence which G never forgot. As an adult, G has experienced both racism and sexual harassment.

G recounted another experience of sexual harassment (e.g. comments of a sexual nature). She did not recognize this as harassment at the time and the aftermath awareness and realization shocked her. Her defence instincts made it possible for her to handle overt gestures and comments in the situation, while other women found themselves out of a job or experiencing ongoing intimidation. G was construed as an "uppity Black woman", even though she describes herself as a private introverted individual. G's experience motivated her to encourage others to advocate for themselves. It is another text for how to say: "don't touch my hair".

G's identities are one of the many factors which influence her roles and how she acts in the institution. She takes on uncomfortable situations in meetings and in the classroom. She asks her students to think about race and gender. In the early stages of our research meetings, she took some of her behaviour for granted: that she was an advocate, that she would speak out when necessary. In sharing her narratives with me, she regained a sense of the links between her history, her behaviour and how these experiences have shaped her. In the classroom, she is mindful of the contexts of race and gender which her students bring. She is also increasingly aware of these contexts in situations with managers and administrators. G sees the world through multiple lenses of social justice.


JJ's narrative began with his awareness of race and ethnicity at a time of significant migration of middle Europeans, during the 1950s. He remembers that he had never seen corduroy before Germans came to live in their small mining town in northern Ontario. Corduroy became synonymous with "displaced persons (DPs)", until it became a popular and normalized fabric in Canada. The mining culture of his hometown was also a significant background to his political awareness of class issues. His father died; the family became poor overnight, and his mother could not find work for a year.

JJ brought to his classroom an awareness of class issues from his own experience and some empathy for ethnic objectification from his childhood interactions with immigrants. Over time, he has advocated for a more inclusive and diverse canon, and has pushed to include more authors who are women and from diverse cultural groups in the curriculum. He questions himself and questions the mentality of institutions doing things "the way they have always been done". He sees himself as an educator and in a continual learning process.

JJ also has a significant role in his union (faculty association) and here he has responsibilities, influence and power - where he can influence changing attitudes about pedagogy, race, class and gender. His awareness and thinking are also linked to his development of critical consciousness.

JJ is not an "oppressed person". He is what might be typified as a "white male". He is aware that he is prone to being identified simply as a "white male". Yet, JJ is much more than that. He brings to his role as teacher and union member an important perspective in terms of race, class and gender.

Up the down staircase

G and JJ were two participants in my research. Both talked about teaching and learning as a relationship that occurs in the classroom. They made reference to what hooks (1994) calls "teaching to transgress", i.e. creating a place for openness and intellectual rigour at the same time. If there are dominant voices, what consciousness do we have about these voices; whose voices are these and in what ways have they taken space? Both G and JJ talked about the dominant Eurocentric curriculum and instructional models. Western epistemology was questioned and there were some beginning considerations of the multi-layered contexts of the knower and the known. JJ referred to the up and down staircases [ During the 1950s and 1960s it was common for there to be staircases which were one-way. Thus there were "up" staircases and "down" staircases.] which permeated schools in the past, and how this is an analogy for seeing epistemology and practice in a different way - sometimes moving against the traffic.

In the research meetings, G, JJ and others talked about how issues of race, gender, class, and other aspects of diversity, helped them to think about and review some of their considerations of epistemology and practice. Through reflective narrative, they explored their identities and the implications of their personal histories. In so doing, G, JJ, and others contemplated the influence of identities on learning and teaching, and how learning and teaching also influenced their identities. Thinking through their own influences and identities helped them see their students and knowledge in more complex ways. There was a beginning deconstruction of views of the learner and of the canon, the curriculum and instructional models.

The process of reflecting on the intersections of identities became an anti-essentilizing process. It allowed the multiple contexts and layers of identity to emerge for the research participants. Black feminism, other feminist critiques, and class struggles have moved the social construction of knowledge away from a simple analytic lens of gender. The experiences of the participants in the research reflect the broader trends in the anti-essentialist critique of identity and epistemology. Thus, we see the possibility that epistemology can be moved from its centre - becoming multi-lensed and divergent.


Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.C., Goldberger, N.R., and Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: the Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990). Black Feminist Thought. New York and London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart. (1992). New Ethnicities. In James Donald and Ali Rattansi (Eds.) 'Race', Culture and Difference. London: Sage.

_________ and du Gay, Paul. (Eds.) (1996). Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York and London: Routledge.

Maylor, Uvanney. (1995). Identity, Migration and Education. In Maud Blair and Janet Holland (Eds.) (1995). Identity and Diversity. Clevedon, Avon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters Ltd. in association with The Open University.

Moghadam, Valentine (1994). Introduction: Women and Identity Politics in Theoretical and Comparative Perspective. In V. Moghadam (Ed.) Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. San Francisco: Westview Press.

Mojab, Shahrzad. (1997) Minority Women at the Iron Borders of the Academe. In Paul Armstrong, Nod Miller, and Mariam Zukas (Eds.) Crossing Borders Breaking Boundaries: Proceedings of the 27th Annual SCUTREA Conference. London: Birbeck College, University of London.

Adrienne Chan
University of Kent at Canterbury, U.K.

This paper accepted by, but not presented at CASAE 18th Annual Conference, Sherbrooke. June 10-12, 1999 (Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education - Conference).  The paper is part of conference proceedings archives at

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