A few of you have come to our office hours to ask about the concept of “identity” in your first synthesis assignment. It’s a complicated term, but some of you are probably very familiar with it. For those of you who haven’t dealt with it in other classes, here is a short description that should be sufficient for this assignment.
Identity can and *does* mean a lot of things, but generally it refers to the ways that you perceive yourself and how others perceive you (and these are often closely related to each other). People don’t have a single identity, but many layers of different identities, some of which can seem contradictory. In the past, students have drawn on their sense of global/national/regional/local identity and allegiance, gender, religion, ethnicity/race, interests, values systems/morals, philosophies, personality traits, political leanings or ideas about the role of government, etc. This list is not exhaustive, though!
The prompt brings up the possibility of identity changing either in concert or in contrast to the new context you’re studying in. Changes that bring your identity more in line with the context would be changing “in concert” (for example, having ideas of the role of “the state” (or all the arms of government & quasi-government bodies) become more like Canadians’ views if you study in Canada).
But thinking about the “in contrast” part is also important: Even if the core parts of yourself don’t change, keep in mind that many aspects of identity are relative. Think about terms like “local,” “foreigner,” “really religious,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “loud,” “quiet,” “independent,” “social,” “confident,” “friendly,” etc. All of these descriptions are based on how someone relates to what is considered “average,” but “average” is not a stable category; it is different in different places. (think of the uncle says “‘Normal’ changes every fifty miles.”) So even if there are aspects of how you act and feel that might not change at all, you still need to think about how the ways that you act and feel will affect how you’ll fit in in a new society with different norms.
Just as an example, someone may have the identity of “the intellectual liberal” in their small rural town in Iowa, but when they come to Madison, there’s a chance they would feel more conservative, less urbane, and identify more with rural lifestyles (this would be “in contrast”). Or maybe they would totally latch onto the dominant Madison culture, for good and/or bad (obviously there is more than one, but hopefully you get the idea).
If you feel like getting even more complicated(!), you can think about how identities are also relational, meaning a single person “performs” or inhabits different identities in different situations and around different people. For example, depending on the setting, a single person can easily inhabit the conflicting identities of daughter, mother, sister, student, teacher, boss, employee; or she might have non-conflicting identities of Latina, female, heterosexual, upper-middle class, foreign-born, well-educated, American, urban, and Catholic that fluctuate between “important” and “not important” at different points of her week. Each of these is bound up with different ideas of the self, perceptions by others, expectations for behaviors, and emotions.
You don’t have to use any of these special terms (relative, relational) in your assignment (and you may have learned different words for the same things in other classes), but hopefully the concepts can help you brainstorm ways to connect yourself to the material presented in the class about the places you will write about.
We hope the above clarifies more than it confuses!
Best, Kris & Rachel