Ms. Gaya Morris's course CLLC-L 210 Relational Identity: Self, Other and the In-Between explores both liberatory and socially responsible answers to identity questions through readings in the social sciences and the humanities. You will explore the paradoxical way that identity emerges at the intersection of pre-determined categories for social belonging, and creative expression through these categories. By sampling works of autobiography, memoir, biographical fiction, and auto-ethnography, you will consider how different styles of writing enable access to stories about identity oppression and resistance in diverse cultural contexts.
An interview with Ms. Gaya Morris, a Graduate Student in The Department of Anthropology, is below.
How does this course fit the theme of this year’s Themester?
Ms. Morris: This course invites students to reflect on and experiment with the theories scholars have developed about identity in their everyday lives. While reading an interdisciplinary selection of texts about various kinds of social identification (such as race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and language) students will keep journals through which they will relate theory to their daily experiences of self-discovery and growth in Bloomington. These journals may mix writing with other media such as drawing, photography, collage, and sound recordings. Alongside theoretical readings about identity, we will read literary autobiographies written by a diverse set of scholars to inspire our own creative writing. These works will help us access through our own creative practices the ways in which identity-- as a social project of self-making, belonging, inclusion and exclusion-- impacts us all greatly, in sometimes subtle, but deeply felt ways.
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge or skills do you hope they gain?
Ms. Morris: We often think about identity as an expression of inherent characteristics that each of us already has. Personal growth becomes a process of finding "a fit" between our essential selves and slots that already exist in the world.
The readings for this course will help students challenge this common approach to develop one's own identity and viewing others and consider other possibilities, such as the idea that identity is not an internal characteristic but is merely a "performance" of social scripts for proper behavior in particular cultural contexts.
Through this course, students will develop a critical awareness of the relationship of their selves to their social worlds and the stakes and potentials of their identity-making projects.
We will take inspiration from authors writing about their experiences of identity conflict and empowerment as they transgress the expectations of their assigned race, gender, social class, and nationality. At the same time, we will reflect on the embodiment of identity, and as Sara Ahmed puts it in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, how "even when we challenge our investments, we might get stuck" (Ahmed 2004, 16). Through this course, students will develop a critical awareness of the relationship of their selves to their social worlds and the stakes and potentials of their identity-making projects. This will empower them to build new ways of being for themselves and their communities from an understanding of relational impact.
An important academic skill that students will develop through this course is the ability to distinguish and move between explicit and implicit theory. Disciplinary boundaries might suggest that critical social theory needs to be clearly spelled out in analytic prose, or that creative, artistic work is focused on aesthetics or limited by the personal. By reading social science analysis alongside literary works, students will consider how the two genres can be about the same issues, and recognize the unique strengths and limitations of each kind of writing. By shifting between the two in writing assignments students will practice making their own theories about identity implicit or explicit; allowing their findings to emerge through experience and storytelling, and sometimes allowing them to remain incomplete.
What, to you, is the most interesting aspect of this course? What do you learn from teaching it?
Ms. Morris: A central question of this course is: are we shaped by our social roots? In other words, how do the places and cultures we grew up in shape how we think and feel-- what we find important, beautiful, interesting, admirable etc. I think that it is a question that many college students can relate to, as they find themselves far from home and are exposed to new cultural experiences and people different from them. It is something I am fascinated by in my personal life, and am excited to think about with students throughout the semester.
We can ascribe to appreciating diversity, have a mindset of openness to beliefs different from our own, and even consider that morality is relative to a cultural context, but at the end of the day, we are all people with visceral tastes, preferences, values, and beliefs that guide us through our social worlds.
Visceral reactions to what we like or don't like, find comfortable or uncomfortable make right and wrong seem natural, and our tastes inevitable. And yet all of this is shaped by identity; by how socially constructed difference gets baked into our bodies. In this course, we will learn to perceive the processes happening through ourselves and others, practice care and curiosity, and dream boldly of emergent or alternative becomings.
Reading one's own writing out loud, or displaying one's artwork can be a nervous experience to start, but it is also an incredibly powerful way of hearing your own words differently, and being recognized.
Are there any assignments that you are particularly excited about?
Ms. Morris: I am most excited about the mixed-media journals that students will develop over the course of the semester, and how their creative processes will grow through inspiration from the autobiographical examples on the syllabus and listening to and witnessing each other's work.
To facilitate connections between the readings and their journaling, I have prepared journal prompts to guide students in trying out the style, format, or ideas of the authors on our syllabus. To help students stay on track, encourage them, and offer feedback throughout the semester, they will take turns in-class reading or displaying sections of their work in progress to their classmates.
Reading one's own writing out loud, or displaying one's artwork can be a nervous experience to start, but it is also an incredibly powerful way of hearing your own words differently, and being recognized. And I have no doubt that the students who choose to take this course will create a safe, supportive space for sharing and witnessing each other's work-in-progress. At the end of the semester, we will collaboratively put together a class showcase of selections of our work-- perhaps a public reading, exhibit, or printed booklet-- to share with friends and family.
What type of students would you encourage to take this course?
Ms. Morris: I would encourage anyone who is intrigued or curious about the topic of this course to sign up. No prior experience with creative writing is required; I merely ask that you commit to devoting time and energy to trying it out and that you also have an interest in learning from and receiving support from peers.
Prior coursework in the humanities and social sciences is also not required; I merely ask that if a reading is challenging, that students stick with it (i.e. read it even if it doesn't all make sense at first) and come to class with questions prepared. Interested students should know that regular attendance is required for this class and that class participation is also essential. The workload includes about 50 pages of reading per week and two analytic essays in addition to the ongoing journal project. I would strongly encourage students to consider whether this workload will be manageable considering the rest of their academic and other commitments for the semester before enrolling.
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