October 20 2018

Performing Bodies in the Classroom: Multiple Identities and (Mis)Recognition

by Heike Peckruhn, Iliff School of Theology, University of Denver

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

We are bodies, and we engage with the world as such. In the classroom, to bodily engage with our peers, instructors, and the course content is neither simply a possibility nor an interesting method. We are bodies learning. And the crucial question presented to me then is how to consider bodies in our classroom space as the essential element of our pedagogical practice and teaching of critical analysis. Resources on practices for critical, social justice-orientated pedagogies take embodied diversity in the classroom seriously, though it seems to me that there is an underlying assumption that embodied identity markers—my race, my gender, my abilities, for example—will always be perceived in the same, or at least similar and somewhat predictable, ways. The pedagogical literature addressing diversities in the classroom often offers teaching strategies that presume a static connection between certain identity markers, especially those associated with marginalization, and the perception of and reaction to those marginalized identities. 

In a course I am coteaching with a male colleague, the class has an intense discussion that leads to a back and forth between me and a student, “John.” John cuts me off and redirects the conversation to give the floor to another student. And I am thinking, “I just got shushed! By a white male nonetheless!” In the moment, the “obvious” read I have on the situation is this: white male John undermines me, brown female queer teacher—something that he “of course” would never do to my senior straight male coteacher. 

I tend to think of myself as embodying multiple intersecting identities—brown, foreigner, queer, female. But what if my self-perception, my go-to sense of self that is made up of many intersecting markers, is not how I am always or most often perceived and responded to by my students? In literature and faculty lounges, pedagogical counsel for non-hetero-male-white-normative teachers assumes that students’ resistant behaviors are at least in part traceable to their instructors’ embodiment of minority identity boxes (i.e., teaching while brown, Black, female, genderqueer, etc.).1 In other words, a brown teacher is always experienced as brown and “means something” as a brown teacher, a female teacher as female, a queer teacher as queer. And as these various identities intersect in ourselves when we experience challenges posed to us by students, we tend to explain those challenges by tracing them to our identity markers that tend to be marginalized. So of course a situation emerged because I am female, brown, and queer.

Ironically, this assumption is complicated by scholarly works regarding intersectionality, multiplicity, and fluid relational becoming—the very kind of works that challenge rigid perceptions of identity and their meaning in the first place. Relating to each other in the classroom is not simply a process of corresponding (self) perceptions and interpretations of our bodily presence and performance. If identities appear through the body, it is because they are performative: they are socially constituted, contextual, and only appear to be fixed or mapped onto the body. To expect then that my self-perception always corresponds to how I am actually perceived and treated would be to fall back on a fixed and stable conception of identity. Further, it might also reveal a firm attachment to my favorite marginalized identity category. It certainly is necessary, in theory and practice, to know how my identity is constructed and how I come to “mean something” in daily interactions. Subtle microaggressions as well as blatant violations of bodily integrity and agency are often directed at me and others because of the ways we embody that which is consistently marginalized socially.

Same class, different moment. We discuss the structural violence of Christian supremacy, and in my perception, the discussion is hijacked by John and suddenly we find ourselves off topic. Female classmates begin a sexism 1-1 moment with him, at which point I interrupt to take back the floor. I sketch out the interrelation of oppressions and connect gender oppression to other systemic oppressions, and move back into the theme for the class. John looks at me, listens, and is noticeably silent for the rest of the class. I think, “I guess he just doesn’t like being schooled by a woman.” Or did he? Something was a bit off in how I expected him to react: I expected him to be resistant in certain ways, but he wasn’t. He was still attentive, though differently engaged. What had just happened?

Because identities are performative and available—more or less—to different kinds of bodies, I can enact and be perceived in multiple and shifting ways. In other words, just because I am a female brown body does not mean I cannot be socialized into, be positioned in ways, and be perceived as aligned with whiteness. Just because I am emotionally attached to my self-identification as queer does not prevent me from being perceived in line with heteronormativity. Intersectionality complicates my being identities. Since identities depend on their performativity, and identities are multiple and intersectional, I never just move from embodying one discursive script to another, nor are my performances always distinct movements and therefore perceived uniformly. Differently put, I don’t just add my queer moves to my brown look, or shift from performing woman to embodying foreign accent speech. In the classroom (as in other real life situations), our bodies and their meanings emerge in multiple and fluid ways, contingent on context. And in the classroom, “teacher” is also an identity that we perform in certain ways, depending on our educational training, philosophy, and institutional context.

To add more complexity—or shall I say to introduce chaos?—the classroom is always fundamentally open to contingency: our conceiving of each other as bodies in the classroom are fluid and multiple perceptual interactions. In any given moment I may emerge for my students and be sensed by them aligned with various meanings, depending on who sees me, how they might see themselves, and how they experience meanings of/in our shared space. Perceptions then are not either/or, but make classroom performances as fluid as they are contingent. So it may be that in classroom interactions, students respond to our socializations into and performances of scripts that are “whiteness” or “masculinity.” Or it may be that a heretofore seemingly unmarked/unremarkable embodiment (also the mark of a majority identity script) emerges and is perceived in ways that is usually aligned with non-normative identities.

I offer John a meeting to talk about what happened in class, and am determined NOT to defend my teaching tactics and to find my inner compassion and openness. John and I have a genuine and constructive conversation, and I am genuinely sensing that my authority in the classroom is not challenged, quite the opposite actually. Now I am left wondering how my performance as teacher might actually at times be perceived as more authoritative, top-down, shall I say in ways typically aligned as “white” and “masculine,” than I tend to think of myself? Did I mention that my straight, male, senior coteacher is Native American and most often leads roundtable discussions seated in a circle, whereas I am Christian identified in a Christian theological school, and  regularly start this Christian history course with a short lecture and tend to teach while standing?

My point in recounting my interactions with “John” (and depending on who is reading this, it probably already meant something to you when I presented my student in a certain Anglo-white imagery by calling him “John”) is that fluidity and multiplicity necessarily make space for “mis-recognition,” spaces in which I may be perceived in ways that differ from the identities I am either attached to or with which I am most used to being associated. In this case, at times I was performing capital-T Teacher, more than brown queer female.

Other times in the classroom, I felt like being “caught teaching while female and brown”; other times I sensed that I was responded to in ways that seemed like I was perceived as aligned with white masculinity. I was fought with when seemingly associated with heteronormativity, and was “here and queer,” all in the same course with the same student group, but contingent on the ways in which I was perceived to embody the recognizable identity scripts during specific moments. 

Identities are doings that emerge as beings. As teachers, we may find ourselves in performances of identities we don’t necessarily claim, but identities which we become in the perception of the beholder, at least for a moment. As teacher who feels various and conflicting identities intersect in my body, I am urged not only to understand the individual dynamics of oppression and the nature of student resistance. I also feel the need to remain humble and open enough to take the chance on being less attached to my own minority identity boxes, and recognize that perception of me is not necessarily coherent with my own self-identification. Rather I may have emerged out of another box depending on classroom dynamics and perceptual alignments and orientations of the student/moment. In the end, we are bodies learning. As a teacher, I am charged to contribute to learning in which we bodily engage each other and the world towards more just relationships.

Notes

1 It is also striking that disabilities as a “concern” in the classroom is often addressed in terms of “dealing with” students with disabilities. This seems to reflect a remaining stigma surrounding visible and invisible disabilities for those in teaching professions, and it seems to reinforce a certain ableist perception of proper teacher bodies.^

Resources

Adams, M., L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin. 1997. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. New York, NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge. 

Case, K.A., ed. 2013. Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Cooks, Leda M., and Jennifer S. Simpson. 2007. Whiteness, Pedagogy, Performance: Dis/placing Race. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.


​Heike Peckruhn grew up in a biracial and bicultural family in rural Germany. Theologically, she has been nurtured into Anabaptist commitments and is continuously shaped by postcolonial and feminist perspectives. She worked in HIV/AIDS services and as a family therapist before earning her PhD in religious and theological studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. Her dissertation develops a constructive theology that brings together phenomenology, disability theory, critical race theory, and sensory anthropology. Peckruhn teaches and publishes on a range of subjects, including historical and constructive theologies, and gender, disability, and queer studies.


Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.