Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned

Several days ago, I submitted (and then corrected) final grades for my undergraduate online identity course. I am planning to teach the course again next semester and I’ll certainly be making some changes based on this first semester of the class.

First, Clay Shirky’s right: the first challenge when working with young students in discussions about their use of the Internet and other technologies is to help them understand just how different their uses of these technologies are compared to previous generations’. For many of the youngest students, cell phones, MySpace, and wireless Internet access have almost always existed and they have always been part of their lives. While for many of us these technologies and the ideas underlying them – flexible and changing ideas of privacy, incredibly public and intimate expressions of identity, and indexable, searchable, and permanent artifacts – are new and world-changing, for these students these ideas are old-hat and completely non-notable. Next semester, I need to work harder at the very beginning of the class to help my students understand how new and unexplored all of these technologies are for all of us. I’m not quite sure how to do that and figuring that out is my homework during the holiday break.

The final assignment elicited some surprising insight and ideas from my students. In a nutshell, they were to make policy recommendations for the use of social networking services (SNSes) for either a college admissions office or a company hiring new college graduates. The recommendations spanned the entire range of potential recommendations from “they must investigate the profile of every applicant” to “they can never investigate the profiles of applicants” with varying levels of quality support and rationale for the recommendations.

The most surprising and interesting recommendation, submitted by a few students, was that applicants should be able to decide whether or not their SNS profiles are fair game. That is not a recommendation I had anticipated and the justifications were very interesting. Essentially, these students really grabbed hold of some of the ideas we discussed and read that related to the active role we can take in shaping and understanding how we are presented and described online. I haven’t quite figured out how practical the recommendation is when scaled up to institutions or corporations that have thousands of applicants but it’s a great answer for this final assignment and it shows a wonderful grasp of some very important ideas.

I wish I had more time to tackle ideas of privacy and context.  That’s something else I will see if I can work into the course next semester although I am not very hopeful. Given the length of the course, it’s impossible to even touch on every important and interesting topic. I hope to expand the course to a full semester and teach in one of our living-learning centers next year with the hope that will allow me to add these topics and have enough time to explore them.




2 responses to “Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned”

  1. Fragmented Self Avatar
    Fragmented Self

    Rethinking How We Teach Identity And Its Supposed Development

    By Fra.Gm_en:ted “Self”

    Because the Journal of College Student Development is set up in such a way that disallows for thoughtful commentary that is not based upon the empirical studies that we privilege so as to attempt to legitimize our field, I thought it appropriate to send my writing out via electronic media to people who I perceive as having an interest in the ideas I put forth below. The Internet, along with its oppressive qualities, also enables academically suppressed voices to subvert traditional modes of knowledge dissemination in the academy and in doing so, be heard. With that said, knowing full well that many will delete this email instantly, I proceed in hopes that my voice will be acknowledged at least by a few.

    Upon getting ready to start a student affairs M.A. degree in a renowned program, I was exhilarated by the opportunity to finally know what identity and student development “actually was.” As a white, lower-middle-class, heterosexual, epistemic agnostic, ontological atheist, feminist, football-watching, high art appreciating, United States citizen, long had I struggled with questions about who I really was, who others were, and how we develop as people. At last, thanks to the milieu of theories, frameworks, and models I was about to learn, I could determine what exactly constitutes the self, my self, and other selves. I could finally become whole, and see others as whole, thus fitting Western Enlightenment’s demanding articulation of being that has pervaded our thinking for many years now. Once my graduate education began, however, is the point I recognized the futility of using neat and tidy theories to understand what identity and its supposed development is.

    To begin, I should make known my epistemological promiscuity. I reject two things about the idea of identity development: the concept of identity and that of development. The former, steeped in its etymological root of “sameness”, from the Latin word idem, inherently implies that one’s identity is that thing they are or should be, regardless of situational context, culture, or intrapersonal onto-epistemic orientation. For the “healthy” individual, one’s identity stays congruent when traveling amidst the many landscapes of life. As regards the latter, as I see it, development is a dressed up notion of becoming more responsible and decentering one’s self from being the focus of worldly experience. It is an exclusive piece of rhetoric, embedded in the Grand Narrative of Progress, that tells us that developing or being developed is something we should strive for in hopes of overcoming our fragmented realities and becoming whole.

    Thanks to “advances” in psychosocial theory, many have come to accept that this thing-we-call-identity-development is experienced differently by people depending upon their race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, nationality, or religion (or the lack thereof), among many other variable dynamics.

    Brilliant! We have done it at last!

    We have figured out that how one perceives their self and other selves is shaped, in part, by the endless slew of discursively constituted categories that are often thought to comprise the self. I do not mean to take lightly the formerly fresh idea that peoples’ dynamics greatly influence how they think of themselves and others and knowledge; it is quite the contrary. I applaud this growth, this quasi-extension beyond essentialist claims of what the self is or should be. A problem arises, however, when we jump too quickly from nuanced ideas or empirical interpretations (as insightful as they may be) to developing theories, stages, and models that simply subvert the former foundationalist notions of identity. This form of reductionism, radiated throughout graduate education in student affairs usually starting the first day of the Introduction to Student Development course, through the textual likes of Chickering (1969), or perhaps Chickering and Reisser (1993) for the real trailblazers, stifles graduate student creativity during their own conceptualization process of thinking about what identity is or even, if it is.

    It is important to be clear here by being iterative. The introduction of psychosocial theories of identity development has done wonders for complicating our thinking about identity beyond the days of idem, and they should be applauded as such. A constraint of intellectual flexibility, however, precipitates when these theories are introduced to students at the onset without first letting them think through the idea of identity and trace the connections between the various human and non-human actors (Latour, 2005) that eventually play a role in shaping who we are (or are not) for themselves. With this in mind, I should mention that in my personal experience with student development courses during my master’s program, I was fortunate to have a professor that allowed for this type of organic learning. Instead of pulling out Education and Identity on the first day of class, he challenged each of my classmates and I to first write our own narratives of how we make sense of our selves. This self-reflective task, free from the ideas of theorists past, permitted students to write their own micro-theory of identity development. It was not until later that we were asked to compare our stories with those of the theorists that have hegemonically preceded us.

    So, the question becomes, what do we start with then with respect to teaching new master’s students about identity? My answer is two fold and I could see them being approached individually or conjoined. The first approach would be that sort of organic self-theory creation I mentioned just above. Although some students will inevitably express frustration that they are not learning about the famous theorists in our field right away, this angst can be used as a teachable moment by introducing the idea that we are all creators of knowledge, its just that some people’s knowledge eventually makes its way into journal articles or books, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “good” knowledge.

    The second approach would be to introduce students to difficult literature that interrogates rationalist claims of identity (Foucault, 1986; Fanon, 1952, 2008) or more digestible writing that takes up this same task (Gergen, 1991, 2000; Turkle, 1984, 2005). Because I assume many master’s students come to graduate school with traditional ideas about what identity is, would it not be a prudent exercise to have them first question these claims so as to disrupt their discursively constituted, often positivist realities? This cognitive dissonance may then be a space for embarking upon the pursuit of more creative interpretations of sense of self.

    It is at this point (if it hasn’t already occurred) that I am guessing my readers’ critique alarms are sounding. One form of disagreement I anticipate surfacing goes something like this. “Whoa, hold up. We can’t be teaching Foucault and Fanon to mere master’s students. For they could not deal with the intellectual turbulence that authors like this often incite in their readers. These works are too dense, too complex, too fragmented for people with only a humble bachelor’s degree in hand to comprehend.” To this type of critique, all I can say is, how do you know? Have we tried this approach, tried it again, and again, and again? Why is it that simply because someone is at the master’s level in their education do we often think they are not ready to undertake the interpretation of more complex ideas? Who says they are not ready? Instead of chalking up our lack of introducing more difficult texts into our curriculum to the cognitive immaturity or simplicity of student thinking, perhaps this deficiency is more a reflection of professors’ lack of skill in facilitating the teaching and learning of more complex ideas?

    The point here for instructors, as I see it at least, is not to advance one idea of thinking about the self over another. But because the identity development we currently teach is so wrapped up in categories and stages, in the Enlightenment Self, a seemingly fruitful strategy would be to deconstruct this traditional tidiness in hopes of opening up more space for students to reflect on how they personally make sense of their selves and how they develop, or do not, in an effort to promote more intense critical thinking.

    In closing, I would like to leave readers with a question to consider: Is the state of student affairs graduate education, drawing upon Foucauldian insight here, an exemplar of our discipline disciplining students to construct essentialist ideas that we have or should have coherent identities? You, the all-knowing professor may have an answer to this question, but as for our master’s students, those lowly intellectual minions, many of them likely will not because of our “benevolent” shielding of them from “too complex” of ideas.


    Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Chickering, A. W. and Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Foucault, M. (1986). The care of the self: The history of sexuality (volume 3). New York: Random House, Inc.

    Gergen, K. J. (1991, 2000). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

    Fanon, F. (1952, 2008). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

    Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Turkle, S. (1984, 2005). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

  2. Kevin Guidry Avatar
    Kevin Guidry

    I’ve seen where you (or others) have posted this same manifesto in multiple places around the Web. I don’t particularly care for how you’re going about this as it’s a bit disruptive and spammy. But I don’t see it as particularly harmful here so I’m going to refrain from simply deleting it from this particular location.

    I have no particular comments about the content of your comment except to note that it’s a bit off-topic here as the course I am discussing is an undergraduate course and not a graduate course for student affairs students.

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