Embodying Identity: Instructor As Object Lesson

By Kelly J. Baker

“I am implicated in the body ideologies analyzed herein.”—R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies

In my 300 level Religions in the U.S. course, I combine my scholarly interest in the methods for studying American religions with historical case studies that pay keen attention to the historical and analytical categories of race, class, gender, region and nation. The course contains history and religious studies majors as well as a slew of non-majors who “just want to graduate, please,” which means that we spend quite a bit of time reflecting/analyzing/problematizing what we mean by a word like “religion” in tandem with the above categories. In previous semesters, I have allowed to students to “gender” me and rate my performance of gender (relying heavily on Judith Butler’s discussion of performance in Gender Trouble).

This semester, however, I expanded the exercise to think about embodiment more largely, or how exactly we come to embody socially, historically and culturally crafted identities like gender but also race and class. What can we learn about social norms, cultural preferences or even religious devotion with attention to one body (mine)? How can we learn to interpret the terrain of physical bodies? What are the props, to conjure Erving Goffman, that bolster, and sometimes detract, from not only our “presentations of self” in daily life but also our presentations of social norms and our cultural habits? While Craig invokes Pierre Bourdieu, habitus and deviance in his excellent post on the radical act of painting one’s nails (if a dude, excuse me, a man), I evoke Sean McCloud (who employs Bourdieu on class) and R. Marie Griffith’s lovely discussions of historical and cultural work of bodies in Divine Hierarchies and Born Again Bodies respectively.

For discussions of embodiment, I made myself into the subject of academic inquiry (aren’t we already?), the object of the critical gaze of my students. Gender me, I said to my classes. Race me. Class me. And religion me, which is another post for a different day. The body, I explained encouragingly, is a political, social, cultural and religious map. It is physical, material and biological, but it is also the repository of desire, ideology, need, imagination.  It is an object, and it is an idea. The body is the archive of the physical, the social and the metaphysical. It is the site of me, you and us. What do I, this body, in front of all of you, embody? I ask them beseechingly.

There is always a moment of nervous silence as they discreetly, and sometimes openly, glance at me. Even my talkative students pause as if considering how this will dramatically backfire if they somehow offend me. One of my assurances at the beginning of this exercise is that I don’t offend easily, and that I will not hold grudges based on their observations. Their voices ring out:

You’re short. Your voice is high. You’re wearing a skirt.

Is that shirt sparkly? Earrings. Definitely the shoes.

Hand gestures. Encouragement. Easy-going.

Short hair. Non-comformist. Rebellious.

You aren’t showing enough skin.

Make-up. Wedding ring. Accessories.

Smiling. Approachability.

Education. Too much education. Middle class?

Tattoos? You have tattoos, right? Working class?

Girlie. Outspoken. Feminine.

You make us do an exercise like this (which is my personal favorite).

What is the most telling is that students have a much to say about my gender performance and class status, but they were more hesitant to discuss how I embody race. With some prodding, they engaged my skin color (white). Then, I asked if I could possibly be bi-racial, which lead to some shocked expressions and more seeking glances. To problematize a vision of race as somehow biology, I pushed them to think about how I perform whiteness by riffing off the blog, Stuff White People Like. I point out my love of coffee (#1), scarves (#97), dogs (#53), awareness (#18), grammar (#99), The Onion (#109), Facebook (#106), and that I am clearly a “girl with bangs” (#104). The list could go on and on, which demonstrates the cultural stereotyping of whiteness and its attachment to class status (middle to upper class) and gender too. At the end of the exercise, one student approached me to say that the lesson really worked. This student did not realize how much we communicate in our comportment, and I realized that the lesson might have worked.

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2 Responses to Embodying Identity: Instructor As Object Lesson

  1. Donovan Schaefer says:

    Terrific article. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I call “embodied pedagogy,” and in particular how the chemistry between the markers of the professor’s body (which you describe here) and the professor’s pre-discursive embodied presence configure the affective channels of the classroom. I was wondering: how does carrying out this exercise and intensifying your students’ (and your) attention to the bodies that make up the classroom change the teaching space?

  2. Pingback: Embodying Identity for Bulletin for the Study of Religion : Kelly J Baker

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