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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Ethnic Identity in the Classroom

Teaching biblical studies (canonical and non-canonical texts) in this age of diversity is like crossing a geographical or cultural border for the very first time. One never knows what to expect. This uncertainty, whether it is approached with trepidation or anticipation, challenges one to reexamine not only the world of the other, but one's own world--particularly one's own identity in relation to sameness and difference. As a biblical studies professor, encountering diverse identities is a daily event in the classroom. I am sure this experience is not particular to my location. What may be different is that, as a postmodern biblical professor, the question of identity plays a prominent role in my pedagogical discourse and strategies. In other words, my approach to biblical studies involves both a study of identity from the point of view of the text (identity in the Bible), and from the point of view of the readers of the text (identity in the interpretation of the Bible).

Identity, for many postmodernists, is usually discussed around the tension between essentialist and non-essentialist perspectives of identity: between the notion of identity as something given and something that is always in process (Woodward: 11). As one who espouses the latter perspective, identity is understood in the classroom not as something static and singular, but as shifting and multiple. It is no longer something to define clearly in order to be contained, but is something to define in a complex manner not to be contained (Giroux: 24-5). This latter debate between the binary oppositions of clarity/complexity is most evident, for example, in my classroom when students of Mexican-American background identify themselves as Hispanics, Chicanos/as, and/or Latinos/as (Woodward: 1-6). For many who are not part of this collective group, the complexity is frustrating because clarity of ethnic identity is not achieved. How many times have you heard someone say in agitation or contempt, "I just don't know what to call them!" The issue here is that many essentialists believe that complexity only leads to fragmentation, conflict, and difference, rather than unity, community, and sameness. I, for one, believe that ambiguity or complexity of identity is a positive state of being. I see it as breaking down fixed patterns of identification, universality, and coherency, all of which lead to dominating the other.

Furthermore, identity in the singular rather than the plural is the preferred number for cultural universalists or assimilationists (e.g., anti-affirmative action groups). Emphasis on singularity may be illustrated through the essentialist phrase, “We are all Americans!” What is really expressed through this statement is a politics of erasure; that is, a politics that attempts to erase the cultural identities and histories of the underrepresented in our society.

In biblical studies, this politics of erasure is also found among early Jewish/Christian studies when Hellenism or Judaism is understood in the singular rather than in the plural. The collective noun in the singular does help with simplicity in explaining Hellenisms and Judaisms in the classroom, especially to students unfamiliar to the topic. However, it leaves students with the myopic impression that the ancient world was monocultural, with the result that the diverse identities of the ancient world are homogenized as if they were the same (Boyarin: 1-12). Belief in a single culture and history based on universalism runs the danger of an oppressive universalism into today’s world. For example, in the area of ancient Christianity and Judaism, Daniel Boyarin perspicaciously points out the dangers of universalizing Christianity or essentializing one’s identity (228-60). Violence, racism, and ethnocentrism are resultant effects. In the classroom, my students assume that all the Jewish people in the biblical text are the same, all the Christians are the same, and even all the Greeks are the same. Their assumptions are based on the essentialist notion of identity. Sometimes this false assumption of identity spills over in their essentialist statements about other identities. For instance, all Latinos/as are the same, white women and black women are the same, Muslims are all the same, etc. Contrary to such essentialist politics, my politics is based on celebrating diverse identities. I am interested in highlighting cultural identities and histories, whether in the biblical text or not, and demonstrating that diversity does not lead to radical separateness, but to self-reflection, openness to otherness, and seeing more of the world’s horizons.

This essay is a modest effort to begin a conversation about teaching biblical studies in an age of diverse identities such as ethnic, racial, class, religious, gender, sexual, and geopolitical identities, to name a few. In other words, it is a call to readers to explore different ways in which we might invite and celebrate diverse identities in our classrooms. I would like to begin this call with a focus on the positive possibilities that openness and engagement with diversity can bring to the pedagogy of biblical studies. First, I will begin with a brief discussion of my present teaching context. Recognition of the teaching context, I believe, is a prerequisite to understanding the particular context I occupy. It allows me to expand my own horizons and appreciate the horizons of others. Second, I will consider certain pedagogic strategies designed to facilitate diversity in the classroom. This by no means suggests that my strategies are universal. I do believe that teaching is contextual, and that every teaching context is different. And third, I would like to propose an ethical framework for teaching biblical studies in an age of diversity. It is important to move beyond judgements and tolerance toward a respect and an appreciation of the opportunities provided by diverse identities.

Before I proceed, the teaching context from which I speak must be disclosed. Since it is well attested now that social location shapes meaning, this essay is surely not excluded. I teach at the University of the Incarnate Word, which is predominantly a Hispanic or Latino/a school in San Antonio, TX. As the name of the school implies, it is a church-related university (Roman Catholic), founded in 1881 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who in 1984 adopted liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. I have not only embraced the Sisters’ option for the poor, I have also expanded it to include all the oppressed. Liberation from a postcolonial perspective is the referent underlying my pedagogical discourse and practice--that is, the liberation, empowerment, and decolonization of all diverse peoples of God through critical engagement in the classroom of texts and society. For instance, an aspect of my pedagogy is not so much to transmit knowledge that students can readily digest and adopt, but rather to take received knowledge and critically examine or interrogate it. For me, this means preparing students in areas such as liberationist, feminist, and contextual approaches to the study of religious studies and theology from a postcolonial perspective: areas with a mission of joining theory and praxis.

PEDAGOGIC STRATEGIES I firmly believe that religious and theological studies must be made meaningful before students can critically engage in learning. As we all know, not all students come to class motivated and ready to discuss the text at hand. Sometimes, of course, they are. But more often, particularly in introductory courses like biblical studies, students do not know enough to know whether they might be interested (hooks: 13-34).

For me, this means aiming to make the subject matter connect with their lives (Giroux : 14-15). The entry point I use is the topic of identity of the student/reader. Several strategies, centered on the diversity of identity, are employed in the classroom to help make the biblical text a site where students can critically reflect upon their identity and, more importantly, to mobilize them politically to demand recognition of their culture and rights.

I am not interested in using the Bible in a colonialist manner of homogenizing identity, nor in the traditional liberationist sense of fusing one’s identity into the text. Rather, I am interested in using the Bible as a means to define and redefine the students’ identity in relationship to their own history and agency within their world. This, of course, means that the biblical text also undergoes an interrogation of its own in terms of how it constructs identities. Identity of the Teacher: Teaching biblical studies is a partisan engagement. This does not mean that I am doctrinaire. I understand partisan and doctrinaire to mean two different things. Whereas the former term implies openness for debate and scrutiny, the latter term does not (Giroux : 15). I begin my classes usually with an introduction of my particular identity. This is by no means an easy task. Even though I have been trained in the context of postmodernism, the ethos of the academy and the university is still dominated and shaped by the apersonal, objective paradigm (Kitzberger, 1-11; Lozada, forthcoming). To disclose oneself in the classroom is surely a risky endeavor and one that I constantly struggle with. Nevertheless, in the context from which I teach, I believe such an exercise to disclose or, as some have labeled it, “to politicize” one’s social location is a first step toward approaching the topic of identity in relationship to teaching biblical studies. Starting with my particular identity, I acknowledge and valorize the voice of marginalization. Consequently, it also empowers the voice of students coming from similar backgrounds. For example, the first time I came to realize that my experience and voice were legitimate forms of knowledge came when a culturally under-represented professor used his experience of marginalization as a lens to read texts and culture. My particular identity also legitimizes the voice of students coming from dissimilar identities. For instance, after speaking of how social and economic class played a role in how I read texts and society, a former Anglo student of mine recently observed that even though we came from different ethnic backgrounds, our working-class background was similar.

Most people usually assume it is fruitless for white, middle-class teachers to discuss their identity. However, whiteness is also an ethnic identity. If one works with a general understanding that ethnicity (and race) refer to similar cultural and physical characteristics grounded in social factors rather than biological ones, then we are speaking about ethnicity, and by failing to name whiteness, or any ethnic identity for that matter, white professors secure their “dominance by appearing to be invisible” (Giroux: 117). Just like any ethnic identity group, whiteness must undergo scrutiny as a site of privilege and oppression as well as a site of efforts to challenge oppression. The same interrogation must follow other identity factors as well. If the dominant identity positions (e.g., male gender and heterosexuality in my case) we hold are not interrogated with regard to our interpretive system, then we reify their attitudes and norms in the classroom. For instance, I can remember many of my white teachers (and some ethnic minority professors) couching their lived experiences around the myth that social mobility is open to those ethnic minorities who lift themselves up. In other words, what was being espoused was that upward mobility is an individual rather than a structural matter, and any barriers that one experienced were not due to racism or sexism within the structure but rather resulted from one’s “bad” or “lazy” attitude. Sadly, students come to believe in such cruel stereotypes.

Identities of the Students: Another strategy that is pertinent to making the subject matter more meaningful is to find out more about one’s students’ identity. Students must be encouraged to cross, remap, and to challenge each other’s readings of texts. Yet their experiences must be affirmed and critically interrogated. A pedagogical exercise that I learned some years ago in relationship to gender identity concerns critically reflecting on one’s power in society. I have modified the exercise a bit to include ethnicity. For example, what are the cultural advantages and disadvantages of being a person of color/white/mixed or mestizo, man/woman, white woman/woman of color, straight/gay, etc? What things about these groups make the student angry, scared, uncomfortable, and comfortable? What makes it difficult to talk to people of the other group about differences? Over the course of years, I have experimented with three main assignments to encourage students to process the question of their own identities. By no means are these assignments without their difficulties, nor do they always produce spectacular results. However, I have found it smoother to do these exercises with students coming from underrepresented groups. They tend to be more open to questions of diversity. Since they perceive themselves as powerless, what is there to lose in such a vulnerable exercise? a. Autobiographical paragraphs: One assignment is the autobiographical paragraph that creates a space for students to think through questions of identity. The autobiographical paragraph takes place in the beginning of the semester with students reading out loud (without comments from students or myself) how they define their identity. Sometimes I provide a guiding question, such as: How does gender, race/ethnicity, or class define your identity or identities? The autobiographical process also begins with me. Students are more apt to speak and disclose themselves if they understand from the outset that I, the professor, believe in the assignment. It also provides a forum for students to express their ideological positions later in the semester when they write or speak about themselves in class discussions, and in other assignments.

b. Assigned Readings: Another assignment that I sometimes require is for students to read a particular biblical text (e.g., Gen. 1-2, 9, 34; John 4, Gal. 3:28-29, Philemon, etc.) on their own and then ask how their own identity might influence their reading of the particular text. I also ask them to read an essay of biblical scholarship from a similar identity perspective to their own, or a different identity perspective from their own.

During class discussions I sometimes ask students to compare their interpretation of a particular reading with the above similar or dissimilar reading. This exercise allows the students not only to understand the world behind the text and the story itself, but also provides an opportunity to see similarities and differences between the text’s world and their own. c. Writing Assignments: A third strategy I use to draw out the question of identity are writing assignments. For example, I have required students to interpret texts from a postmodern perspective (i.e., ideological perspective) in order to participate in the construction of the ancient world within a politics of identity and difference. The intent of this assignment is to call into question the construction of meaning and knowledge. Finally, it helps students to break down the high and low culture distinctions by making their lived experience a valid source of meaning.

The goal beyond all these strategies is to help students develop a sense of who they are and a sense of social issues associated with constructing their social worlds and histories. Along with this, I try to help them develop a sense of the ancient social world and its histories. At stake here is the construction or the production of meaning within a politics of identity and difference. It is a matter of understanding that one has a voice<—>a voice that has been relegated to the margins and unrepresentable. I am trying to provide a space for students to define and shape their particular and collective identities. In other words, they must create their own “borderlands” as a “way to rewrite their own histories, identities, and learning possibilities” (Giroux: 30).

Identity of the Text: Texts must be understood in terms of the ideological history that structured them. However, I believe that the pedagogy of biblical studies that is dominant at many universities and colleges (unwittingly I hope) keeps students from challenging the construction of identity in the world of the text. The fear, it seems, is that students will stray from viewing the text as an authoritative source of their identity. However, what can and does often happen is that students are taught how not to critically engage the text. For instance, historical criticism, the dominant paradigm used to teach biblical studies, functions to silence rather than empower students. It does this by trying to construct the ancient identity of the other from the position of neutrality. Its referent is positivism. This is not to say that historical criticism is not valuable; in fact, it has given me much information about the ancient other. However, it has not provided me with much wisdom on how to engage and dialogue with the ancient other. The examination of the identities in the text is crucial if the goal is liberation and decolinization. The disclosure of one’s identity, therefore, functions at the beginning of my classes to redefine the role of the professor in terms of an engaged critic--not only with students, but also with the biblical text. Personal disclosure begins the process by creating an open, comfortable, and challenging multicultural classroom environment. Most importantly, personal disclosure provides students with a prism to begin examining the biblical text from the perspective of diversity. In short, to make the text meaningful, it is pertinent to acknowledge one’s identity along whatever lines of social factors that one identifies with.

ETHICS This brief section on the question of ethics is motivated by my interest in exploring the relationship between teaching biblical studies and students’ appropriation of the biblical traditions. A critical reflection on the ethical implications of teaching biblical studies contributes to the morals, attitudes, and values of students. Teaching is always political.

Whether one teaches from an objective standpoint or subjective standpoint, ethics plays a role (Fiorenza: 195-200; Makau and Arnett: vii-xi). In particular, I am interested in how teaching biblical studies can help move us beyond judgments of identity to an appreciation of diversity. As such, I am very much interested in the ethical implications of teaching biblical studies and the everyday praxis associated with it in this age of diversity. This also includes teaching biblical studies via the Internet, especially when it deals with globalization or gender identity in particular. Let me suggest two ethical values along the lines of joining theory and praxis that might be integrated into the teaching of biblical studies. As I argued above, disclosure of one’s identity is a very important step in teaching biblical studies. However, this step must go through critical self-reflection and interrogation by oneself and by others. Simply disclosing one’s social location without critical reflection leads nowhere. One needs comparison to understand difference. Such a practical exercise is a prerequisite for growth. It allows one to see her/his identity in terms of power (privilege/marginality), and also allows one to see more than one culture. Additionally, comparison forces us to think about whether we want to remain with our values on diversity or move forward to reform or remap them. Another value worth considering is openness to others. Here, I am not advocating mere tolerance, which does not allow one to enter the world of another, nor am I advocating radical relativity, which presumes that one can suspend judgment in critiquing another context or particular identity. What I am advocating is the notion of respecting otherness on its own terms and in its own contexts. Openness to diversity is a very costly investment. One has to suspend one’s views and codes of conduct and try to understand the viewpoint of others. This takes a lot of time, energy, and thought. The long-term investment, I would argue, is that it opens up one’s circle of dialogue partners and friends. This is not to say that one is no longer capable of judging particular racist attitudes, patriarchal hierarchies, or certain codes of “straight behavior.” Rather, it means trying to understand the diverse identities of students and others on their own terms as a starting point toward a world that is enriched through (more) liberation. These are some of the ethical values that I hope that students are conscious of when leaving my classroom.

In conclusion, I envision my role as a professor of biblical studies as crossing many borders. The one main border I believe is pertinent to cross, given the influx of new ethnic students (students who have been traditionally excluded from the privilege of higher education) and new ethnic faculty in the profession of biblical studies, is the borderland of identity. Focusing on identity factors in the Bible or in the reader is not divisive, but rather integral to constructing knowledge about the worlds behind the text, of the text, and before the text. And there is only enrichment of diversity to be gained! As I mentioned above, my initial emotion of crossing this border is fear, but as I move forward, backward, and crisscross between all sorts of other borders, I soon realize that the only thing to fear is remaining on one side of the border.

References

Brett, Mark G., ed. Ethnicity in the Bible. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996. An excellent collection of essays focusing on the concept of ethnicity in the Bible (part one) and how ethnicity or culture plays a role in the interpretation of the Bible (part two).

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A superb post-modern Jewish study of Paul from the juxtaposition of cultural studies and diasporic identity studies.

Felder, Cain Hope, ed. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991. A classic collection of liberatory readings of the Bible that illustrates how African Americans have interpreted the Bible.

Fiorenza Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. An important study challenging scholars to take seriously their responsibility for their interpretations and the rhetorical and political consequences on others.

Giroux, Henry A. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education. New York: Routledge, 1992. An excellent theoretical study challenging readers to critically consider new postmodern paradigms of pedagogy.

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. A powerful autobiographical account on teaching. Informed by Paulo Freire’s liberative pedagogy and feminist theory and practice.

Kitzberger, Ingrid Rosa, ed. The Personal Voice in Biblical Interpretation. London: Routledge, 1999. A daring collection of essays on the use of the personal story within the process of interpretation.

Lozada, Francisco, Jr. “Identity.” In A Handbook on Postmodern Biblical Interpretation. Vol. 1. Edited by A.K.A. Adam. St. Louis: Chalice, forthcoming. A beginning study on the use of identity in contemporary biblical interpretation.

Makau, Josina M. and Ronald C. Arnett, eds. Communication Ethics in an Age of Diversity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. A clearly written discussion on the recognition and importance of diversity, on identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation), and the ethical implications of technology in the field of communications.

Segovia, Fernando F., and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Reading From This Place. 2 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995. An excellent collection of essays on the interrelationship between the social location of readers and the interpretative process, from both a national and international perspective.

Segovia, Fernando F., and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy. New York: Orbis, 1998. A superb collection of essays on biblical interpretation and theological education, social location and biblical pedagogy, and biblical interpretation and practices, from both a local and global perspective. An excellent introduction to the debate.

Segovia, Fernando F., ed. Interpreting Beyond Borders. Volume 3 of The Bible and Postcolonialism. Series edited by R.S. Sugirtharajah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. An important collection of essays on the relationship between postcolonialism and diasporic identities. Indispensable for an understanding of the concept of diaspora.

Staley, Jeffrey L. Reading with a Passion: Rhetoric, Autobiography, and the American West in the Gospel of John. New York: Continuum, 1995. Staley combines several postmodern perspectives to provide an intertextual reading of the Fourth Gospel. A very accessible, personal, and landmark reading in the area of autobiography and Johannine studies.

Sugirtharajah, R.S., ed. Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. New York: Orbis, 1991. A landmark collection of liberatory readings from biblical interpreters from the Two-Thirds World.

Woodward, Kathryn, ed. Identity and Difference. Book 3 of Culture, Media and Identities. Edited by Claire Alexander et al. London: Sage, 1997. An excellent theoretical study on identity. The volume explores the construction of identity from a variety of perspectives.

Francisco Lozada, Jr., is Chair of the Religious Studies Department at University of the Incarnate Word.

Citation: Francisco Lozada Jr., " Ethnic Identity in the Classroom," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=3

 
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