The Package I am In
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
Years ago I was reading a book with my oldest son, who after looking at the various dyadic pairs of characters on a particular page began to observe out loud who “matched” and who didn’t. He then moved the conversation away from the characters to the dyadic pairings in his life, namely my husband and me. My son accurately observed that my husband who is White did not match with me, or as he said rather frankly, “mommy you don’t match with Abba (Hebrew word for dad).” It was the first time my son had really discussed the fact that his parents where not of the same racial background.
Being the developmental psychologist I am, I quickly followed up with the question, “well who do you match with?” My son without a moment of hesitation named his baby brother. Somehow at such a young age he had already started to embrace an identity that was neither mine nor my husband’s but one that was entirely based on his lived experience. It was also a major aha moment for me, that in a journey of raising two biracial, bilingual, Jewish boys, I could never forget that although my identity surrounds them and influences them both directly and indirectly, it is distinct from theirs. In that moment I realized that in every interaction my husband and I had with our boys there would be at least three social identity configurations in the room.
This realization also applies to the ongoing discourse on supporting and acknowledging the experience of historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS). When implementing programs, policies, and assessments in regard to the experience of HURMS we are not actually moving toward a critical space if we do not actively consider and reflect on our own identities that are occupying the space with them. In the following model, we are given a blueprint for how and why this is a fundamental step.
Hurtado, Alvarez, Guillermo-Wann, Cuellar and Arellano (2015) reintroduce their comprehensive Multi-Contextual Model for Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) in their highly cited chapter reviewing the Scholarship on Creating and Assessing Conditions for Student Success. The overarching purpose of their model is to acknowledge three main points:
- There are multiple nested contexts (similar to Bronfenbrenner’s [1977, 1979] ecological framework for understanding human development) within and beyond the institution that continuously and dynamically intersect while providing spheres of influence for individuals who occupy space within the university.
- That the individuals – in this case, those part of the institution (i.e., students, faculty, and staff) – are agents of change who have the power to generate movements of campus climate change.
- That the ultimate goal or outcome of an institution is the creation of persons who continuously seek out opportunities to learn and are not only competent in a multicultural world but active citizens who will contribute to “our collective social and economic success.”
Hurtado et al. (2015) also center their model on the experience of historically underrepresented minorities (HURM), more specifically the intersection of these students’ multiple social identities. To me this is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the model.
As an applied psychologist who was trained in a psychosocial development program, I believe that acknowledging our continual identity development is essential to accurately understanding and predicting human behavior. Since the early 2000’s when Jeffrey Arnett proposed that over time our society has produced another distinct developmental period sandwiched between adolescence and adulthood, named appropriately Emerging Adulthood, developmental psychologist have recognized that identity is not formed in adolescence but instead most American individuals will actively explore various forms and integrative configurations of social identities as they move from their late teens through their mid-twenties. It is an acceptable argument to make that this expanded time of identity moratorium is a function of more exposures to persons and contexts offering different perspectives. This exposure has been largely driven by the diverse learning environments (DLE) intentionally provided by most college and university campuses.
However, Hurtado et al. do not believe that simply bringing students from various diverse backgrounds is enough to shift the campus climate and produce social justice, civically-inclined graduates. The embrace of a critical consciousness that persists beyond graduation and impacts civic engagement happens through the ongoing interactions between the student, his-her-their multiple identities, and both the curricular and co-curricular spaces. Central to understanding the potential impact of these spaces is acknowledging how the identity of the both the faculty and staff shape the space the students engage with. Hurtado et al. are positing with this model that it is not enough (although critical) to only give students opportunities to learn about and from each other. In order for the campus climate to truly reflect an ideal DLE, faculty and staff must know themselves and how their identity(ies) or positionality is a dynamic constructor of psychosocial space the students share with them.
When I have been asked by new faculty members to share tips and strategies for teaching a particular course or creating a research team I have always offered the caveat that the advice I am giving is based on the package I am in. What I mean is that the techniques, styles, and rapport I employ with my students in my courses or the ones I work with in research settings are based on my positionality as a Black American, Jewish, cis-gendered woman — who is also less than average height. Second, I inform my new colleagues that my techniques, styles, and rapport are ever evolving because my approach is not only a function of my identity and positionality but also the convergence of the student identities engaged in the curricular space with me.
Starting with my introduction and then continuously using examples from my life, perspectives, and scholarly research, I craft and offer my identity to my students. In classes where I am actually teaching identity development models (e.g., Cross, Helm, Berry), I use myself as an example moving through identity process. I also indirectly ask students to critically reflect on their own identity. One of my favorite assignments is to ask students to interview a family member about a meal they felt really captured their family’s culture and to critically reflect on why they chose this meal. Students are then asked to share their reflective pieces and ultimately markers of identity with each other first in small groups, then promptly followed with a whole class discussion. What often organically evolves is a mutually vulnerable discussion on the socio-historical context of their families and their sociocultural identity foundations. I also like to believe that this moment causes the students to realize how much they still have to learn about themselves and others – a small step in the direction of becoming lifelong learners. However, I don’t think this assignment/activity and others like it would be effective if I were not engaging in the exchange of mutual vulnerability as well or actively aware of how my positionality was intricately tied into this space. It is also quite possible that my position as a HURM allows me to engage in a mutual vulnerability that begins with me building reciprocal space for sharing from my own narrative, which facilitates openness as opposed to signaling self-centered, one-sided, or privileged thought. This possibility is why I offer the qualifying statement that identifying what works for the package you are in is key.
However, if we as educators are truly seeking an impactful DLE woven throughout the various forms of structural engagement we offer, then according to Hurtado et al. we can’t achieve it without acknowledging how our own identities are simultaneously shaped by and shaping the multicontextual environment students are nested within. We also can’t expect our students to allow themselves to be vulnerable and critically reflective about where they still need to grow in understanding critical space when we don’t share our evolving awareness of our own achieved and inherited academic citizenship.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American psychologist, 32(7), 513.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Harvard university press.
- Hurtado, S., Alvarez, C.L., Guillermo-Wann, C., Cuellar, M., & Arellano, L. (2015). A Model for Diverse Learning Environments the Scholarship on Creating and Assessing Conditions for Student Success. In J. C. Smart, M. B. Paulsen (eds.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, 27.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.