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Skidmore College

Navigating difference

March 13, 2017

It's the first day of class, and the professor asks his 20-plus students to mill around and shake hands even with classmates they already know. Apart from the social awkwardness, he asks them, what did you notice? Several reply that the style or vigor of the handshakes differed with male and female students.

Tim Harper
Tim Harper

Next the students take a questionnaire about seatmates on a long plane flight, asking them to rank preference criteria such as body shape, race or ethnicity, talkativeness, attractive appearance, sex and age. The professor predicts, and the students admit he's right, that almost no one listed race or gender in their top-three criteria. Yet he reports that many studies—including his own people-watching on trains and planes—show that race and sex are usually major factors in choosing whom to sit near or whom to make room for. That, he says, "is a big reason why we need courses like this. We don't like to admit it, but identity biases can play very strong roles in our interactions."

The course is the 300-level "Social Identity in the Workplace," taught by Tim Harper in management and business. He says it typically draws about one-third business majors, one-third business minors, and one-third others.

The course covers academic terminology and theory, but Harper says, "In-groups and out-groups, privilege, stereotyping, the intersections of identities, the way we turn on and turn off certain identities in certain situations—these are universal, affecting our lives every day in big or small ways."

Still, candor about personal identity can be challenging. Up front he tells his students, "This course will require self-disclosure, not of your intimate feelings, but of your social feelings." He enlists their help in making the classroom a safe space for such honesty and openness, "because without it, we won't learn anything new or useful here." And he predicts the course's insights will apply far beyond the classroom, "to help you navigate identity issues effectively and, hopefully, to help you help others do the same."

Steven Henriquez '18 says over time the classroom has grown increasingly comfortable because "Professor Harper does a great job making everyone feel included and safe when speaking about sensitive subjects."

Harper employs little bonding rituals. "We try to start each class session with a few student stories about incidents of identity-related exclusion or inclusion from their lives, just as a way of sharing with each other. And I try not to end a class unless each and every student has said something-a comment or story, or maybe a response to class discussion that they didn't think of at the time." For Henriquez, that sparks at least as much learning from peers as from the professor: "Helping everyone speak their mind means the class has different points of view to offer," he says.

Enesa Ososkalo '18 agrees: "The dialogue between classmates has become much more fluid and comfortable as the course has progressed. Professor Harper keeps an organized class session but also allows us to talk through the topics."

Harper has learned that "if we're discussing an issue and I notice a student's eyes get big, there's likely an invisible identity at play." He also knows, "Sometimes students don't want to self-disclose a lot about these identities, but they almost always want them to be in our discussion. They feel empowered, if only privately, to have their identities represented in the classroom."

In one exercise, he and the students count a point for each kind of privilege their social identity gives them in American society, and they tot up scores on a whiteboard. Harper says students are sometimes "surprised that even though I'm African-American I end up with a lot of points—for sex, education, job status. It helps them see all the different types of privilege that may be operating between any two people."

The mobility of privilege is also on the agenda. When members of a higher-status in-group join an out-group, they're often seen as bringing their in-group privilege with them, perhaps boosting the status of the out group. Conversely, in-groups often want newcomers to assimilate, so as not to bring along any lower status from their former group. For Harper, "If the stakes are seen as a zero-sum pie, then opening up the in-group and out-group dynamics could mean losing privilege. But not everything is a pie! Sometimes there's plenty without surrendering anything. Or in some situations, the benefit may be worth the loss." He cites research showing that people who try to assimilate or downplay their group affiliation (Harper cites moderate politicians in either party these days) "often face a kind of self-isolation; the social costs can be high."

The class next takes up cross-cutting to forge blended groups that break down differences. Sports fans or teams, for example, can bring together people of different identities. A crisis or disaster can do the same: differences lose importance as everyone bands together to survive. But as soon as the game ends or the crisis is over, do people adopt their accustomed identity attitudes again? Can short-term cross-cutting events have a lasting effect, or do we all tend to return to our baseline levels of bias?

As they grapple with these issues, Harper says, "I love it when students have an epiphany." Less dramatically, "once they grasp the theories and dynamics, they have the tools that can improve their productivity not just in their jobs but also in their family and community and life." Yoon Young Sim '16, who took the course last year, is already finding it helpful. "I strongly believe," she says, "that the background knowledge and real-world issues that we covered in class make it easier for me to deal with how people think about my identities and to participate in discussions with colleagues."

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