And the Silver Medal Goes To…. A REALLY Brief Activity on Identity Politics

Continuing with my series of reflections on what learning activities students found impacted their understanding of politics the most (part of my aforementioned research project) comes an activity that literally takes about 15 minutes of class time and requires pretty much no additional prep on the part of my students (other than completing the week’s required readings).   One of the reasons I am particularly thrilled to see this activity make the top three is that it also required very little of me in terms of prep!  There were no scenarios to write, no data sets or graphs to carefully select,  no photocopies to make, no elaborate debriefing to perform etc. From the time I had the idea, through the time I worked out in my head how it would play out in the lecture, to the time I included it the lecture slides, it was maybe 20 minutes of my time.  It isn’t something I need to update every year as datasets change, or new case study material becomes relevant.

I think one of the things that puts some profs ‘off’ active learning is the extra time it takes to plan, think through, develop materials, do a practice run in one’s head before unleashing the idea your students etc.    Without a doubt, writing a 90 minute lectures takes about ½ the time it takes (at a minimum) to plan a session centered around active learning (if you want it to go well and really relate to learning outcomes).  So, finding something so easy and non-time-consuming that really resonated with students has been quite exciting for me.  It has made me think about the possibility of doing similar ‘small interventions’ that can keep my workload more manageable.*  So here, I present the content and impact of the 2nd most popular activity I ran with my comparative politics students last semester.


The difficulty of studying ‘identity politics’:  Thinking about the concept of ‘saliency’

The activity that I ran was an attempt to get students to think more critically about some of the claims regarding the role and impact of ‘identity’ on politics (from conflict to voting behavior and beyond).

The activity was done verbally, part way through a lecture on ideas related to identity politics—no need for activity sheets etc.  I asked students to write down 5 of their identities.  I engaged in the activity along with them on the board.  I wrote down the following

  1. Canadian
  2. Woman
  3. Swedish-Canadian
  4. Peace Scholar
  5. Wife

I then asked students, one by one, to strike off their identity that least impacts their political beliefs and political decision making.  Again, I engaged in this on the board with them until I was left with ‘Peace Scholar’.  We talk about how in relation to the question posed, one could say that my most ‘salient’ political identity is Peace Scholar.  However,  I also talked about how if I had run this activity with myself at their age, ‘Canadian’ would have come out on top.  This allowed us to discuss important methodological and conceptual issues related to generational issues and the time scales of one’s research.  It also allowed for a discussion around how one’s most salient identity might change given the circumstance (so in my personal life, my identity as a Peace Scholar is much further down the list etc).

I then invited students (who felt comfortable) to reflect on the process  of choosing their most ‘salient’ political identity.  Here again, interesting discussions were had.  Many students noted how hard it was for them to choose—how they felt torn between two identities in particular.  Many said it depended on what the political issue was (so on issues related to say, welfare spending, one identity seemed to influence their political thinking most, whilst if the question was about foreign policy, another facet of their identity seemed more important).  The class discussion was rich and highlighted many points I had hoped would come up. The notes in the written reflections were even more striking and confirmed that this simple exercise is worth keeping.


From the political to the personal: Understanding self as a way of understanding others

This was possibly my favorite set of reflections to read.  Because they weren’t tied to a specific case study, I believe students felt more free to apply their knowledge to a much broader range of cases.  I read about the role of identity politics in relation to BREXIT, Football , Pan Islamism, Colonialism, the media, elections, France, Germany, China, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, Occupy Wall Street, and the list goes on.  Not having to read multiple pieces of writing on the same case study over and over (which can be quite monotonous and lead to the marker having to take multiple breaks due to ‘similarity fatigue’), I realized the importance of not (always) linking activities to a specific case in terms of the well-being of the marker!

Returning to the students….Several students noted how it forced them to think about the methods and assumptions behind studies they had read or learned about in relation to identity politics.  As one student argued, the  ‘Identity of a person cannot be measured numerically, in order to study “identity” in an empirical, objective and scientific way’.  By considering the difficulty of being able to strictly categorize and code their own identity, they were confronted with epistemic and methodological concerns regarding some of the statistical analysis encountered in their studies.

But again, for me, it was the personal transformations and applications that I found most striking.  Nearly all students who wrote about this activity noted how the exercise related to specific events in lives—how it was useful for them in terms of thinking through debates and arguments they have had when people question them or challenge them on a political opinion linked to their identity.  Many students talked about their own ‘conflicted’ identities which sometimes leave them unsure about how they do (or should) feel on certain topics.

Reading about how this activity helped them think through some of these conflicts was not only moving on a personal level but also so encouraging in terms of them growing intellectually—in how many of them came to understand the need to really grapple with the complexity of identity politics before making claims about ‘the other’.  I’m hoping it has planted an important critical, reflexive and ethical ‘seed’ in terms of their future studies and research.  On this point, I’d like to end this blog post with a quotation from a student which I think reflects an important lesson learned regarding the need to consider time, place, complexity and context when attempting to make ‘conclusions’ regarding identity politics:

“I realized during this activity that my identity was absolutely fluid; I felt more connected to a relatively recent addition to my identity than a culture which I was raised on. Furthermore, I was able to reflect on the idea that as I grow older, my identity is becoming more of a personal choice and less about the environment I was born into.”




*as a side note, simulations and problem based learning activities by far take the most time for me to develop.  The bronze and gold medal activities are examples of these more time intensive types.


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