Is Pedagogy About Us?

A conceptual illustration of a student seated in a classroom facing an imagined image of herself in a different environment with flowers and rocks

Illustration by Jessie Lin

During a history seminar in my sophomore year, we opened class with a question derived from an assigned reading: What civic and political ills had made certain regions of Chicago sites of gang violence?

We mulled the question for a few directionless minutes before a student raised her hand. Though I don’t remember what she said, I do remember that she prefaced the thought with, “As someone from the Chicago area….” She had lived there for 18 years.

This phenomenon is common. It marks the moment in a classroom discussion, often a difficult or complex one, in which a student broaches a feature of her identity or lived experience that pertains to the topic at hand.

The Chicagoan’s viewpoint changed the dynamic of the conversation. Because she was the only person who identified as a long-time resident of the area, her perspective took on an air of heightened authority. I had wanted to advance a counterpoint, but now felt disinclined to do so. For one, it seemed that it would go against the authority of someone who had a deeper personal stake in the issue. Second, I thought that raising a counterpoint to the student’s perspective might be interpreted by my classmates not only as a challenge on intellectual grounds, but also as callous.

Neither are legitimate reasons to have withheld my comment. But I couldn’t help but feel both at that moment. Eyes glazed with post-lunch fatigue, we offered genuine, if half-baked, ideas—most of which aligned broadly with the Chicagoan’s perspective—until class ended at 1:30 p.m.

This interaction crystallized for me a dynamic we see happen every day at Harvard. We inhabit a zeitgeist that, often with good reason, celebrates identity. Anyone arguing that identity is less than integral to each person and the way that person experiences the world would likely be judged as myopic or bigoted or just wrong. But is it always helpful to bring identity into a classroom? Is such an act intellectually rigorous?

It’s easy to think of this issue as circumscribed to our current moment, or to trace it only as far back as the 1980s, when identity politics emerged. But the notion that people bring their distinct set of subjectivities to a classroom, and that this is a part of what makes education so powerful, is a paradigm that has existed for decades. Just take a look at the annual President’s Reports of Charles William Eliot, who moved into Massachusetts Hall just four years after the Civil War and, during his 40 years at Harvard’s helm, did more than any single president to modernize the University.

Eliot championed many strains of diversity: “schools, families, sects, parties, and conditions of life.” (Certainly, the absence of gender and race is notable). He wanted matriculants who were children of the “rich and poor,” the “educated and uneducated.” At universities, Eliot submits in his report for the years 1893 to 1895, there exists “a continual ferment and agitation on all questions of public interest. This collision of views is wholesome and profitable; it promotes thought on great themes, converts passion into resolution, cultivates forbearance and mutual respect.”

Like many others, Eliot viewed a student’s identity as central to a classroom dynamic. This is a perspective so ubiquitous that it often seems like an incontestable truth. But I want to understand why sometimes identity may not be a productive feature of classroom discussion—and what professors have done to strike a balance.

Watson professor of law Jeannie Suk Gersen is no stranger to controversy in the classroom (see the profile, “Due Process,” March-April 2021, page 31). She teaches family law, constitutional law, and criminal law—courses that demand involved considerations of topics ranging from sexual assault to child custody. In her classes, Suk Gersen opts for a policy that may seem unorthodox: she does not permit statements that draw directly from personal experience. She holds herself to this policy as well.

“It’s a delicate but important and nuanced pedagogical strategy to make clear that it’s not that personal narratives are not legitimate,” she says. “In fact, they’re extremely legitimate.” But when some people disclose personal experiences, she explains, others frequently follow suit, induced by a desire to legitimize their own stances. Suk Gersen still acknowledges the personal experiences enmeshed in juridical problems; she provides ample opportunities, through fora, including journal entries and a class blog, for students to engage personally with the material.

For another perspective, I headed to the Barker Center to speak with Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt, the humanities scholar who is known, among other things, for his eminent work on Shakespeare. What I gathered from our exchange was this: Whether you teach torts or Othello, the consideration of how identity features—or should feature—in discussions about deeply human topics is always front of mind for thoughtful readers.

Greenblatt believes that good readers bring their “whole self” to whatever they’re reading. This does not mean, however, that they should use personal identity to make premature, overly definite, or moralizing judgments about a text. “A literature classroom doesn’t invite that kind of, ‘You don’t have the right to,’ ‘You’re not in that subject position.’ Because literature’s about not being in your subject position,” he said, in reference to the belief that people make sense of themselves based on their placement within communal cultural and political narratives. Another way of putting it: What does being Greenblatt have to do with the world of Jane Austen? Almost nothing, according to him. But he steps into that world of characters anyway, to “bring myself to it and bring them into me.”

For Suk Gersen, too, disallowing discussions of personal experience does not mean that she doesn’t consider personal narratives. “We are” considering them, she says, “because the entire law school classroom is about the narratives of people involved in these cases.”

Whether in law or humanities, personal experience obviously matters—but it’s not always about our personal experiences. That matters because it involves a common critique leveled at universities today: that they have transitioned from fora of open exchange to bastions of identity politics.

This critique is most commonly deployed as a political weapon by lawmakers who foment anxieties about “wokeness.” Yet it contains a grain of truth.

In thinking about this, I return to my own intellectual home ground: literature. I return to literature not just because it is the medium I am most familiar with, but because of the relevance of that basic literary unit to the topic of identity: the story. It’s hard to talk about identities without talking about stories. Indeed, stories are urgent, important. They help ground us in our lineages, reminding us of where we are from and what aspects of the past we want to remember.

Identity represents a thorny question in storytelling because great literature frequently involves—often demands—deep personal engagement.

One tenet about literary interpretation that I hold close: There is a distinction between “liking” a text and recognizing a text is great. Put more specifically, there is a distinction between noticing that a text resonates with one’s preconceived tastes and understanding that it is doing something remarkable. If we don’t make this distinction, which frequently involves suspending any visceral desire to impose immediate judgment, then interpreting literature becomes, at best, an exercise that is at once very arrogant and very drab.

There exists a slate of terms and phrases that have become refrains in humanities classrooms. One is the term “problematic.” This is often presented as a vague gesture of moral or political objection to a text. Another is “representation.” What exactly this term denotes, though, is perennially in contest.

Another darling of the humanities classroom: “This work makes me feel seen.”

Don’t misunderstand me: I am quite fond of being seen. I am appreciative when a text presents, in cogent and penetrating terms, an experience I had registered as being fundamentally my own. Such literature can help us feel, if only for a moment, less lonely.

What I object to is using the phrase “being seen” chiefly to describe the work of writers whose identities align with a reader’s own. (An experience I’ve had far more times than I’d like to count: After sharing that I study literature, someone lights up before saying, “Have you read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings?”) Additionally, to “be seen” in a work does not—or at least should not—make that work automatically good. Yet in the conversations I have with peers, this is indeed often the formulation: The work makes me feel seen, therefore the work is good.

I spoke with one of my fellow literature students, Chase Melton ’25, to find out about the role identity plays in how he receives texts. He mentioned seeing identity in the classroom through the continuing debate about the merit of trigger warnings. Though he says he has not “come down on either side” of the debate, he recalls conversations with professors who worry that such warnings may undercut the potency of a work. “They feel as though the trigger warning strips the art of its capability to shock the reader into understanding a sort of randomness or a multiplicity of possibility in life, which I think is really real,” he said.

Yes, intellectual vitality remains present within schools like Harvard. What exists alongside it, though, is a diminishing willingness to place ourselves in positions of genuine intellectual precarity, in which we truly do not know what comes next. We present a sophisticated question and purport to consider it rigorously, all the while knowing what conclusion is on the horizon. It happens all the time.

I’m not exempt from this habit. To feel intellectually inept is uncomfortable. We like to feel impressively sharp. We like to feel capable. Yet the very qualities that have driven us to this place are also often the ones we must shed upon arrival if we want to improve. In the absence of discomfort, the entire enterprise of higher education becomes trite at best. We must cultivate an atmosphere of intellectual precarity in order to give ourselves the opportunity to see outside ourselves.

Sometimes, I have come to realize over my time at Harvard, the classroom is first and foremost about others. It is about the strangers who are rendered vivid and urgent and total by the scholarship we immerse ourselves in. It is by suspending the “I” in order to submit wholly, if only for a moment, to the world as seen by another that we can commence that bizarre and astonishing process of change that earns the title of education. Not everything we learn turns wholly back to us.  

Newly elected Rhodes Scholar Isabella Cho ’24 is one of this year’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows.

Read more articles by Isabella Cho

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