The Question of Identity in Academic Life

Identity can be a challenging and confusing thing for anyone to sort out, and certainly this is the case in the academic setting. And part of the challenge is that we may be identified and self-identify in various ways. There is our race or ethnicity, our socio-economic class, our country and even city of origin, our gender and sexual orientation, our political persuasion, our academic status in terms of both appointments and achievements. And for the follower of Christ, there is one’s identification with Christ.

Yesterday was the last day of our Midwest Faculty Conference (I had many wrap up duties yesterday and travel today and so am just getting around to posting). As on other days, it seemed that our morning Bible studies captured an important thread of the day’s discussion. We looked at Genesis 50:15-26. Jacob, the father of the patriarchs have died and the brothers wonder if the reconciliation between them and Joseph will survive their father’s death. Will Joseph use his power as an Egyptian leader to retaliate for the fact that they sold him into slavery? So they concoct a message from Jacob on his deathbed pleading for understanding and they offer themselves as slaves.

Joseph weeps and says he would never do such a thing as they fear and that he will use his power to look out for them. But why does he weep? I think it is because the brothers act seems to reflect that they see Joseph as an Egyptian first, rather than as their brother and a fellow son of Jacob — an Israelite. Subsequently Joseph makes the matter clear. While he lives out his life in Egypt in service to Pharoah, his burial instructions specify that his body be returned to the land promised to Abraham when his people returned to that land. For Joseph, his Israelite identity was paramount and it defined his loyalty to his family and even his burial place. Yet he negotiated another identity, as an Egyptian leader, married by Pharoah to the daughter of a priest of an Egyptian god.

And this is the challenge of the multiple ways in which we identify ourselves, or others identify us. All of them are important. All of them have shaped who we are, how we see the world and relate to it, what we value. We can no more shed these things than our own skin. And sometimes, these multiple identities clash, and what do we do then? We heard of instances during the conference of conflicts where a university leader might need to implement decisions contrary to their faith commitments. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate and find a better way. And sometimes not, and what does one do then?

At least part of the answer comes from clarity about which identity is paramount and “arbitrates” among the others. Perhaps it is not always obvious, but it seems that for Christians, there can be no other “paramount” identity than one’s allegiance to Christ, and secondarily to his global people who are constituted of the whole mosaic of identities existing in human society.  Yet this does not mean our responses to conflicting identity commitments are simple and clearcut, or will be the same. How our commitment to Christ arbitrates with our other identity commitments might look different for different ones of us. The nuances of how a Christian faculty member might deal with academic dishonesty might differ depending on whether s/he (and the student for that matter) comes from a shame or a guilt oriented culture, for example. Yet the exercise of justice, truth, and grace in the context of university policy will be a common thread in each of these situations, one would hope.

What do you think of this idea of paramount identity as key to negotiating our multiple identities and the conflicts these sometimes place us in? How have you experienced these challenges and how have you responded?


One thought on “The Question of Identity in Academic Life

  1. Pingback: The End of Higher Ed — Update #1 | The Emerging Scholars Blog

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