Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Boop! (So you wanna be a nerd…)

April 2nd, 2011

Dialogue: Identities
Whiteness (Race), Gender, Culture…

Our second dialogue on identity opened up difficult stuff.  We learned a few painful experiences these high school youth have had with some of their peers, and began to talk about college . . . what choices are available, and what effective communication strategies can they practice now to achieve success at college later? These bright and energetic high school juniors have a clear sense of why they want to go to college, but very little information about what college will be like. “I would rather have a career I pick than a job that picks me.” Lucii won Marissa’s congratulatory “boop” two times for making brilliant statements about the relationship between a college education and meaningful work. Natasha’s ambition to hang with nerds also met with approval. Noelani, Tiffany, and Lucii got in on the action:

“Nerds make all the money.”

“We’re putting a nerd monitor on you to check in five years.”

“They don’t go to NYC to go shopping!”

“They shop for books.”

On the spur of the moment, the only media image they could come up with about college was news-reporting about “what college students don’t know.” These are sensationalized stories that lampoon the Millennial Generation for not having the same knowledge base that was expected of their parents and grandparents. However, standardizing education in today’s Information Age is complicated. The challenge of education today is only partly with the content. There is a lot more information to sort through in today’s time than for previous generations. In the academic discipline of “Communication,”  the effects of constant exposure to media are explored in relation to the development of an individual’s consciousness, showing links between psychological awareness and societal customs.

do now_UMassWho do you want to be?

I’m wondering about identities, because they shift and change depending on who you’re with and what’s going on. For instance, I’m always a white person, but the ways in which I act white isn’t always relevant. I like the idea that I might be a nerd, too, but does a label that categorizes a certain kind of thinking carry the same weight as a label that categorizes an ethnic or cultural background? Again, it depends on who I’m with and what’s going on.

The important skill is knowing when and how to shift identities depending on what’s going on with the people I’m interacting with. If my friend who describes herself as half-Puerto Rican and half Black  is trying to figure out how to confront whiteness, I need to connect with my white identity in order to be able to share information and insight with her that helps her figure out a strategy. If my friend is struggling with chemistry, then I need to put on the nerd identity and figure out how to learn that crazy stuff too!

When it can get tricky is when we’re in our nerd identities and something, somehow, comes up sideways that has to do with ethnic or cultural or religious or national or sexual or some other identity that is a feature of the body more than of the mind.  The thing about learning (as opposed to teaching), is that when you’re learning you are aware that there is so much that you don’t know.  When you’re teaching, you can get fooled into thinking that what you know is all anyone else has to know, which can lead to a failure of curiosity. Just because a certain strategy works for me, doesn’t mean the same strategy will work for someone else.  This applies whether the topic is academic (like chemistry) or social (like which identity matters most right now).

The education young people need today requires more than balance between the social and the academic. They need skills of navigation so that they can know when to switch from one identity to the next in ways that move them further toward the goals they seek. Anyone who can do this socially can transfer that skill to academic or intellectual content, too. If you can make the identity switch that supports the kind of relationships you want with others, then you also know how to learn and problem-solve together on any topic – whether it is about learning in school, or figuring out a project at work, or helping your family and community find the resources needed to sustain itself.

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