BILL PETERSON (Psychology), Organizing Fellow
The final weeks of Narrative
: Identity were emotional ones as our group contemplated
the end of our time together. Over the past academic year
we grew close as a learning community. In the future many
of us will have opportunities to talk with each other, but
there was a palpable feeling of regret that the entire group
will no longer enjoy afternoon seminars followed by dinners
that lasted well beyond the allotted hour (thank you Chrissie
and Hana for indulging our late departures from the Kahn
Common themes that united many
of our individual projects were apparent when our students
presented their work at Collaborations
Day. One of the themes that we discussed several times in
our year together was how to go about documenting identities.
How do we study a trenchant concept like identity and, furthermore,
package our labors in such a way that others will find it
interesting and important? Some of our solutions involved
the writing of traditional essays, whereas others expressed
their concerns through artistic productivity. These latter
efforts, especially, expanded our notion of identity so that
we moved away from a focus on the mind to focus on the display
of identity through body movement and voice. We experimented
with documentary theatre, watched dance pieces, and listened
to vocal expressions of identity accompanied by music and
chant. Many of the identity projects in this area focused
on the way that selfhood is negotiated in 21st century America.
what some might call identity politics emerged in our discussions.
Individual members of our group focused
on how social expectations based on gender roles and ethnicity
might impact identity formation and display. We discussed
how identity is not just a personal thing; it’s also
an interactional construct that evolves over time through
social encounters. Some projects led us to struggle with
identity in very practical ways. For example, one member
of our group had to deal with social expectations as a director
when casting the characters in a play about the Philippines.
As other projects showed, social displays of identity occur
in settings as varied as museum exhibits and at the cinema.
third theme that emerged revolved around the assessment of
identity at a distance. Many of our projects focused on
the identity concerns of people from other time periods (e.g.,
Elizabethan England; during the heyday of the American frontier).
We asked to what extent are the identity concerns of historical
figures understandable to those of us in the 21st century.
What aspects of identity are historically relative, and what
aspects of identity seem to endure over generational time?
In many cases the past is still present and studying prior
ways that identity was formulated provided insight into contemporary
issues that continue to vex. For example, just as with e-mail
now, letters passed across the U.S. during the 1850s among
a pioneer family are no substitute for the interactional
displays that confirm personal identity.
This was a rewarding
year for faculty and students in Narrative : Identity. We
came away from our project with an increased
respect for the intelligence, poise and polish of our Smith
students (or the “Kahnies” as they dubbed themselves).
We also came to appreciate again one of the factors that
drew us to a liberal arts college in the first place—the
value of interdisciplinary dialogue with wonderful colleagues.