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NARRATIVE : IDENTITY

Final Project Report

by 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 Institute).

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.

Indeed, 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.

A 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.

Fellows

Final Project Report

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