The Three R’s of Writing Identity: Recognition, Representation, and Reinvestment

Bernice Olivas

In 1967—in response to the Vietnam War and widespread civil unrest—Mary Rose O’Reilley asked, “Is it possible to teach English so people will stop killing each other?” It’s 2021 and we’re still killing each other. People of color, women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities are still marching in the streets, raising their voices to share their narratives, their mourning songs, their pain, fear, and frustration at the systemic inequality they face. As a nation, we are still in the same identity crisis we were in during 1967.

Maybe we need to be asking, “Is it possible to teach writing so people will stop killing each other?” I don’t have an answer. I want to say yes. I want to offer all the best ways to teach writing so that people will stop killing each other. But I can’t. What I can do is suggest that instead of looking to new ways of teaching, we look back and deepen some of the ways we are already teaching.  We can teach writing so that our students leave our classrooms with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

Now these suggestions will sound deceptively simple and maybe even out of touch in this complicated, technological time. But bear with me.

My first suggestion is to encourage students to write about themselves, to look inward, to the words that tell their stories.

When I say we should encourage students to write about themselves—I don’t mean “what I did last summer” essays or asking our students to write about how they felt about their dark times they’ve survived.  Instead, I am suggesting that we frame identity as a rich site of study and inquiry. To do that we need to be very clear about what we mean by identity because writing about identity is more than just writing something personal. Personal implies information not readily available to the public, information we can choose to share, information that we have the privilege of keeping close to us. The personal is mine, I have ownership over it.

For example, I am married—that is personal information. I don’t need to tell you that and you can’t tell just by looking at me.  It’s personal.

Identity, on the other hand, is something we only have a small amount of control over because our identity is contextualized by our society. Our identity is defined by markers that we did not construct, that were premade for us by a society that was here long before us, and that we can’t control. Our identities have built in the privileges and biases regardless of how we feel about it. I’m a woman. I’m a woman of color. I cannot decide who does or doesn’t know that. It’s written on my skin, it’s woven into my hair, it is in the shape of me.

What I am saying is that we should encourage our students to analyze their own identities in relationship to the rest of humanity and teach students that writing and identity are intertwined. We should give our students permission to use writing as a way of critically analyzing what they know to be true of the world. More importantly we should teach our students to critically analyze how they came to know what they know to be true of the world. Because the only way for any of us to change our worldview is for us to see that it needs to be changed. We need to know where our worldviews came from so we can decide we want to live there.

I write this during the Covid-19 epidemic. At this moment it feels like the right moment to look inward. Now, while our physical is distanced, while we are forced to sit with ourselves, is the time to remember that Victor Villanueva taught us that “personal discourse, the narrative, the auto/biography … is a necessary adjunct to the academic. Looking back, we look ahead, and giving ourselves up to the looking back and the looking ahead, knowing the self, and, critically, knowing the self in relation to others, maybe we can be an instrument whereby students can hear the call” (19). Our own complex identities are rich sites of inquiry. And maybe, by taking a deep dive into better understanding our own humanity in relationships the humanity of others, we can begin to find some answer to Mary Rose O’Reilley’s question.

We need to grapple with the hard truths—this work can’t be done at a distance, it must be up close and bone deep, it must be about each of us, and it starts with analyzing our own identity and the experiences and relationships that shape our identity. And I know that studying the self in relation to others may not sound like a realistic approach to vigorous intellectual pedagogy. But it isn’t new—it’s a deepening of what so many of us are already doing.

We already frame identity as lived experiences contextualized by relationships with communities, institutions, and governing bodies. We ask our students to analyze their own communities and institutions through their own lenses.  We ask our students to “do discourse” in ways that promote empathy, compassion, and solidarity.

And we certainly already think about developing praxis in our classroom that will act to help writers develop intellectual and critical habits of the mind. The Council of Writing Program Administrators, The National Councils of Teachers of English, and The National Writing Project identify eight habits of mind essential for success in academic writing:

  • Curiosity: The desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness: The willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement: A sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity: The ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence: The ability to sustain interest in and attention to short-term and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility: The ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility: The ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Meta-cognition: The ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge. (1)

Framing writing courses around inquiry into the students lived experiences and identities not only supports all eight habits of the mind, but it also helps our students better understand the ways the discourse can other, dehumanize, and marginalize people in the world, how the othering places people into systems of privilege and marginalization, and how they have been shaped and affected by the discourse around identity.

We already know that promoting empathy, compassion, and solidarity means guiding our students through a process of unlearning color-blindness, unlearning complicit silence, and unlearning an easy and innocent version of the world we live in. We already know that before we can develop empathy, compassion, and solidarity, we all must unlearn bias. We need to untangle a thousand different lessons that we absorbed and often can’t even name. Identity and the discourses around their identities shape the lives of our students. All of them. Those who are marginalized and, though it may seem contrary to the way we think of power dynamics, those who have privilege. They are Linda Flower’s “people who stand within a circle of privilege [who] may also be standing in need of empowerment.” Our history is a legacy that weighs heavily on all of us.

Consider what Frankie Condon says about White supremacy thinking. It is an illusion covering deep wounds to the self and the community. She says:

There are few matters in life about which I possess any degree of certainty, but this I know, both as a matter of life experience and as a result of my studies: racism splits us, slices us apart from one another, from our humanity, even from ourselves. Racism chains us to small, crabbed, notions of self. (3)

This holds true for sexism, homophobia, class issues—when we lose touch with each other’s humanity we are chaining ourselves to “small, crabbed, notions of self.”

So, if we agree that we live in a world where, as James Gee tells us, discourse shapes our “identity kit[s],” if we agree that discourse can create a toxic “doing-being-valuing-believing” combination of language and social practices, if we agree the discourse of othering supports behaviors and ways of thinking that make it possible for all of us to enact social injustice based in racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia―then it falls to those us who already study rhetoric and language to speak loudly that discourse is a learned behavior and learned behaviors can be challenged, disrupted, and dismantled.

Villanueva says, “The personal done well is sensorial and intellectual, complete, knowledge known throughout mind and body, even if vicariously.” So too is writing about our identity. When we tell our stories about uncovering the why of our biases, or our fears, or our rage, that story is “sensorial and intellectual, complete, knowledge known throughout the mind and body” of our readers. When we offer our memoria―our cultural, community, and familial memories―we invite our readers to live vicariously with us.

I am saying that writing about identity can be an important way of learning about the world.

I am saying that we can write about our identities in ways that are active, vibrant, and effective.

More importantly, I am saying we can write about our identities in a way that promotes empathy, compassion, and solidarity.

I might even be suggesting that conceptualizing identity as a rich site for inquiry and analysis might help us teach writing so that people stop killing each other.

My second is more about strategies to craft writing projects that help our students stay connected to the academic world. For too many of our students’ academia is a new and alien space. There are so many new things to grasp. We need to give students work that will ground them, give them writing opportunities that help them develop a sense of belonging to their college community because Dr. Ann Penrose found that students who fail to figure out where they belong on campus are much less likely to graduate. She says that “helping students see themselves as members of the academic community may be the most important challenge faced in the university at large.”

We need to craft writing projects that help students develop a sense of belonging. Students are already “inventing the university” and “learning to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community” (4). Students need to see themselves as belonging on our campus, in our programs, at our institutions. Because when they do not, they are more likely to fail.

I remember, in my first year in undergrad, I didn’t know what “office hours” were, and when my writing teacher suggested I come by his office hours, I was terrified. My identity as a First-Generation Mexican woman saw that invitation as threatening. I stopped sitting in front, I stopped raising my hand, I stopped talking. I was terrified to do something that would change that invitation to an order. I was in my junior year before I felt like I deserved to be there, that I belonged on campus.

Now, I laugh at this experience, but I always, without evening thinking about it, offer my own students an explanation of office hours. I tell them that these are hours I set aside just for them, because I want to be able to answer questions, chat, look at writing, or whatever. I remind them that office hours are for them. Every semester. I do everything I can to make my classroom and as much of campus as possible as comfortable, as much theirs, as their local park, or the local auntie’s bodega, or their church. I want them―no, need them―to see the campus, the knowledge we house here, as theirs. Full stop. No caveats.

In this I speak from experience: I was that student who was disconnected and I was struggling until I joined the McNair Scholars. The McNair scholars’ program is a Trio program that prepares and supports marginalized undergraduates to get into graduate school. Each program is a little different depending on who developed it. The program at my college really focused on encouraging students to see themselves as scholars and to see that graduate school was a possibility for them. It was two years of studying ourselves and the world of graduate education.

And it wasn’t easy to convince some of us that we belonged in graduate school. We fear losing our families and culture even while we want to grasp everything graduate school offers. We spend two years trying to understand who we are in the contexts of scholars and researchers. In my cohort, I was only one of many who had never seen a professor like themselves. I had never had a Mexican teacher; there was only one Latina in my English department. Everywhere I looked, my campus was telling me that I didn’t belong. Every class, every portrait of alumni, every face represented a world that was not built for me. As a McNair scholar I spent a summer researching why students like me failed Composition 101 and dropped out. In graduate school, I keep researching that same issue by spending two years observing the writing pedagogy used at my McNair program in hopes of finding some practical answers. And not just because McNair was where I developed into a scholar, but because TRIO programs have a proven success rate of graduating and advancing underrepresented students and First-Generation students into graduate programs. These factors made my McNair Program a rich site to research how their writing intensive program helps students develop their confidence and sense of belonging.

What I found was that the McNair Scholars Program used three key strategies to conceptualize identity as a site of inquiry and analysis. And they used them to help students develop a sense of belonging.

First, they ask their students to write about themselves. A lot. They examine their histories, analyze their motivations, and identify the most useful skills and characteristics they brought with them from home.

These three strategies are what I call recognition, representation, and reinvestment.  These strategies situated them as members of the academic community.

Recognition means that the writing project encourages students to recognize how the strengths they developed in their home communities make them better students.

Representation means that the writing project guides them in locating representation from their community in academia.

Re-investment means the writing projects shine a light on the kinds of opportunities they will have to re-invest into their home communities once they have completed their education.

The McNair program crafted writing projects that focused on recognizing their students’ strengths, by helping them to find representation in academia, and by honoring their dedication to their family and home community.

But what does that look like in the classroom?

Centering recognition might look like a literacy narrative that asks students to tell the stories of members of their family or community that emphasize the skills taught in their communities. This project presumes that their families and communities are full of strong, smart, successful people, and helps the student better understand how their culture and background supports their intellectual goals. It also shows them that I honor their community’s ways of being.  Recognizing those ways of making knowledge is inviting the student to embrace those ways of making knowledge in their intellectual journey.

Centering representation might look like a rhetorical analysis of a newsletter or yearbook from an early two-year college as a way of showing students how our past student bodies were First Generation students—the sons of farmers, laborers, and immigrants. It might look like an analysis of their areas of interest or career path. It might ask them to locate and email a successful member of academia who is also a member of one of their home communities so they can see themselves in the future.

Centering assignments in re-investment might look like a research paper focused on the needs of their home communities to locate the ways their education might benefit the people they love. It might look like collecting narratives from their elders to preserve for the next generation, it may look like an op-ed about an issue that has a real impact on their homes.

In my classroom, using these strategies might look like asking the students to research and apply to a local scholarship. Apply the concept of the rhetorical situation to help them plan their essays. Pinpoint what the writer wants—they want the money to finish their classes. Consider what the audience wants—they want reassurance that the scholarship winner will finish their education. Then work together to craft an essay that mixes narrative and exposition in a way that gives the reader a person, a whole person—the young woman who watched the hospice nurses gently usher her grandmother out of this world and thought, “I want to be like them,” instead of the kid who has always wanted to be a nurse.

It might look like writing protest essays about a local issue, reading James Baldwin and June Jordan or a watch party of “Salt of The Earth” a 1954 American drama about Mexican workers protesting unsafe practices of a copper mining company. It might look like sending them to create and share a protest playlist and writing a reflection on how they put that list together. It might look like interviewing their elders in search of historical narratives.

Now, looking back, I can point out the exact moment my identity shifted from outsider to belonging, the exact moment my academic identity snapped into being and I knew what it meant for me to be an academic. The McNair Co-director, whose graduate education was also in English, encouraged me to attend a reading by Dr. Victor Villanueva. She said Dr. Villanueva was exactly the kind of scholar I needed in my body of knowledge. He was First Generation, he was Latino, he was in my field, and he was a teacher. She was right. I read his essay, “Memoria Is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourses of Color,” the night before, and the creative writer in me loved that his essay mixed poetry, narrative, and formal academic language. While I listened to him reading in a voice that sounded like home, using expressions that I understood but could not translate because he is Puerto Rican and I am Mexican and I don’t really speak Spanish, I recognized characteristics we shared. I listened to that beautiful reading, and I was proud to be represented by him, proud to hear him speak truth and power. I looked at him and thought, I can do this.  I felt the power of his words, the charisma of his personality, and I knew―really knew―that people like me belonged in academia, that we did this work. That I could do this work. More importantly, I knew that I owed it to my nieces and nephews, to other students like me to reinvest my education so that I would someday stand, as he stood, reaching a hand to others like me.

This moment never fails to remind me that our students don’t just “invent the university” on their own—they do it in relation to us, their faculty, their mentors, their advisors, and their peers.  The student is not just learning to “speak our language,” they are developing a whole new way of being—one that will allow them to join us at the table.

So that’s my second way of teaching writing so that our students learn more about what it means to be human. I show them people like themselves doing academia. I give them stories by folks who share that cultural, community, and familial memoria. I encourage them to dream of a future where they are holding their hand out to lift the next generation.

Whatever it looks like in your classroom, give them work that reminds them that they belong here. Give them work that helps them understand themselves and each other better. Give them work that lets them dream about the future. This is the work that keeps us connected. This is the work that might just help us finally answer the question, “Is it possible to teach writing so people will stop killing each other?”


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing 5.1 (1986): 4–23.

Department of Education. TRIO: Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. 17 May 2016.  Http://>.

Flower, Linda. Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Gee, James P. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” The Journal of Education. 171.1 (1989): 5–176.

O’Reilley, Mary R. The Peaceable Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1993.

Penrose, Ann M. “Academic Literacy Perceptions and Performance: Comparing First Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Research in the Teaching of English. 36.4 (2002): 437–61.

Villanueva, Victor. “Memoria Is a Friend of Ours: on the Discourse of Color.” College English. 67.1 (2004): 9–19.


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Bernice Olivas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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