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Student Identity, Student Voice

Hummingbird's picture

My position as a student has formed a strong and central part of my identity for almost as long as I can remember. My interactions in the classroom served as the basis not only for life-long learning, but also for evolving understandings of my identities. So it makes sense to me that much of the shifting and growth I’ve done in understanding my identities has come in the context of my identity as a student. I identify as an upper middle class, cisgendered, queer, white, atheistic, half-New Zealand, Brooklyn-raised woman. As I’ve studied and lived in different environments, as I’ve moved from Brooklyn to Bryn Mawr to Denmark and back, I’ve claimed, moved through, and even discarded different aspects of my identity in varying degrees. Being able to own each of these identities now and feel comfortable introducing myself as them is a state that has been a long time coming.

One integral aspect of my identity as a student is my voice, and it is through the lens of student voice that I explore the different aspects of my identities. I focus on race, class, and gender because those are the three aspects of my identities I have been thinking critically about most recently, and because I think these three aspects impact my interactions with others most strongly.


I. Race and Class Privilege

I have come to understand that I cannot think about my racial privilege without thinking about my class privilege, and vice versa. My experience being white and upper middle class was something I had a difficult time understanding and accepting because of the way it implicated me in the social hierarchy. This particularly struck me when I began to understand these privileges in the context of classrooms and in the context of my position as student. In a piece I wrote called “Understanding Privilege,” I explained,

“I had never thought about white privilege (or class privilege) in the context of my classroom interactions. I had spent my entire life attributing my sense of comfort in the classroom to personality. To have it re-attributed to an entitlement stemming from privilege, to have it re-attributed to an assumption that I will add to the classroom and that my addition will be valued because I have shared it in the right way, was paralyzing for me.” (Abbot 2013)

I think that part of what made understanding my privilege so challenging was the way it forced me to critically look at myself through a kind of constant “testimonial reading” of my life (Boler 1999). Before learning about my privilege, my automatic reaction had been to speak up and participate often. Learning about the way my voice impacts others made me more empathetic to others whose voices have traditionally not been as valued in academic settings and from that position pushed me to take what action I could to make more space for marginalized voices.

I found that in recognizing my privileged position in the classroom I retrained the way I interacted and worked with others, particularly in classroom dialogue. I reflected on this in a different paper by saying, “I’ve “unlearned” some of the skills I’d previously had in classroom interactions” (2012). This unlearning was difficult because I became so absorbed in thinking about my privilege, I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t take up any vocal space at all – and in doing so, lost my voice.


II. Cis-gendered and Marginal

The experience of understanding my race and class based privilege was shocking and uncomfortable. In comparison, my understanding of my identity as a woman has generally been neither surprising nor particularly troubling. I have been privileged to experience my identity as woman as a given. I haven’t significantly questioned it or been questioned by others about it. So I have privilege in that my gender identity fits neatly within the (inaccurately) established gender binary.

However, I am on the marginalized side of the gender spectrum in that I’m a cis-gendered woman. In thinking last semester about the way my gender impacts my interactions with the world, I wrote:

“I am used to shrinking myself. I was raised to cross my legs, to be polite, to speak softly, to move for others, to work towards being thinner, to use small gestures, to occupy less space. A spoken word poet said the difference between her and her brother was that she was taught to shrink while her brother was taught to expand.  I have no brothers to compare to, but I am used to squeezing.” (2013)

 In elementary school I was the stereotypically over-eager, book-wormish student. I didn’t hesitate to offer the answer to a question. I often – if not always – volunteered to read aloud or write answers on the board. In other words, I wasn’t afraid to take up a lot of vocal space. Once I got to high school, I learned to follow the status quo a little more closely, and while I still participated and did very well, I avoided standing out by volunteering too much. I learned to filter my voice much more strictly, I learned to hesitate, I learned to “squeeze.”

In a male-dominated philosophy class I took in high school, I often found myself squeezed by the confidence and loud occupation of vocal space my male colleagues showed. I had a harder time asserting my voice, feeling less empowered to make mistakes out loud. I felt pressure to say things precisely and well – possibly more so than some of my classmates – and had trouble entering the conversation because of this. I am lucky that my experience in classrooms at Bryn Mawr has reaffirmed that I assert my vocal space, particularly when interacting with more domineering cis-gendered men.


III. Understanding Vocal Space as a Self-Critical Student

            In both of these understandings of how aspects of my identities influence my position as a student, I’ve thought about how my voice is impacted. In understanding my racial and class privilege, I have tried to make more vocal space for other voices – particularly non-white or non-upper/upper middle class voices. In my understanding of my gender dis-privilege, I have worked on strengthening my voice. These seemingly contradictory impacts on my voice highlight the complexities of identity within each of us. Ellsworth writes “the space of difference between address and response is a social space, formed and informed by historical conjunctures of power and of social and cultural difference” (1997). This space of difference is particularly impacted when intersectionality complexifies understanding of those participating in dialogue. If others make assumptions about how I communicate with them focused solely on my gender, they ignore my racial and class positionality, and vice versa. And their assumptions do not recognize other aspects of my identity that I haven’t even touched on here or perhaps even recognize consciously myself.

For myself, understanding how to balance both speaking up for myself as a woman and stepping back as a person with race and class privilege has been a difficult process and one that I still struggle with. In one reflection on how I felt I was previously taking up too much vocal space, I wrote about simultaneously feeling I needed to filter my thoughts more before sharing them and feeling a need to ensure there was vocal space for others; unfortunately, together these feelings became so powerful during that semester that I grew to feel paralyzed to speak at all. I understand now that my reaction put me back into the marginalized state I face as a woman in a patriarchal society. Now I try to strike a better balance – working to neither dominate nor remain entirely silent.


IV. Understanding Vocal Space in Partnerships

            As I continue my educational career, I find that my position as student becomes less and less hierarchically defined, and more and more fluid. I have been lucky enough to work alongside professors as consultants for the past two years at Bryn Mawr, and this opportunity has added another layer to my thinking about voice and my position as a student. A large part of my job is speaking from my position as a student in order to share class concerns, give feedback, offer advice, and respond to faculty concerns. I have learned how to think and phrase my feedback in terms of “As a student I feel…” and “If I were in the class I might think…” and this kind of filtering has given me both a new tool for communication and shown me the value of my position as student.

In many ways, the traditional hierarchy that exists between faculty and students is disrupted and leveled in these interactions. In true Freirian-style, rather than assuming I will exclusively absorb knowledge from my professors, we assume we will learn from each other mutually (Freire and Shor 1987). I’ve felt empowered in interactions with other faculty members as a result of these partnerships.  Freire and Shor critique the word “empowerment” for the uncritical and surface-level way it’s often used (1987), but I would say that these partnerships have in fact empowered me. In partnering, I’ve been a part of a process that breaks down traditional pedagogical hierarchy and I’ve learned tools to do that (in a much smaller extent) with professors not involved in this partnering program. For example, I’ve learned how to tell professors when I’m feeling unsure about an activity or assignment as well as gained the confidence to affirm faculty when aspects of class learning work really well for me.


V. Conclusion

The new fluidity of my student role is helping me recognize that sometimes in taking up some vocal space, I can create new spaces for others to enter the conversation. This recognition helps me to bridge the gap I had previously felt in balancing stepping back for my race and class with speaking up for my gender. My student identity continues to be shaped by the way I see my voice impacting others, and my voice continues to be shaped by the way I understand my other identities.


Works Cited:

Boler, M. (1999). The risks of empathy. In Feeling power: Emotions and education. New York: Routledge.

Ellsworth, E. A. (1997). The paradoxical power of address: It's an education thing, too. In Teaching positions: Difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hummingbird (2013, December 13). Gendered Spaces. unpublished zine. From “Gender and Sexuality in Scandinavia” (Sept. – Dec. 2013)

Hummingbird (2013, June 15). Understanding privilege. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from

Hummingbird. (2012, December 22). To our Walled Community: Thank you. Serendip Studio. Retrieved March 2, 2014, from /exchange/our-walled-community-thank-you

Shor, I., & Freire, P. (1987). What is the 'dialogical method' of teaching? In A pedagogy for liberation: Dialogues on transforming education. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.


jccohen's picture

reconceptualizing vocal space, dialogue, solidarity



It’s wonderful to hear your retrace your steps with regard to vocal space as an dimension/instantiation of identities, and come to the realization that ‘sometimes in taking up some vocal space, I can create new spaces for others to enter the conversation.’  This seems particularly important to me with regard to questions of what ‘solidarity,’ being an ‘ally,’ and ‘dialogue’ might mean in classrooms and in life.  I’d love to hear more about how you conceptualize ‘voice’ and ‘vocal space’ and why these have come to be so central to your understandings/work.  For example, could you say more about doing a ‘“testimonial reading” of (your) life,’ what you actually thought through/asked/reconsidered in this process, or perhaps more crucially, how did you come to take this as an opportunity to take responsibility (a word both Boler and Ellsworth are partial to) rather than simply as a call to guilt and/or denial?  And now I’m wondering:  does your process resonate in any way with Berlak’s ideas about the adaptive unconscious?


Your vocabulary of a cisgendered female experience of schooling -- squeezing, filtering, avoiding standing out – is echoed in Ellsworth’s story of science glassware and her reference to Tompkins and an education that seems not quite bad enough to call attention to and yet…  You take this to another level in your recognition at that moment in the essay of intersectionality as a key factor, since, as Ellsworth suggests, “the space of difference between address and response is a social space,” and one that must account for simultaneous expansion and contraction of vocal space, for example.  I’d like to hear you theorize further about this, and specifically, I’m wondering how this (to me almost diagrammaticJ) notion might help educators think about ‘dialogue.’


In that light, how does intersectionality inform the work you’ve done with TLI and how that has in turn influenced your experience of ‘empowerment’?