David Wallace Foster gave a speech in 2005 and opened with a parable/story/moment that went like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” This parable isn’t as Foster points out, about “older fish explaining what water is to… younger fish”. The “point is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

The obvious, important reality that I need to talk about is this: difference is real. Difference exists. Infinite variety in bodies, beliefs, and experiences are real.

As a teacher I can only do my job, and I mean, really do my job, if I see, feel, love, and celebrate that difference in the classroom. To do my job I need to teach with that difference constantly in mind. I need to be fully identity-conscious.  In a recent piece of retention scholarship called “Closing the Opportunity Gap: Identity-Conscious Strategies for Retention and Student Success,” Sumun L. Pendakur says that the “active consideration of multiple facets of identity” is required in order to teach “with a thoughtful, critical” approach that demystifies instead of reifying “dominant norms” of instruction.” And I don’t want to reify those norms because the other “obvious, important, reality” we struggle to see is that those norms produce injustice.

The dominant norms of instruction ignore the reality of a wide variety of people who promote political, business, and religious aims by framing difference as dangerous, undesirable, and less than. The dominant norms of instruction produce unequal distribution of resources, and results in intolerance and exploitation. The dominant norm of instruction prohibits us from talking and teaching about the “obvious important reality,”—this “water.”

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to address the “obvious reality.” However, acknowledging that it exists, and addressing it means beginning at the beginning—with developing an awareness of the “water”.

That means developing a pedagogy that accounts for the following premises:

1) Few writers come to our first-year writing classes with a deep understanding of how their own identity is related to the systems of inequality, privilege, and marginalization in which they exist;

2) In order to be aware of those relationships we must an awareness of our own identities that accounts for our relationships to the ‘water.” We must become identity-conscious;

3) Developing identity-consciousness begins by developing an understanding of how our own identities affect our relationships with our communities, our institutions, and our governing bodies; and

4) Developing identity-consciousness in the classroom is a thoughtful, intentional, and reflective process.

The waters are the unseen societal norms that frame the way we deal with difference, the ideologies that shape the ways we behave in context to difference, and the institutional systems that maintain and support that behavior. Theorists call these “norms” many things depending on the lens from which they are viewing society. Terms like patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, neuro-supremacy, ableism, classism, elitism, monotheism or even human-centric are used to frame and contextualize the water. All of these terms work to explain and describe binaries, boundaries, power dynamics, and the cultures that make up the water—but none of them capture the nature of water. It slips through our semiotics and lingos.

Like our society, an aquatic environment is a space of endless variance. In one space, warmed by the sun, plants grow and create shelter and sustenance for species that may not live in the waters fifteen feet away where it’s colder. The shallows are one ecosystem, the depths another. Currents change the shape and flow of life and energy one way in the center of ecosystem, and in another way at the edge. It is the same with ways we react, respond, and behave around difference. The rich variance in bodies, cultures, belief systems, language, family structures, and worldviews creates a vast system of interaction. Terminology vast and specific enough to hold it all has yet to be written.

Water is in constant motion. Water responds to every movement and every action. When a body enters the water, the water shifts to make space, every movement is met by a response. Something as simple as breathing in chest deep water creates a ripple effect.

The goal of the identity-conscious writing classroom is to help writers understand themselves as a focal point for movement in the water and to begin their exploration of activism and rhetorical action for social justice by taking some control over own their presence in the water. Being identity-conscious begins by being aware of the affect our bodies have in the water and building on that knowledge in order to control how we affect other bodies in the water, and eventually it can be developed so that we begin to understand the complex science of interaction, of movement, of give and take between ourselves and our students. With practice we can learn to use our bodies to create shifts, currents, and eddies that can help our students move more safely, more confidently, and more powerfully through the water.

Little fish

It is important to point out that the relationship between a body and the water remains true and constant regardless of the ways that body is privileged or marginalized. We all create shifts the water and we should all be aware of that reality. Some of our identities are denser; more packed, and create larger, heavier waves that have visible, local waves. Others create ripples that are felt hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Some of us are less protected from the shift and movement of the water, others barely feel it. But the relationship between the body and the water remains the same. Existing in the water causes a reaction from the water.  This is an underlying shared reality that writing instructors can build on. It is also important to point out that most of us are little fish. Both instructors and writers struggle to develop and maintain an awareness of the water.

Traditionally few of us come to our first-year writing class with a deep understanding of how our identity can affect the water. And so, we seek to make our writers more aware of the water by asking them to read, write, and discuss the ways the water is viewed from a wide variety of different lenses and perspectives. But I think that we, both writers and instructors, become more committed to both awareness and action if when we develop an understanding of our own position and stakes in the work we are doing before we study the water from a different angle. So, in order to teach, to really teach, I try to constantly be engaged in learning how to control the impact of my singular presence in the water because that is the one thing I can each do to make things a little bit better. After all, we all live in these waters—there is nowhere else to go.

Dr. Bernice Olivas is a First-Generation scholar who carries identity markers that have shaped her worldviews and academic trajectory.  She is Indigenous Mexican American.olivas_sketch She grew up as a member of the working poor.  She is the mother of two autistic children. She began her academic career as a high school dropout with a G.ED.  She is a McNair Scholar. She took her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln in 2016; her MA in the teaching of English at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln in 2012; and her B.A. in English with a creative writing emphasis in 2010. During her graduate career, she focused on the intersection between writing and marginalization to better serve student writers from marginalized and underrepresented communities.  Her dissertation “Supporting First-Generation Writers in the Composition Classroom: Exploring the Practices of the Boise State University McNair Scholars Program” reflects her deep commitment to recruiting, retaining, and mentoring First -Generation Students. She has recently published a book chapter that maps strategies for place-conscious writing instruction with diverse students in places that have histories of Native Genocide, Mexican displacement, and segregation. Currently, she is working on a book chapter that works to take literacy, mentoring, and teaching practices from the Boise State McNair Scholars program and adapt them for the community college writing classroom.  In the future, she hopes to develop first-year writing instruction practices that support First-generation students through their first-year experience to improve the First-generation retention rate through graduation.


Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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