Finding connection in identity ambiguity

This is the third-place winner in our “Meeting connections” essay contest
Heather Dwyer Martina Rosenberg
By Heather Dwyer and Martina Rosenberg
March 29, 2022

What does it mean to occupy an in-between space, both personally and professionally?

Our role in educational development often is described as a liminal position, somewhere between a traditional faculty appointment and a staff appointment. The two of us hold doctorates in the biological sciences, and we use our professional training to support instructors in their pedagogical efforts, from course design to classroom management to evaluating instructional effectiveness.

Referred to as “care work,” this job requires emotional labor and is mostly completed by women — specifically, white women. Membership of the Professional and Organizational Development, or POD, Network, our national organization, largely identifies as white (85%) and female (75%). Given these statistics and a racialized society, it can be particularly difficult for educational developers with minoritized identities to navigate daily conversations around educational equity and act as a “key lever for ensuring institutional quality and supporting institutional change,” as Mary Deane Sorcinelli and co-authors wrote in “Creating the Future of Faculty Development.”

For us, in particular, our professional identity ambiguity intersects with our personal identity ambiguity. Both of us individually have struggled to come to terms with our racial identities. As half-Chinese, half-white women who were raised in Westernized communities (Germany, the United States), we never felt comfortable in the usual categories. Are we BIPOC? Asian? Are we allowed to join such affinity groups? Sometimes we pass as white — what are the implications of this? Are we imposters if our upbringings involved little Chinese cultural tradition and language? How do we relate to the lived experiences of other Asians and other people of color? And how does all of this impact our work, particularly in the realm of supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in higher education? 

We each had asked ourselves these questions alone. Then we found each other at a conference. The POD Network annual conference, held remotely in November 2021, for the first time incorporated affinity group meetings. We bumped into each other twice in spaces that were designated for Asian American and Pacific Islander folks and were pleasantly surprised at how natural it was to disclose our continued questioning and struggle with racial identity to a total stranger.

Our shared experience led us to establish a connection, thus beginning a mutual mentoring relationship. Though this relationship is nascent, we have discussed everything from our experiences as young children to the ways in which we navigate and even leverage our racial identities when working with faculty. Our miniature affinity group has felt affirming, both personally and professionally. Now we can ask, and begin to answer, some of these questions together.

This connection would not have been forged had there not been affinity groups interwoven in the conference schedule. We appreciated the fluidity of self-selection — after all, Asians are not a monolithic group, and we are examples of that.

We encourage event organizers on national, local or even departmental levels to create space for affinity groups so members of underrepresented identities can seek one another for mutual support, understanding and inspiration.

About ‘Meeting Connections’

Have you made a friendship or connection, forged a collaboration, gleaned insight or had another meaningful experience at a scientific meeting?

To celebrate the return of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s annual meeting as an in-person event, ASBMB Today held an essay contest based on this question. This is one of the winning entries.

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Heather Dwyer
Heather Dwyer

Heather Dwyer is assistant director at Tufts University’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. She earned her doctorate in ecology at the University of California, Davis, and has been supporting university instructors in their teaching since 2011.

Martina Rosenberg
Martina Rosenberg

Martina Rosenberg is the director for teaching and learning assessment at the University of Connecticut. Her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, served her in neuroscience research, biochemistry education scholarship and now in academic development.

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