Embracing Subjectivity

 Published on March 31, 2015 /  Written by /  “Skin of Words” by /  13

Embracing our subjectivity as teachers can be tricky; I’ve written several times about how complex it is when teachers make the choice to be non-neutral. I’ve admitted it could be seen as indoctrinating. But believe me: pretending to be objective or neutral only hides our subjectivity, it does not actually remove it. For example, it takes sensitivity and caution to not make male students feel silenced during discussions of gender, but it’s also impossible for a woman to pretend to be neutral in this context. This explicit non-neutrality is a characteristic of critical pedagogy. As Davies and Barnett suggest, the “critique” inherent in critical pedagogy is focused on uncovering what might be hidden behind claims or arguments, which is different from more traditional notions of critical thinking that focus on identifying weaknesses in arguments in some objective way. Critical pedagogy and critical approaches to curriculum are creative and subjective processes, inherently influenced by the teacher’s (and learner’s) lenses of looking at the world. This is so different from traditional notions of critical thinking, which is why I think it sometimes takes a while to express it and discuss it with others.

I was giving an introductory workshop to undergrads about critical pedagogy the other day. A bit ambitious for one hour, I know, but I wanted them to look at critical thinking in a different way.  To be able to think about criticality as a way of questioning oppression from multiple lenses of gender, race, postcolonialism, social class, etc. One of the simple activities I did was to encourage them to question the hidden messages behind some fairy tales/Disney movies. Things like the message behind “Beauty and the Beast” (It’s ok to be ugly — but only if you’re the guy — and in the end, you have to turn into a handsome prince. I prefer Shrek on this one!) and Aladdin (Not only does princess Jasmine fall for a thief and not a Robin Hood even, but the imagery used to represent the Middle East is slightly offensive, and the way Jasmine is dressed…it’s more like how Arabs used to dress their slaves, not their royalty.). Things like that.

So when I reached a discussion of Egyptian school curriculum, and I asked, “what’s wrong with…?” a supervisor of this group interrupted me and said, “but that’s not a neutral question”, to which I responded, “I am not trying to be neutral. Critical pedagogy is explicitly value-laden.” And it is.  I was asking a leading question in the sense of leading participants to consider that something is ‘wrong’, but it’s not leading in the sense of necessarily expecting a particular answer as the ‘right’ one. Raising consciousness is sometimes about asking, “What is wrong with…?” from a social justice perspective.

I discussed my belief that social justice is not one monolithic clear thing, that our histories and contexts shape our perspectives, which in turn color our judgment of what constitutes social justice. I talked about that briefly in my workshop; I didn’t use the term “positionality” but alluded to it.

Which brings me to research. I was once having a discussion with a colleague about research. She was saying, “we need to try to be objective”, and I responded, “no, we need to make our biases and subjectivities explicit”. She looked at me and said, “we’re saying the same thing”.

I beg to differ.

There is a difference between perceiving objectivity and neutrality as “higher” values to strive for, and recognizing that we cannot reach them. That’s my friend. By contrast, I argue that subjectivity is the human condition. Everything else that attempts to be objective or neutral is pretense. It is inauthentic. It is not even something I strive towards.

What about providing statistics about learning? That’s not objective either. Behind those statistics is research that contained questions that were decided upon by particular people. Those choices of questions to ask, correlations to look for, which ones to report, and how to represent and interpret them? Layers upon layers of subjectivity hidden behind an illusion of objectivity.

Interpretive and critical research, on the other hand, clarifies the researcher’s subjectivity. In fact, it makes subjectivity central to what the research presents and represents. It offers readers the agency to judge for themselves which parts of the research to take or leave. As Jon Nixon (an educator who has influenced my thinking greatly) writes, “all understanding is always already interpretation” and “the interpreter is always already part of what is being interpreted” (33) and as such “all understanding necessarily involves an element of self-understanding” (34). This is central to interpretive approaches to research, and even more so for approaches such as autoethnography that make the researcher a central subject of research. I have recently completed co-writing two articles reporting on collaborative autoethnographic research; to report on our experiences, we had to be explicit about how we felt about the topic of our research in order for the reader to recognize our lens and positionality; we did  not attempt to convince the reader that we were attempting to provide an objective perspective. Objectivity is beside the point, because none of us goes into an experience objectively: we are always ourselves. Or at least, some dimension of ourselves.

When teaching, putting a number on a grade doesn’t make things more objective. Creating a rubric doesn’t make things more objective, either. There are values behind our choices of what to give grades for and how much weight we give them. And that’s ok. Subjectivity is the human condition. Let’s reconcile ourselves with it. Or better yet, embrace it.

Embracing subjectivity does not justify an “anything goes” mentality. William Perry’s levels of intellectual development have an intermediate stage called “multiplicity” where people lose the absolutist mindset of depending on authority. But it has a more advanced stage called “contextual relativism” which implies that what is more or less true depends on the context.

Speaking of grades, I do not mean to suggest that students can just each give themselves a grade and consider it good enough (though you could try that, I guess), but it also means that our authority as teachers is not the absolute and only valid judgment of the student’s learning. It implies a more complex negotiation of what it means for a student to have learned: a dialogical, emergent understanding that is not based on pre-defined rubrics or arbitrary numbers and letters. It also suggests an openness to questioning what it means when we emphasize certain things in a grade, or when we try to “order” students in terms of who performed better or worse.

People sometimes think I am being an “easy grader” when all I am doing is making sure all my students learn something worthwhile, and I choose to “reward” them for doing it, because most of them end up doing it, and learning, because I give them enough chances to do so. My goal is not to filter better performance from worse; it’s to help students learn. As long as I reach an understanding with my students about what we all consider to be learning in my class, I’m happy (thrilled, even) when they all do, even though it might mean something different for each student. Why wouldn’t I be?

Kris Shaffer describes the difference between grading student work looking for errors and focusing on technical details, as opposed to looking at student work holistically, and accounting for the student as a whole person. He explains how this mindset shift made him focus less on how to mark down a student, and instead, how to help them make their work better. This includes considering ways in which what we ask of our students may be inconvenient or unsuitable to their needs or circumstances or even interests.

Embracing subjectivity entails opening ourselves to questioning and evolution. It means recognizing that our truths might be different from other people’s truths. In pedagogy, this is what Palmer refers to as the teacher’s openness to listening to students’ truths empathetically. It implies that as teachers, learners and researchers, we need to practice what Keith Hamon has called “assertive humility”:

“No one’s frame can claim an objective, transcendent, privileged status against which all other frames may be judged or assessed.”

The implications for pedagogy include recognizing how curricular choices are political; Freire points out that every content choice we make needs to be questioned in terms of “who chooses the content…in favor of whom, against whom, in favor of what, against what.” We need to ask these questions about our teaching process, about our assessment choices. Lee Skallerup Bessette recently shared a story of opening herself to new ways of assessing student learning, and her realization that assessment could go wrong and inadvertently punish our more “audacious” students.

Palmer talks about how our academic culture suppresses subjectivity, and by doing so, distances students from their own inner realities. He calls on us as teachers and learners to reclaim our hearts and to address each other’s souls, an idea also suggested by bell hooks. To do so, we need to stop thinking of external reality as more valuable than subjectivity, to stop treating subjectivity as a barrier to overcome. Let’s embrace it as the human condition, treat ourselves and our students as whole, absolutely subjective, human beings, and see where that takes us.

Maha Bali is a Hybrid Pedagogy featured columnist.

[Photo, “Skin of Words“, by Emre licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]

Add to the Conversation

13 Responses
  1. Thanks Maha

    You begin to unearth some significant concerns about the education process I think and also highlight the difficulties of negotiating objectivity/ subjectivity when squeezed in between the barriers of educational discourse that are themselves already so predictive of what knowledge is. The student’s question regarding objectivity and your response about being explicit about subjectivity shows the tension at work that we are all part of – both seem right to me. The student is correct, in that it is nonsense to pretend that educational infrastructures are neutral in and of themselves – there is a very real concern that we are seen to find a singularity at some point – difference by degree but difference that is always within the accepted norms of the institution. By asking for what you mean by objective/ subjective (or by seeming to be the conservative that requires it) it is a fair response from someone recognising that their own subjectivity means less than the person who will grade/ assess/ moderate/ categorise their ideas. Your response is also fair, and it seems clear that you are able to reflect on a position where subjectivity is broader when in a position of accreditor/ moderator. At least, as far as subjectivity and objectivity become terms that are used only in the context of the educational discourse of the university course, the school, the college. At the point we encounter these structures we have already agreed to abandon a certain element of of our subjective individuality, a tacit agreement that we will follow some of the curricula boundaries in pursuit of the goals or rewards this might bring – qualifications, status, or whatever the course and teacher and infrastructure suggest at any given point. To pretend that we all enter this as equals, (our subjectivity a set of choices we can choose to reveal or keep hidden) is to ignore that we are being continually asked to agree with another sense of objectivity – as teachers, representatives of the institution, of the state and/or the organisation, we are already assuming much of our subjectivity is in fact objectivity. I read in bell hooks the Democratic Educator as the realisation that the institution is dehumanising and that the encounter with student and teacher can create some form of exchange that is enriching and rehumanising, but as a by-product of the institutional, the doctrinaire; an encounter that happens despite the curriculum. I see that in what you are saying here too, and believe that if we follow Freirean approaches to critical pedagogy then we immediately realise that the institutional discourse we are subject to is immediately one of tension, of conflict, in recognising our own differences and the necessity for these meta-educational models to standardise these thoughts/ acts/ becomings. Even diversity and recognition of subjectivity is allowed to exist in this model as to ignore it is to build in a weakness to the objectivity argument. In this sense the student is absolutely right to ask where objectivity lies as from early ages of institutional indoctrination we are encouraged to seek the facts, the truth, the objective rationality as far as the teacher/ curriculum/ institution is concerned.
    Perhaps, it is a subjectivity we are so used to keeping apart from this world that to consider it now as part of the whole process is to be asked to revisit every step of the learning journey and believe that rather than having it squashed we were in fact part of an elaborate scheme to have it enriched. Almost as if, like some Odyssey, we have been challenged at every stage of the educational indoctrination and now, on reaching our mature years, we are encouraged to say who we are, reveal what is left. Is this in itself a test by those who now claim objectivity is impossible but who still operate within definitions of an objective academic practice? We can reveal a subjective stance but only one that maintains the duality of academic self and community self – bowed by our subjectivity in the face of an overwhelming and impossible to attain objectivity?
    In that respect, we return again to definitions of subjective/ objective and which appears based on the academy as a space for the elite to foster its one values and its own ‘objectivity’. With more power, more control, it then becomes possible to build monolithic structures of objective thought – strong, uncompromising, common-sense, naturally occurring, universal, final. These contrast with the subjective – the weaker, localised, constantly changing, poorer, colloquial and shallow responses.
    I suppose much of this is aligned with a majoritarian view as I have understood the Deleuzean term. That the majority thought process is one that suggests an objectivity that is based on prescribed norms and expected responses and that may consider a subjective addition so long as this itself initially addresses the objective, the common sense, the ‘what we all know’ status of the objective standpoint. A subjectivity that is allowed, permitted, even included in models of education just so long as it acknowledges its subservience to the grand narrative of the objective.
    I agree with the hooks call to a more personal approach. What I do not think is clear is that there is any ‘external reality that is more valuable’. It is not an objective ‘truth’ that offers the binary to hooks and Freire, it is a very subjective academy that is defined by state interests and increasingly commercial desire. This is powerful and often able to look, taste and smell like objectivity. It is not, it is economically driven attempts at developing an education system that supports prescribed ideals of what learning should be and what ‘common sense’ is. Common sense is subjective and although we can begin individualised relationships with students and colleagues, if we remain in the institution as it stands it can only ever be with the recognition that we have already surrendered part of our subjective self to the more powerful creation of a false, but compelling, objectivity.
    I too would like to see where a new direction takes us, especially in institutional thinking that increasingly suggest that student-led is already decided (not necessarily by students) and that employer-led is a straightforward and obvious trajectory for the future. We would, by openly conflicting with this, create something much more exciting and transformative.

    1. Wow Peter, that really thoughtful comment is an article in itself and deserves a blogpost response! But let me just say I was struck by some of the things you said because I realized when I read your comment that ai agreed but the ideas had not been that clear to me while writing the post originally. Ideas like students feeling the need for the authority to admit subjectivity first…the idea that we sort of need to unlearn from our journey that was convincing us of the importance of objectivity only to realize it was leading us to a richer understanding of subjectivity. Maybe my journey seems more obvious about this as i moved from computer science to social science (education) and to a more humanistic approach to studying education than a scientific one. Will have to come back to this again soon! Thank you

  2. Be interesting to look at the history of objectivity. Dealing with people so buried in assumptions they never surface and I wonder if they see objectivity as a defense against the irrational swamp of feelings / emotions. Cool detachment maybe. Fear of losing control.
    As a coincidence I was unable to find “The Will to Change” by bell hooks that you recommended Maha. But right there in Gender Studies at the book store was “Iron John” by poet Robert Bly http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_John:_A_Book_About_Men that I hadn’t read in years. Reading it while waiting for bell hooks to arrive in the mail I’m seeing objectivity as a real difficulty. Passionless rules without internalized belief in them is meaningless.
    Objectivity isn’t a pure concept. Most concepts admittedly aren’t pure but common with all polarities, objectivity seems prone to abuse as a kind of dogma dividing us by substituting politeness for empathy or compassion. Caring without commitment is nonsense and a behaviour that is nothing more than gesturing “properly”, and only them when we are being watched. Maybe a person has to experience being neutralized by the application of objectivity to understand how awful it feels to be its target?

      1. Thanks Joyce, was reading an article today on the way people learn that seemed entirely full of confidence the way people who seem to never listen tend to ‘tell’ everything they presume to know. I took no sense of objectivity from the article but more saw it as a recitation of conveniently expected assumptions as if I was led by an unseen hand. My father was in advertising and taught me things that resolve in orderly or “obvious” fashion are usually set up to reach that very point–in no way because ought to. This is not a simple subject, thanks for the reference.

  3. There is a clear and present danger here of critique affirming the status quo. The current order of things sets the objective against the subjective: an impersonal truth against subjective feelings, interests, wants and preferences that are cognitively barren. To advise ditching that objectivity and making do with the subjective risks leaving the categorical binary unchallenged.

    As suggested before, we need a little phenomenology. If we think back to the crucial steps (experiential turning points) in our own learning, do we not find experiences that took us out of ourselves, that shook our previously held assumptions, that expanded our horizons, that gave us a new way of looking at things that retrospectively made the old way seem utterly false? These are experiences in which the subject is taken out of her or his self by something that carries the experiential force of objectivity.

    For the sake of the subject (belittled if we just affirm the prevailing notion of subjectivity) we need to rethink objectivity as an aspect of the most educationally/cognitively significant forms of experience. And we need to do that as part of a reframing of education as the growth of the individual (understanding individuality not as a presupposition, but as something to be achieved only with the greatest difficulty).

    And individuality, of course, is an objective value. Not one that can be graded on an impersonal scale, but still objective. If the embrace of subjectivity is too humble, it risks losing the very thing that really matters.

  4. Maybe we need a PLACE of neutrality and agreed behaviour–something I imagine sacred places might have been meant for. No displays of power or personal interest allowed.
    For me the complexity of the subjective makes it possible to adjust to the situation without losing track of necessary human attributes. These are not to be mistaken for variable values or escape hatches from the unpleasant but respectful awareness of the other. Objectivity remains an ideal that I believe in but seem unable to internalize or feel.
    I do understand the idea of turning points that push us past our comforts and deeply change us, shake us. But does this disordering of self actually work from the outside in? Prompted as they may be by the “world” we sense on the outside don’t they present and perform on the inside?
    CAN we detach ourselves from the subjective?

    1. Scott, you said “No displays of power or personal interest allowed.” – how is that even possible and who gets to decide what is allowed or not allowed??? Who gets to categorize an action as a display of power or personal interest versus… what?

      I hear Torn Halves on the binary thing – BUT objectivity always puts itself in opposition to anything else. It also puts itself ABOVE anything else, and that’s the problem. The problem is not that being told “objective truths” is not helpful – it is that we are convinced by education and beyond education that they are the best and only thing of value – that anything subjective is less, and that we need to try to overcome the subjectivity in order to reach a higher goal of objectivity. As if that were even possible. As if it were desirable. Binaries are generally not helpful, I understand that. But I have discovered in my writing that when you are arguing for the less powerful side of a binary, you need to argue really strongly – giving them equal space or allowing for other options dilutes the argument. I intentionally write subjective pieces 🙂 I trust the reader to see “other sides” other than those that I have written 🙂

  5. Maha, you got me on the ‘allowing’ comment. Bad logic on my part. First problem was to assume higher forms of truth that model the perfect. From Plato? I was thinking more along the lines of ideals like the Universal Declaration of of Human Rights or the ideas behind Amnesty International where there are principals for treating others that apply regardless of their ‘importance’ in the world, or even their expressed lack of desire for protection. In the case of human rights I think there’s a type of Objectivity that rejects tyranny as a mistreatment of the fundamentally human without conditions. How this ‘rigid’ ideal fits into a scheme for organizing the world I don’t know.
    Binaries are powerful but difficult to manage. Their power come from the lack of balance. Or maybe the continuous need to keep them upright. For instance, the ‘truth’ of poetry is in the allowance of deep subjectivity and utter non-neutrality. Except, a state of perpetually being ‘in’ the state of the poetic is not sustainable. We can visit the place of poetry only and somehow that makes sense for objectivity too.
    Also on binaries the term ’emphasis’ comes to mind. Many of the things you write about are intangible or challenging to settled agreements like norms that silence or sort us into social ‘place.’ These subjects may need a stronger emphasis to break down assumptions that they ARE normal. The notion that things ‘belong’ because they exist can blind people to the wrongness they actually represent. Rebecca Solnit talks about this and how important it is to argue from actual facts, objective, over the ‘distortion’ of the subjective. (I’ll try and find the quote).
    To me Maha your writing is energized by emphasis on the peculiarities / difficulties of being human. Subjectivity seems like the wrong label. Passionately observant, you pester things to explain themselves and won’t leave until they do. You writing reminds me of the Travel Writing course I took and the persona of the visitor who rejects familiarity in favor of surprise.
    Thanks for your reply.

  6. Embracing our subjectivity is about embracing our humanity. Then we need to know what it means to be human, a topic well explored by Jean Vanier in Becoming Human.

    Maha, your writing and presence (everywhere it seems) are subjectively human. Being “objective” seems like an attempt for one to sit back and say, “I’m right, it’s common sense” without supporting the position. It’s a territorializing that seeks to keep out in an attempt to maintain a held position. I shudder when I think of how I began to teach writing as an English teacher, asking students to write in an objective voice, as if there was some truth that would then emerge and not be contaminated by their individual voices.

    Pretending there is an objectivity seems to me, at least for those not consciously trying to hold power, as an intellectual excuse to not interrogate the structures and commonly held practices. This requires effort. It requires a questioning of one’s own subjective motives. It’s unbalancing–and it should be. There was a comment on another blog in 2010 where Stephen Downes was identified as one who speaks and writes with certainty. Downes responded by saying that his approach was to seek clarity, not certainty. Let’s continue to seek clarity and see where that takes us.

    1. Barry, you truly live inside my head. Seriously i know exactly which blogpost you’re talking about and i read it a few days ago w Stephen’s response!

      If we don’t write something together soon we will go crazy 🙂 i am just unsure where to start

Leave a Reply

Explore Related Articles from Hybrid Pedagogy

journal logo (two nested mathematical Unity symbols in light and medium blue) above the following text: “Hybrid Pedagogy: An open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology”

Open to Chance?

Latest Comments on Hybrid Pedagogy

Hybrid Pedagogy on Twitter

Support Our Work