• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

The Pitfalls of "Objectivity"

In writing class, students should strive for things other than "objectivity."

June 8, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

One of the worst disservices the students I work with have experienced prior to coming to college is being led to believe that their writing – academic or otherwise – should strive for “objectivity.”

I think there’s many reasons why students arrive with this attitude. Taking standardized tests where each question has a single “correct” answer certainly reinforces this belief. Learning writing through rules and rubrics also communicates that there is a single path to be pursued. For many students, much of their school experience is rooted in parroting the official, existing body of knowledge that has been enshrined by one authority or another.

Higher education too can make a fetish out of “objectivity” and “rationality” as though the goal of becoming educated is to achieve a Dragnet/Vulcan hybrid world view, “just the facts ma’am,” filtered through a perfectly rational mind.

It sort of cracks me up when any academic seeks to claim the supposed high ground of “objectivity.” I particularly recall some economics faculty coming into these comments to claim a kind of pure rationality for their field.

But of course there is no such thing as purely “objective” research. The work is inherently subjective, starting with the very choice of what to research. Those who get away with claiming “objectivity” in their research are more likely simply working in a kind of default mode. Anyone who falls outside the default is therefore violating the “rules,” but peeling back these rules often reveals various instruments of compliance and control to protect a status quo, rather than a process that achieves “objectivity.”[1] Complaints that someone else isn’t being sufficiently “objective” is usually a tell that they’re worried about a new narrative challenging the established order.

In these matters, “objectivity” is in the eye of the beholder.

Fortunately, because I teach writing, I can wash away student anxieties about being “objective” pretty quickly, by reassuring them that it’s impossible to achieve in their work and they don’t want to anyway because they’re after something better and certainly more stimulating for them than objectivity: “discovery.”

Early on, I assign a review (movie, music, TV show, app, restaurant, etc…), and without saying anything about issues of objectivity and subjectivity, I watch them squirm as they realize that they have to make an argument, and that this argument is going to be based in their subjective experience and opinion.

They know there is no single answer to be found in a review, and yet they also know they must deliver an answer to the audience question, should I experience this?

Here we begin to talk about the values that underlie some example reviews and criticism they most respond to as audience. Most everyone enjoys the reviews that are “opinionated,” but also recognize that those opinions land better when they’re accompanied with enough information to understand where the reviewer is coming from. They make note of the rhetorical move of “positioning” where the reviewers quickly orient the audience to their particular predilections. They see that agreement isn’t necessary to appreciate a good review.

Worries about achieving “objectivity” quickly fade as we’re now more concerned with values like “openness,” “transparency,” “fairness,” and “accuracy.” As I teach it, the work in the course is always audience-focused, asking what the audience needs to better understand and engage with the message.

We transition to discussing the need to select evidence that passes the “Lebowski Test”:

Different audiences may require different choices of evidence: what is included, what is emphasized, how it’s framed.

The review is a good warm-up for other more academically minded writing-related problems. Rather than orienting their writing around seeking a palatable answer that pleases the authority, students are immediately in the knowledge construction business. I tell them that for our purposes knowledge is created when a “unique intelligence,” (which each of them is), intersects with experience and information.

We discuss how their goal is to express things they believe to be true while recognizing that if they want others to agree with these truths they must practice the values (openness, transparency, etc…) that undergird writing that connects with an audience. Perhaps more importantly, they must also practice these values on themselves, not as a way to achieve objectivity, but in order to know themselves and their “biases” better.

I use a different word than “bias,” though, because I don’t want them thinking of these things in a negative light. Instead, I substitute “beliefs.” Strong writing comes from a strong set of beliefs, beliefs rooted in personal values. Those underlying values tend to be relatively immutable.

Beliefs, however, can change even as our values remain consistent. An effective writer is confident in communicating their beliefs, while simultaneously being open to having those beliefs challenged and then changed as they realize their existing beliefs may be in conflict with their values.

The primary emotion I witness students experiencing is relief. So you’re telling me I can say what I think? It’s liberating to know that they have agency that allows them to make space for their ideas in the world.

In this context, “objectivity” is not a value, but a pose, and one that’s usually sussed out by students as phony. They easily recognize it as a confidence game because it’s a game they’d previously been trying to practice, and during that practice they knew it was a pose.

When we encounter claims of “objectivity,” I think of one of two things; either the person claiming objectivity is kidding themselves, or they’re trying to put one over on me.

If we want students well-armed for the world, they need not objectivity, but a "critical sensibility" that has been tested and remains adaptable to new situations and demands. Students shouldn't feel like they have to have all the answers. Rather, they should have the skills, knowledge, and experiences that allows them to tackle new and different questions.

 

 

[1] Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman had a recent interesting tweet thread about the ways the default mode marginalizes particular groups of scholars in sociology. 

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