Objectivity, and the First Day of Class

Objectivity, and the First Day of Class

In a powerful column on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog last week, Brandon R. Byrd drew attention to the racial baggage carried by the idea of objectivity within the historical profession.  Historically, objectivity has, Byrd argues, been the province of whiteness.  Black claims to truth-telling have always been judged suspect by whites, a past (and present) that renders professional claims to objectivity deeply problematic.  In the present moment in which we teach, we need anything but objectivity, Byrd argues.  His final paragraph is worth quoting at length:

“[The events around us] should give us pause about prioritizing detachment over truth in our classrooms this semester. Or striving for fairness in the writing tasks we undertake this year. Neither have much merit–not when demands for and definitions of objectivity still come from those who have yet to examine their own prejudices. Instead, scholarship and teaching must be purposeful and truthful. Both must be passionate, not dispassionate. Both have to be responsible to actual political and social conditions, not distanced from them. After all, social analysis is nothing without social transformation. And one cannot be calm, cool, and detached while Negroes remain lynched, murdered, and starved.”

So how do we begin to tackle this?

One way is to approach the idea of “objectivity” head on.  Too often, the concept is used to mask a lack of self-examination; it suggests the self has no place in the history we produce.  But the topics we think worthy of study, the places we turn to for information, and the voices we prioritize in our work (be it as an undergraduate or as a professional) are deeply connected to who we are as individuals possessing a multitude of social identities.

A way in which I draw my students’ attention to this reality is to distribute a Social Identity Wheel on the first day of class.  You’ll find several models for Social Identity Wheels online; mine is borrowed from the practice of Intergroup Dialogue, which brings two groups together who are often on opposite sides of a contentious issue, and through structured classroom conversation, has them reach a deeper understanding of each other’s position.  This is a precursor to students thinking critically about what it means to be an activist or ally, and making plans to take what they’ve learned beyond the classroom. (I’ll write a blog post some other day about how great I think IGD is.)

social identity wheel
Click for larger image

I take the wheel (literally and figuratively) and model what to do with it before I ask students to fill it in; I stand at the front of the class and go around the wheel, telling them about myself. This requires a lot of vulnerability on my part – they may learn things about me that they didn’t know, and which I’m not always eager to share.  But if I’m asking them to think about these matters, I must, I think, show myself willing to do the same, and my identities must be a matter of conversation as much as theirs.

talking with studentsI make it clear to my students that they, unlike me, will not have to share everything they write down – only the things they are comfortable having others know – and then I give them time to write their answers in each segment of the wheel.  Once everyone has completed the exercise, I ask what people noticed in undertaking it – what was new information to them; what had they not thought about before?  I turn to the first two questions on the inside of the circle.  Typically, although not exclusively, the identities students report they think about most often are those where they are targeted for prejudice or discrimination.  Typically, although not exclusively, the identities students report they think about least often are those where they enjoy the most privilege.  The wheel gets us into a discussion of these concepts.

I am always grateful for an opportunity to talk with students about what privilege means, and to clear up the common misunderstanding that it means being born with incredible wealth.  I ask students to turn a critical eye toward what it means to be oppressed, too.  How would they define that experience, especially as it connects to their own lives?

Then I turn the conversation toward history – why am I having them complete this exercise?  We talk about the way these identities crop up when they read a text and experience resistance to an idea, or feel jubilant because one of their identities is affirmed.  We talk about whose stories commonly get told, and whose histories we’ll explore in this class. We talk about the fact that our identities intersect, and travel with us always, no less when we walk into a history classroom than when we’re outside it.  We also talk about how we’ve all learned information and misinformation about each other’s identities, all of which shapes our relationship to one another.   My identities are part of this mix – we talk about what it means that I am a white, immigrant, born-working-class-become-middle-class, bi, cisgendered professor.  Questions about whether I’m qualified to teach what I’ll be teaching are fair game.  We make identities part of what we need to be conscious of as thoughtful members of a community.

In many ways, the identity wheel is a tremendously historical undertaking.  We ask students to be critical consumers of texts and sources – to ask who produced what they’re looking at, when, where, and why.  The wheel simply asks students to turn that critical lens on themselves, and to think about those things they have assumed to be important, unimportant, or widely understood.  Are they?

There are lots of ways of fulfilling Byrd’s call to make our “scholarship and teaching . . . purposeful and truthful. Both must be passionate, not dispassionate. Both have to be responsible to actual political and social conditions, not distanced from them.”  I offer this as one way in which I begin this process in my class, and I look forward to hearing from others about ways they approach this, too.


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