Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your Instructor and the Course Content

Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your Instructor and the Course Content

Positionality is the concept that our perspectives are based on our place in society. Positionality recognizes that where you stand in relation to others shapes what you can see and understand. For example, if I am considered an able-bodied person, my position in a society that devalues people with disabilities limits my understanding of the barriers people with disabilities face. I simply won’t see these barriers, in large part because I don’t have to —society is structured to accommodate the way I use my body.


Guideline 5 addresses the perception that the content of the class is subjective, value-based, and political, while the content of mainstream courses is objective, value-neutral, and unpartisan. We discussed this perception under Guideline 3 as it relates to common views on the social sciences. Here we want to consider this perception using the lens of positionality as it relates to the instructors of these courses. Because instructors of critical social justice content are more likely to name their positionality and encourage students to do the same, they are often seen as more biased. Mainstream courses rarely if ever name the positionality of the texts they study (for example, the idea that Columbus discovered America is from the colonizer’s perspective, but certainly not from the perspective of Indigenous peoples). Unfortunately, because acknowledging one’s positionality is a rare occurrence in mainstream courses, doing so reinforces students’ perceptions of mainstream courses as objective and critical social justice courses as subjective. Yet all knowledge is taught from a particular perspective; the power of dominant knowledge depends in large part on its presentation as neutral and universal (Kincheloe, 2008).

In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed. By socially constructed, we mean that all knowledge understood by humans is framed by the ideologies, language, beliefs, and customs of human societies. Even the field of science is subjective (the study of which is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge). For example, consider scientific research and how and when it is conducted. Which subjects are funded and which are not (e.g., the moon’s atmosphere, nuclear power, wind power, atmospheric pollution, or stem cells)? Who finances various types of research (private corporations, nonprofits, or the government)? Who is invested in the results of the research (e.g., for-profit pharmaceutical companies, the military, or nonprofit organizations)? How do these investments drive what is studied and how? How will the research findings be used? Who has access to the benefits of the research? As you can see, these are not neutral questions—they are always political, and they frame how knowledge is created, advanced, and circulated. Because of this, knowledge is never value-neutral.

To illustrate the concept of knowledge as socially constructed and thus never outside of human values and subjectivity, consider an example of a tree—a seemingly neutral object whose existence is simply a physical fact that can be observed. Yet notice that how we see the tree is connected to our meaning-making frameworks (and thus is not neutral at all). First,


consider our perceptions of its size. A tree that looks big to someone who grew up on the East Coast might not look big to someone who grew up on the West Coast.

Next, consider our perceptions of its meaning or purpose; these will be shaped by our perspectives and interests. For example, an environmentalist might see a limited resource. A member of the Coast Salish nation might see a sacred symbol of life. A logger or a farmer might see employment. A scientist might see a specimen to be studied. Further, while it may appear that the logger and the farmer have shared interests, in fact their interests are opposite; the logger would see employment only if the tree is cut down, while the farmer would see employment only if the tree grows and bears fruit. Now let’s add the layer of political power. Who owns the tree? Who has “the right” to cut it down and profit from it? Would the logger, tribal member, environmentalist and scientist all agree on this matter of ownership? Whose interests are served by the concept that nature can be owned at all? And who is in the position to impose this concept on others? Who takes the idea of ownership for granted and who doesn’t? What kind of resources, institutions, and larger groups are behind each of these individuals and how do they influence whose interests will prevail?

Finally, how are these interests informed by the specific time and place in which they occur? What’s considered valid scientific research today (from a Western perspective) is not the same as what was considered valid in the past. So while a tree may be an objective, factual, and real object that exists independently of humans, our understanding of it—and thus our interaction with it—cannot be separated from the cultural context we are currently embedded in. In other words, humans can only make meaning of the tree from the cultural frameworks into which they have been socialized. And so it goes for history, physics, and all fields studied in academia. Knowledge is always culturally informed and thus cannot be value-neutral.

Many educators use the metaphor of a fish in water to capture the all- encompassing dimensions of culture. A fish is born into water and so simply experiences the water as one with itself; a fish has no way of knowing that it is actually separate from the water. And although the fish is separate, it still cannot survive without water. In the same way that a fish cannot live without water, we cannot make sense of the world without the meaning-making system that our culture provides. Yet this system is hard to see because we have always been “swimming” within it; we just take for granted that what we see is real, rather than a particular perception of reality. For these reasons, social justice educators name our positionality (the currents and waters we swim in) in order to make the socially


constructed nature of knowledge visible and to challenge the claim that any knowledge is neutral. Yet ironically, that naming is often used to reinforce the idea that social justice content and those who present it are driven by personal agendas and special interests, and thus less legitimate.

Because instructors who teach critical social justice courses often belong to minoritized groups and because they name these groups, they can be perceived as having a personal bias; they are viewed as if they only teach these courses because they are “minorities” and have an “axe to grind.” Because the instructors are seen as simply pushing their personal agendas, students often feel more comfortable to explicitly disagree with the curriculum and pedagogy. Indeed, this challenge further illustrates how unimaginable our example of the astronomy student is. The instructor in our scenario is most likely a White male, as is the vast majority of higher education faculty (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009). White males overall hold more social authority and are seen as more objective, and thus students are less likely to argue with them (Rudman & Kiliansky, 2000). That, along with the presumed neutral content of a subject like astronomy, means students respond to this instructor and the course as though they were value-neutral. In contrast, because the positionality of a woman of Color professor who teaches a social justice course is named, both she and the course are presumed to be value-driven.

Ultimately, one or two courses in our college or university schooling are not enough to brainwash us or deny us the ability to think freely. In fact, the opposite is true: The more depth, perspective, and complexity we can bring to bear on how we and others view and understand the world, the clearer, more nuanced, and ultimately freer our thinking can become.

Returning to our astronomy student, it isn’t necessary for his positionality to align with the instructor’s in order for him to consider the framework the instructor is using.

The following practices support Guideline 5:

Identify your social positionality and stay attentive to how it informs your response to the course context (e.g., your race, class, gender). What limitations of awareness might you have as a result of that positionality? What are the things you can and can’t see based on the social positions you hold or don’t hold? Recognize the perspectives embedded in all texts (such as textbooks, newspaper articles, and TV news), especially those that don’t explicitly name them. Are the ideas presented as if they have no perspective and apply universally to all people, regardless of social positionality? If so, practice seeking out and considering alternative


perspectives informed by a range of positionalities. As you study the content of your course, it is important for you to continuously consider the interplay between your positionality and that of your instructor. If the instructor represents perspectives from key minoritized groups (women, peoples of Color, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ people), you could welcome the opportunity to hear perspectives seldom represented in mainstream education. Support the course for the opportunity it offers, rather than undermining it because the concepts are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or difficult.


Grading in a course whose primary goal is to challenge social stratification is not without irony. Activist and scholar Audre Lorde (1984) captures this irony when she states that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” By this she means that in using the tools of the system we are more likely to uphold that system than to challenge it. As instructors, we recognize that by grading we are upholding an institution that ranks students hierarchically and such hierarchies are what we seek to challenge. Still, many of us choose to work within systems despite their constraints, so that we may better challenge them. The traditional grading system is one of those constraints we must work within.

Mainstream schooling places a tremendous emphasis on grades, and the prevalence of high-stakes testing has only intensified this emphasis. Grades convey powerful ideas about our presumed intellectual abilities and these ideas influence what education we will have access to (through tracking into gifted or special programs and ability grouping). We are placed into academic tracks as early as 1st grade and these tracks have very real consequences for the kinds of careers we will have access to later in life (Anyon, 1981; Oakes, 1985). Thus an understandable but regrettable outcome of tracking based on grades in K–12 schooling is that we may care more about the grades we receive than about the knowledge we gain.

The focus on grades often shapes our very identities and sense of self- worth, further complicating the dynamics of grading. This identity is often reinforced outside of school as we earn praise or punishment from our families based on our grades. While some students who have not been successful within this system come to feel fortunate just to earn a C, students who have generally been successful by the measure of grades often feel entitled to As. It is not uncommon for these students to claim, “I am an A student!” Students with such an identity may feel frustrated—


even personally slighted—when receiving grades that challenge this identity.

Although we as instructors are aware of the complexities and contradictions of grading, we are also deeply invested in student comprehension of the course concepts. The grading system is one of the primary tools we must use to both measure and communicate our assessment of this comprehension. We encourage students to keep the following in mind when considering the dynamics of grading:

In Order to Grade Comprehension, Instructors Must See

Demonstration of Comprehension. Whether in assignments or in class participation and discussion, we must demonstrate understanding. Comprehension can be demonstrated in written, verbal, and active forms (such as presentations and projects).

Assessing our comprehension verbally is generally done through class discussions and question and answer sessions. However, assessing comprehension verbally can be challenging for instructors if students don’t speak up in class. For example, how many times have you witnessed your instructor posing a question to the whole class only to be met by silence? Looking out into a room full of students, most of whom are not responding, instructors are left to assume that these students cannot answer the question. Students sometimes say later that they did not respond because the answer was “so obvious” that it did not require a response. Yet how can our instructors know that we understand if we do not respond when questions are posed in class, even if the answers to those questions seem obvious?

Another common explanation for silence is that someone has already said what we were thinking. Yet from an instructor’s perspective, it is fine to repeat (or better yet, to build on) an idea that another student has already stated. No two people will say it exactly alike, and it is important to practice articulating these concepts in your own words in order to develop your critical social justice literacy. Any statement can be expanded, deepened, or in other ways supported. At the minimum, if students build on what others have said, instructors can gain a sense of how many students are thinking similarly, or struggling with understanding key ideas. This is valuable information for instructors in terms of assessing the collective understanding of the group as well as the comprehension levels of individual students. For these reasons, we encourage students to give some kind of verbal response when asked questions in class, even if it is to say that one does not know, is not sure, or only has a partial answer.

In regard to demonstrating understanding in written work, we evaluate


this work by assessing how well written, organized, and clear it is, and how well the submitted work meets the goals of the assignment. The work should at minimum be proofread for errors, use academic language, avoid colloquialisms, conform to a standard style of citation, use inclusive language, and stay within the guidelines of the assignment description. These are all baseline indicators of the degree of student achievement in a written assignment. Perceptive integration of course readings and lectures in a student’s own words, relevant use of examples, and insightful connections can transform an adequately written assignment into an excellent (or “A”) assignment. These criteria are usually communicated to students in either the course syllabus or assignment description. Thus in order to most accurately grade comprehension, we must see evidence of comprehension in both verbal participation and written work.

Effort Is Not the Same as Understanding. When students are worried

about their grades or are making a case for the grade they believe they should receive, they often claim that they “worked really hard.” These students feel that they should be rewarded for that hard work with an A. The reason this argument rarely makes much headway with instructors is because we are grading student demonstration of understanding of content, not the perceived degree of effort expended to achieve it.

Consider this analogy: I am taking swimming lessons. My goal is to compete in an upcoming match. I see myself as putting in a lot of effort by making the time to show up for practice, following my coach’s instructions, and swimming the number of laps I am assigned. My coach, however, expects that I will attend lessons and complete my practice sessions; thus, they are focused on other things, such as how I hold my body while swimming, my breathing pattern, hip and shoulder movements, smoothness of stroke, and speed. In the end, my coach will determine whether I am ready to compete. This determination will be made based on my demonstrated ability that I am ready, regardless of the degree of effort it takes me to reach that point, and certainly not on the mere fact that I showed up for my lessons and got in the pool.

In a similar way, we are grading students on the degree of demonstrated understanding of studied concepts and not on perceptions of effort, especially because what we as instructors see as effort and what a student sees as effort are often not the same. For some students, showing up to class, listening, and handing in assignments are viewed as evidence of a level of effort that should we rewarded with an A. For instructors, this level of effort qualifies as the minimum expectation for all students. Still, we are not grading on how hard a student works but on the outcome of that


work. The following are common student rationales we hear for why they

should get a grade higher than what was assessed:

“I worked really hard.” “I am an A student.” “I came to all the classes.” “I listened.” “I spent hours doing the readings.” “I talked in class discussions.” “I handed in all my assignments.” “I have never thought about these things before.” “I’m really interested in these issues.” “I’ve had other courses like this one so I already know all this.” “I have to get a good grade or I will have to drop out.” “I have been going through a lot of personal issues this semester.” “I learned so much in this class.”

Student rationales such as these are familiar to many instructors, and we understand that they are driven by genuine anxieties about grades. However, we urge our students to challenge this anxiety because it thwarts the process of authentic learning.

A final note on grading: Students often believe that the reason they received a poor grade was because the instructor didn’t like something they said in class, or because they disagreed with the instructor. Every institution has an appeal process for students who feel they have not been graded fairly by an instructor. This makes it very difficult to lower a student’s grade just because of something they said. While classroom assessments have some degree of subjectivity, an instructor must account for a grade they gave in terms of guidelines for the assignment, as well as in terms that are clear to a mediating third party. Because of this accountability, an instructor’s grading criteria are usually clearly stated in the syllabus or on assignments.


Many college and university courses provide opportunities that are rare in any other dimension of life: critical engagement with new ideas; opportunity to hear and consider multiple perspectives; expansion of our capacity to understand and talk about complex social issues; guidance in the examination of our identities, socialization, and meaning-making


frameworks; and tools to work toward a more just society. Unfortunately, a fixation on grades minimizes these opportunities. We find that students who let go of their attachment to grades and put their energy into sincerely grappling with the content tend to do well. Worrying about grades detracts from the ability to focus on content and can become a kind of self- fulfilling prophecy. The following reflection questions may be useful in lessening this attachment:

Am I willing to consider that I may not be qualified to assess my performance in a course, especially one in which new concepts are being introduced? Do I expect an A in all of my courses, and if so, why? Is it because I have always received As, or is it because I have demonstrated mastery of course concepts? When I ask my instructor, “How am I doing?” am I asking them to provide me with valuable feedback about what my performance conveys about my comprehension and how it might be improved, or am I asking them to tell me what grade I will receive?

We sincerely hope that our students find our courses valuable in terms of the knowledge and insight gained. It has been our experience that this is most likely achieved when students focus more on mastery of content than on the final grade.

Discussion Questions

1. If I weren’t worried about my grade, how would my engagement in this course shift?

2. Which of the various guidelines detailed in this essay are the most challenging to me, and why? How can I meet these challenges?

3. What degree of responsibility am I willing to take for getting the most out of this course (e.g., coming to class prepared and having completed the reading, engaging in large-group discussions, not dominating discussions, asking questions for clarity, speaking respectfully in class, and using academic rather than colloquial discourse)?

4. What degree of responsibility am I willing to take to support my peers in getting the most from this course (e.g., engaging in discussions, not dominating discussions, listening respectfully when others speak and building on their ideas, taking the small-group discussions seriously, coming to class prepared and having completed the reading)?

5. Many students think about higher education solely as a stepping-stone to employment, and thus the only knowledge that is worthwhile is


knowledge they see as directly connected to getting a job. We ask you to consider what other kinds of skills higher education can provide, and how these skills are also connected to future employment. If you think beyond a strictly vocational approach, what skills do citizens in a global democracy need? How are these skills also important to any future work you do?



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Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your Instructor and the Course Content
Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your Instructor and the Course Content

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