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Jack Solomon

The Uses of Objectivity

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 15, 2017

I take my title, and topic, for my last blog before the summer break from two pieces appearing in today's (as I write this) online news. One, John Warner's essay "The Pitfalls of 'Objectivity,'" appears in Inside Higher Ed, and the other is a news feature in The Washington Post on the prison sentencing of a Sandy Hook hoax proponent who sent death threats to the parents of one of the children murdered at the Connecticut elementary school. I'll begin with John Warner's essay.

Warner is a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, whose blog, "Just Visiting," describes his experiences as an adjunct writing instructor. As a voice for the much-beleaguered, and ever-growing, class of adjunct writing professors in this country, Warner is a very popular Inside Higher Ed blogger, whose columns consistently garner far and away the most commentary (almost always positive) of any other blog on the news site, often from grateful instructors who are justifiably glad to see someone expressing their point of view for once in a prominent place. Heck, Warner gets more comments on each blog post than I have gotten in all the years I have been writing this blog, so it's hard to argue with success.

But in this era when "fake news" and "alternative facts" have come to so dominate the political landscape, I feel obliged to respond to Warner's thesis, which is that, "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.'” Warner's point—which, as a central tenet of cultural studies generally, and the New Historicism in particular, is not a new one—is that "there is no such thing as purely objective research." This position cannot be refuted: writing and research always not only contain, but begin, in subjectivity. Even scientific investigation starts with an hypothesis, a conjecture, a subjective cast into an ocean of epistemic uncertainty. And if one really wants to press the point, there has never been a successful refutation of the fundamental Kantian position that knowledge is forever trapped in the mind, that we know only phenomena, not noumena.

So, the question is not whether or not subjectivity is an inevitable part of writing, thinking, and arguing. Rather, the question is whether we really want to throw out the objective baby with the bathwater, which is what I think happens when Warner argues that, "Strong writing comes from a strong set of beliefs, beliefs rooted in personal values. Those underlying values tend to be relatively immutable." And that takes us to the Sandy Hook hoax community.


To put it succinctly, the Sandy Hook hoaxers believe that the massacre at the Sandy Hook School was a "false flag" that either never took place at all or was perpetrated by the Obama administration (there are various claims in this regard), and which was planted in order to justify the seizure of Americans' guns. The hoaxers have written at length, and with great passion, about this, producing all sorts of "facts" (in the way of all conspiracy theorists). One could say that their texts come "from a strong set of beliefs . . . rooted in personal values . . . that tend to be relatively immutable." And there's the problem.

Now, Warner is hardly promoting conspiracy theorizing, or being tied to immutable beliefs. For him, "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." But the problem is that without objective facts, a contest of beliefs is only that, with no basis for settling the debate. You don't like the facts? Shout "fake news!" and produce your own "alternative facts." I'm sure you see where this heading.

As with the legacy of poststructuralist thinking that I have often written about in this blog, Warner's apparently generous and liberal approach to writing leads to unintended results. By undermining our students' acceptance of the existence of objective facts—and the objectivity to pursue them—we are underpinning a political environment where hostile camps hole up in their echo chambers of shared beliefs and simply shout at each other. And while I know that we, as writing instructors, can't end that—any more than we can come up with a final refutation of Kantian and poststructuralist subjectivism—if we really want to do our bit to resist the current climate of "fake news" claims we should be encouraging our students to see the dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity, the complex ways in which the two can complement each other. It isn't easy, and there can be no easy formula for doing so, but simply denigrating objectivity to our students is not going to help us, or them.



corn, food literacy, Andrea Lunsford, Navajo Nation“I could learn another song, perhaps another ceremony. Maybe I could heal one more person. I am hopeful, grandson. Life is so short. So precious.” The speaker, the 101-year-old grandfather of Navajo poet, playwright, and leader Rex Lee Jim, is responding to his grandson’s question of why he wished to live another decade or so. His grandfather says he is “still learning” and “still walking”: “I am Home God, walking. I am at the center of the wide cornfield, walking. I am planting the white corn, walking.”


For Rex Lee Jim and his grandfather, food—and perhaps especially corn—is sacred. But, he asks, “when does corn stop being sacred?”


Blue corn pancakes for breakfast. Kneel down bread (corn meal rolled in corn husks and baked in the ground). Awesome meals! Then we started washing it down with way too much fructose drinks. Coke. Pepsi. Root Beer. Dr. Pepper. No doctor at all. Today obesity reigns. Diabetes terrorizes. Yes, when does corn stop being sacred?


This question, and its answers, grew out of writing workshops and exchanges held between students from the Navajo Nation and students from Fern Creek High in Louisville, KY, who are all involved in a food literacy program that aims to change “the world by first changing ourselves, and we change ourselves by changing what we plant in the garden between our ears.”


I’ve written about the Navajo Kentuckians before (see here and here!) and the remarkable partnership that has brought Rex Lee Jim from the Navajo Nation and Brent Peters from Louisville, KY together to create such life-changing programs. Peters and his colleagues are now finishing a book—called Tigers Feeding Chickens—that all teachers of writing need to read, and to act on. I’ll be writing more about the book in another post.


For now, I want simply to point to the depth and breadth of this food literacy program, which is experiential, hands-on, student-centered, inquiry-based—and enormously effective. In it, students learn about where food comes from, about its relationship to mental, emotional, and physical health, and about food traditions in their own and other cultures. And they become questioners, interrogators of their family’s eating habits and traditions, connecting the dots and drawing up plans for enhancing and enriching their relationship to food and, in some cases, for transforming that relationship. The student writing that grows out of these experiences is mature, insightful, deeply moving: they teach themselves—and in turn they teach each other and their teachers and family members as well. As Rex Lee Jim puts it:


The essential step to becoming a true learner for life is an experience in humility and vulnerability, which leads to genuine communication with and deep understanding of our youth culture, the most abundant, energetic, and daring resource available for us.


In courses and programs that focus on learning for life, writing is not about skills and drills, not about five-paragraph essays, not about standardized tests and exams. Rather, writing becomes an essential by-product of learning, a way of crafting and sharing knowledge, and a means of putting that knowledge to work for the good of communities. That’s writing that can change lives for the better—and that’s writing infinitely worth teaching as we and our students continue to learn together, to continue to plant that garden between our ears.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1898198 by Daria-Yakovleva, used under a CC0 Public Domain License