the problems of privatized opinions

Earlier this term Heather and I asked our LGBT studies students to provide us with some anonymous feedback on how the course is going. One student wrote that he/she/ze feels that we grade on opinion. My initial reaction was from the “I’m an objective teacher” approach, denying in my head that I graded on opinion.

Then it hit me, I am nearly always grading on opinion. (This is less true in technical writing and business writing.)

It’s not whether an opinion is one I agree with or not, but rather if that opinion is backed up and based on evidence or on the text we are reading. I get more and more frustrated with objections from students that opinions are sacred, that you can’t critique someone’s opinions or beliefs. Heather and I assign a weekly reading journal, and one of the requirements is to critique the text (what is it doing well or what problems do you see and why?). When we read some coming out stories, many students refused to critique in their reading journals, writing something along the lines of I can’t critique this. It’s not right to critique someone’s beliefs.

Our students were struggling with the reading journal early in the term, so I wrote an extended description of what we expecting (and this was so helpful! Students’ reading journals improved so much afterward!). In it I wrote:

Remember that opinions can be critiqued. Every text that we are reading is written from opinion or bias. Some opinions are backed up with evidence (lived experience, statistics, stories, theories, etc.). Some opinions are not backed up with evidence. If you are inclined to not want to critique a piece because it is an “opinion,” ask yourself if you would critique someone who came into the classroom and said something racist. You would probably discount it as wrong and might even explain logically why, critiquing their attempt to use logic to justify their racist perspective.

But overall, it seems one of the primary jobs of those of us who are trying to teach critical thinking in the humanities involves trying to help students understand that beliefs and opinions are not sacred and are up for critique. It seems that many students have developed some kind of relativistic determination of if a belief is open for critique: You can’t critique it unless it’s explicitly racist or sexist or homophobic or makes me feel too disturbed or angry. Then it’s open to critique.

Joseph Orosco has written about this concept a bit on his blog. I can’t find one of the references that I recall reading, but he writes here: I spend most of my time trying to convince students that an opinion is not something sancrosanct and that they ought to have a way of providing reasons and evidence for what they think.

I feel that I need to be spending more time on this as well. Of course I grade on opinion: Do you back your opinion up? Is your opinion based on the text, if the assignment is in response to the text? My Intro to Literature teacher as an undergraduate made this point clearly to me: You could argue that The Heart of Darkness is about my Aunt Martha (I can’t remember the name he used anymore), but if there’s not evidence in the text (there’s not), your opinion is wrong. Maybe the text can help you understand your Aunt Martha, but it’s certainly not about her.

But our students defend their right to have their opinions go without questioning. If not forthrightly, then through evals and anonymous feedback. Part of the problem is that as a society we’ve privatized our opinions and beliefs. To have an opinion questioned, we believe (as a society) is to have our self questioned. It seems we’ve grown to believe that it’s not that our opinion is wrong, but that we’re wrong if we are critiqued.

So, now, I’m going to go back to grading opinions.

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8 Responses to the problems of privatized opinions

  1. Ira Socol says:

    One of the things common to writing in secondary school – and often in entry-level university courses – is that “writing” is broken up into these vastly-separated forms. “Opinion” over here, “personal narrative” over there, “the novel” in that corner, “real research” way over yonder.

    In fact, of course, writing is writing, and it is all narrative. Once students start to perceive this – to find the research in fiction, the personal narrative in research, as examples, these walls might start to break down.

    So, in a university, it is important to point out that the statistics typically quoted in social science research are no more true than the stories told in a reporter’s feature piece on a particular issue. That the evidence (as you say) in a personal narrative is constructed the same way that evidence is provided in historical fiction.

    Eventually we hope to get them to a point where they know that all writing is persuasion – of one form or another – and that all persuasive arguments deserve doubt and critique.

  2. Claire says:

    Thanks for the congrats on passing my thesis defense! I’m looking forward to June 15th when I can really enjoy it 🙂 And congrats to you as you leave soon for Pennsylvania!

  3. Laura says:

    Hi, Michael.
    I like Ira Socol’s “all writing is persuasion – of one form or another – and that all persuasive arguments deserve doubt and critique.” Exactly. But it also reminds me that all persuasive arguments (or opinions or whatever we call them) also sometimes deserve unquestioned acceptance. It just depends on the situation. And I guess I’m thinking of “situation” as literally ANY situation — at a funeral, in your living room, in a classroom, whatever. Sometimes we as human beings should simply accept and listen to each other, and sometimes we should doubt and critique. But it doesn’t have to do with place or with type of opinion; it has to do with situation. It has to do with relationship. If you’re in an academic relationship with someone or some text, you definitely doubt and critique. That’s what academics do, no matter what the genre or subject matter, no matter how personal or private. But if you’re in a personal relationship with someone or some text, you have to decided based on that relationship whether you ought to be doubting or believing that person/text. Or both.

    So it seems students need to be taught not to separate by place (public or private) or by genre (personal narrative or research project), but by the relationship involved.

    The believing part of Elbow’s believing and doubting game/strategy works because sometimes writers need unqualified support. It’s just part of our psychological make-up. Belief is like a vitamin we give to others. But, of course, we provide that belief-vitamin only when we’re in a personal relationship with a person or a text (or in a writing center session!), and we provide doubt and critique when we’re in an academic relationship with a person or text.

    Hope that made some sense!

  4. Dennis says:

    What is the relationship between the privatized opinion and academic freedom?

    (I went to a talk tonight given by the President of AAUP.)

  5. Ira Socol says:

    Laura’s comment is perfect. Though I might wonder how that relationship changes in a writing center situation – surely there it can’t all be belief? But either way, in the classroom, this can be a hard sell for students who have pretty much sat mute through high school, to teach them to challenge each other’s writing in real ways.

    Most American education teaches students risk-aversion. As an “instructor” the most important thing may be to lower “the cost of failure” in these situations – for both writer and critic, so that students will take the chances with critique.

  6. Michael says:

    Thanks, Claire, for the congrats! I’m looking forward to PSU a lot!

    Thanks, Ira, Laura, and Dennis for the comments on this topic.

    It seems to me that you’re very much right, Laura, about whether to believe or doubt is based on the relationship and situation. We and our students must certainly understand how the relationship between people affects whether the persuasive techniques and evidence are up for critique.

    Like Ira, I wonder, though, if a writing center tutor should be a believer as you write. I’m actually going to move away from Elbow’s believer/doubter paradigm here. I think it’s a useful paradigm, but I see it as a shift from what I’m talking about. Not a huge shift, but a shift nonetheless. The reason I say this is in part because Elbow says that we should be both believers and doubters of texts. This is because we should be critical readers and be both charitable and skeptical. I agree with this sentiment completely. So I think the problem with using Elbow’s schema is that if we fracture it up and say believing is appropriate in some relationships and doubting in others, we’ve lost the critical reading Elbow’s insight allows us.

    I think the Writing Tutor should be doing both. She should take the attitude: “I believe you. I want to believe you. I am having a hard time believing you because I doubt this. How can you, as a writer, persuade me (or, more accurately, your audience, for whom I am a stand-in) to believe you?”

    Another problem with the believing/doubting game is that it masks the distinction between beliefs and feelings. When you write, Laura, that we should have relationships that are based completely on believing, I agree, but I think a lot of those situations are actually situations where we should believe someone when they say they feel certain things.

    I also wonder about the public/private dichotomy that Laura dismisses as a locus of understanding whether to critique or accept a belief/opinion/argument. This is in part because things are determined to be public or private not by place, but by relationship. Something is public because of its relationship to readers/listeners. Something is private because of its relationship to readers/listeners as well. I think anything made public should be open for critique. I say that tentatively. I am more than willing to revise that belief. But something private is completely dependent upon the relationship and how the readers/writers/listeners/talkers view that relationship.

    Ira, I completely agree with you that we need to make the classroom a place where risks can be taken with lower costs of failure. This is why I offer chances to revise, why I ask students to write drafts and get feedback. Because this lowers the possibility of failing while giving students the opportunity to try things that won’t get “punished.” (And that’s how a grade is viewed often, unfortunately, is as punishment.)

    Dennis, interesting question. I didn’t attend the talk. The question you pose has little context. I could take a stab at an answer and ramble on about how critics of leftists at Universities dismiss their ideas as the private opinions of radicals, rather than parts of public debate, and that those private opinions should be censored. But I’m not sure. Do you want to expand on your question?

  7. Ira Socol says:

    This is a fascinating conversation. I’ll just add this, we need to lower the cost of failure in classroom speech as well, and I tend to think the best way to do that is to let yourself be challenged. At some point in every class I’m bound to say, “really? no one disagrees with me? That’s odd because outside of this room I think everyone in this department disagrees with me?” And then I send them to their laptops to go find evidence either way

    Students tend to be afraid to criticize each others work because they fear criticism will, in turn, fall on them, and – in grading systems they have known or currently know – criticism = grades = punishment. So we need to turn that completely around.

  8. Laura says:

    Hi, Michael and Ira.
    I see I somehow implied that I meant there are some situations (like writing center tutoring) in which believing is the right choice. I didn’t mean that at all. I was just pointing out that both believing and doubting have their place (depending on the situation). And writing center work came to mind as an example of where we do both.

    And I don’t think I meant — though I may’ve been unclear — that in the public sphere we doubt and in the private sphere we believe. We do both in both.

    Mainly I think I wanted to point out that doubt has its place and belief has its place, since both help us help each other to think and live better. And the students who default to one ought to be taught the other.

    and p.s., I think Ira’s emphasis on lowering the risks for students to doubt and critique is exactly right. Belief has a lot of perceived safeness around it, of course. No conflict when one believes. So, yeah, students need tons of practice in the uncomfortable sensation of doubt and critique — receiving and giving — until it gets easier (which it does, of course).

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