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 â€œopinion,â€ 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.