Dr. Kim De Vries
The question of subjectivity is an important one to discuss because it is virtually impossible for us as people to be entirely objective about the things that we witness. We need especially to be aware of our biases when conducting ethnographic research because objectivity is so important to ethnographic study. As such, it is in our best interest as ethnographers to learn to recognize and grapple with our own subjectivity and the ways that it may be affecting our view of the classrooms we are observing.
While we cannot be completely objective when entering into a classroom situation, we can still aim for as objective a view as possible, and this can be done by recognizing, our biases, analyzing them, and articulating them for our readers. Some of the ethnographers we have read this semester have spoken about their own subjectivity in their writing, candidly addressing their concerns about the ways in which their own personal biases may be affecting what they pay attention to and what they ignore. Bonnie Sunstein states right away that she worries about how her subjects will be portrayed by her, frustrated that even as she types up her notes she “write[s] of these people, but not necessarily for these people” (177, my emphasis).
Throughout her research, Sunstein struggles to find the balance between the objective observer-researcher and the subjective participant self (178). If we are meant to be objective, then, one might question the integrity of a researcher who openly voices such fears. However, I agree with Sunstein that by recognizing that we are all subjective, even when we are trying our best to be objective, and that being honest about our own biases and reservations provides a contextual base for the research being presented, rather than taking away from objectivity (which, according to my argument, wasn’t pure anyway). I do not intend, however, to chalk up objectivity as lost. Instead, I think we must recognize our limitations and work within those bounds toward as close of an approximation to objective research as possible. Brenda Jo Brueggemann does this by asking herself “What difference does it make who researches, who writes about, who represents ‘subjects’ in compositions research?” (17). Her answer is that it matters quite a bit.
Through a combination of reading and personal research experience, both Brueggemann and Sunstein conclude that no matter how objective we would like to be in our research, our very proximity to our subjects, and the ideas, opinions and experiences we have about them, change the way that we write about them. Our written reports of our findings, then, are never direct, objective reflections of what we observed, but rather representations colored by our own subjective experience of our observations. The two ethnographers mentioned above dealt with this by stating for their readers what their personal experiences were when going in to their research, what their personal feelings and impressions were as they went through the process of gathering information, and were very candid about how they felt when writing up the research. This allows the reader some discretion when looking at the study, to determine how the researcher is likely to interpret the information they have gathered, and how they might present that information.
In reflecting and writing on my own observations, I have attempted to keep this insight in mind. I have been observing three classes at the high school level, two Junior AP English classes and a Senior college-prep English class. There were several things about myself that I noticed right away when observing these different classes. First, I felt quite at home in the college-prep class, and found myself slipping in and out of a student role. Second, when I came into the first AP class, I felt nervous, something I later realized was the result of feeling awed by AP students while I was in high school. Once I recognized the source of these reactions, I tried to ignore my first impressions and see the class from an outsider’s perspective. While I am aware of some of the biases affecting my observations, I am still susceptible to them, and must always stay on guard to recognize them as they occur.
One example I noticed of my bias occurred in the first few sessions of observation, while the teacher was talking in the front of class. In the AP classes I tended to write down each instance of a student making a comment to a neighbor, while in the college-prep class I tended only to copy down the ones I could hear distinctly from where I was sitting. Looking back, I realized that I expected AP students to remain on task and so each small interruption was noticeable, while in the college-prep class, I expected some amount of low-level discussion all the time, and only the ones that interrupted my train of thought (those I could hear well enough to understand) were catching my attention. I immediately rectified this by copying down all instances in all classes, whether I could understand the comments or not. What I found was that the same amount of ‘side-bar’ commentary was occurring in all three classes.
Another thing I have noticed about my own subjectivity getting in the way of objective research is that as my moods shift from session to session, so do my notes. If I have slept well, I am in a good mood and I write everything down that I can. I enjoy the class discussions, and observe much more interactions between students than if I am grumpy or tired. On these days, I set up my audio recorder and only write down what I see, noting the time on the recorder so that I can go back and cross-reference the audio to what I saw. On these days, student side-bar conversations are annoying to me, discussion responses from students seem uninteresting or not well thought through. On a good day, students are “lively,” while on a bad day they are “loud.”
I have also found that my opinion of the teaching style of each teacher changes my perception of the classroom. The AP teacher has set up a critical classroom similar to that of Ira Shor, in which the students’ desks are set up in groups of four, conducive to small group discussion and collaboration. All assignments, readings, and writings are discussed in these groups. In every class period there is always some portion of class spent on individual work, group work, and whole class discussion. I am interested in the class dynamic, and generally enjoy myself in the AP classes. In the college prep class, however, the desks are in rows that face the teacher, class discussion is regulated by the teacher and there is no group work being done. The first part of the class is always taken up by some sort of lecture; either a recap of what has already been learned, or a monologue about the next subject of study. Whole class discussion is also a daily occurrence, but as there are no group activities or discussions, there is very little student-to-student interaction and whole-class discussion is usually manipulated by the most talkative students. There are several students in this class whom I have never heard speak. In this class I spend equal parts interested and equal parts bored, spending my bored moments looking out over the class wondering who is daydreaming about what.
In a perfect research situation I would never be bored, always engaged, always fair, never grumpy, and never take anything for granted. I would see students for who they really are, understand their motivations on an individual basis, and be able to glean solid fact from objective observation. This is not a perfect world, so I must take my cue from Brueggemann and Sunstein, recognize my own subjectivity and my own expectations and biases and do my best to articulate the ways that these biases affect my observations on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis. In this way I will be able to come relatively close to an objective view of the classrooms I am researching, and represent these students and these teachers as faithfully as possible. If I fail in any way in this endeavor, I hope that my own candidness will be enough so that my readers will be able to distinguish for themselves what parts of my observations are true reflection, and which are colored by my own subjectivity.
I believe ethnography is an important component to good teaching practice, and so this question is particularly apt to our purposes as teachers. Throughout my graduate education I have come to see the ways in which classroom experience is much too contextual to be very well generalized, but I believe that ethnographic research, done in the same or similar classrooms, and in the same geographic locations as the ones in which we teach, can help us be better teachers to the students we encounter in the future.
Brenda Jo Breuggemann found out first hand how very contextualized each classroom is, and that even the students within each classroom cannot be generalized because they are representative only of themselves. For the two students I wrote up in the dissertation, Anna and Charlie, were not necessarily representative of all deaf students, nor even all deaf students at Gallaudet, nor even of other deaf students in their basic writing classes” (27). Here, Brueggemann articulates a fear that I have myself about the work that I do in my classrooms and how far I am able to use my observations of each student and each semester to understand those who come after. Victoria Purcell gates makes an excellent point that in order to understand your subjects, you have to understand their culture, language, and customs (96). In short, where they are coming from as they enter your classroom. This is not only true of understanding the tenets of the local religions and the dialects used in the community, but also in what ways students have been treated in school in the past, and what their expectations are of the schooling they are about to receive. Some of this can be asked of the students themselves, and some must be gained from your own experience working with similar students from the same community and school. Purcell-Gates argues that if a teacher-researcher lives and works full-time in the setting in which they are conducting their research, they will have a deeper understanding of the subjects they encounter there (96). Ethnographic research is necessary for good pedagogical practice because it allows the teacher to tailor their teaching methods to best fit the population they encounter in their classroom.
When I first started teaching, I knew very little about ethnography and had never heard of the term teacher-research. However, looking back on my experience as a teacher, I have come to realize that I was conducting teacher-research from the very moment I first got hired for a teaching job. My first attempts at ‘figuring out’ how to teach my students what they needed to know were rudimentary and rarely worked as planned. These first attempts at teaching were based on my own experience of being a student. Now that I have several semesters of teaching under my belt, and have taken a number of classes dealing with teaching, I now have a name for the type of teaching I was doing in that first semester. Paulo Freire calls it the baking method, the pouring of information into the mind of a student the way one might make deposits in a bank. I was perpetuating the current–traditional model.
I quickly learned from my mistakes from the first semester, and in the second semester I tried to get my students interested in their learning by involving them in the decisions regarding some of my class policies, and by giving them wider leeway when it came to essay topics. In my third semester, having read some Helen Fox, Tom Fox, and heard more about critical pedagogy, I tried group projects, small group discussion and peer review of essays. I had students create a rubric for essay grading, and gave constructive comments geared toward revision rather than toward justifying a grade. I now had a curriculum I liked, and my students were more interested in class discussion and more invested in their own learning processes.
What I learned from one semester, I applied to the next. Sometimes an assignment has worked perfectly from one semester to the next, and sometimes I have had to tweak an assignment to fit my current group of students best. It never occurred to me that I was conducting research; instead, I thought of myself as doing what I needed to do to grow as a teacher and create the best environment for student success. Now that I have taught for several semesters, and have learned some of the terms for the methods I am implementing, I can say with confidence that my classroom pedagogy reflects my desire to create a dynamic, student-centered critical curriculum.
Before this semester, the research I was doing was rudimentary, as I have said, and the results of my research have been sometimes helpful and sometimes not. I have learned through trial and error, and some insights have come slowly. Through learning about ethnography in this class, and how it relates to my own teaching, I will now be able to apply my knowledge of good ethnographic process to my future classrooms. I will now be able to see things more clearly, from my own perspective and from that of my students, and I will be able to develop a curriculum based on those observations.
At the beginning of this semester, I thought ethnography was something one did from afar, that it was (merely) a branch of sociological study, and I had a hard time imagining it as part of a teaching experience. I now know that what I have been doing in my classroom, what has allowed me to improve as a teacher and to provide the best learning environment for my students, has been my ongoing teacher-research as an ethnographer of my own classroom. It is not an imposition, taking time away from regular teaching as I imagined at the beginning of this semester, but an integral part of my role as a dynamic teacher.