Both Sides Now

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Image credit (and for fun see XKCD’s upside down map)

Note: Given various travel adventures that we have planned for the rest of the summer, we will be taking a brief hiatus from the blog. We will be back with our next original post at the beginning of September. In the meanwhile, we would, as always, love to hear from you about how our posts resonate with or are different from your experiences!

During a recent NPR story about how some Americans and their families are using obituaries to make clear their opinions about the 2016 presidential candidates, the NPR host at one point says, “And, you know, this is journalism, so please make an attempt to be even-handed.” This idea of “being even handed” or “making sure to present ‘both’ sides of the story” sets up an either/or proposition that we find unhelpful but still encounter in academia. It shows up in our students’ feedback about course materials and class discussions (though not as often as in our early teaching years); it shows up in colleagues’ evaluations of our teaching; and it shows up in casual discussions about how the college campus is the “most diverse” environment experienced by some students while, for others, it’s the “least” diverse environment. It also shows up on our campus and in larger society in discussions where being called a racist or sexist is viewed as being as terrible and consequential as experiencing racism or sexism. In this post, we want to think through these ideas about “both sides” or “all sides” by examining how this erstwhile desire for “balance” and “fairness” play out in our classes.

In our classes, we deliberately refuse to take a “neutral” or “even handed” approach to the study of education, race, gender, citizenship or nation-building. Adriana begins American Studies classes by introducing students to standpoint theory and the importance of recognizing the power of positionality in the creation of knowledge. For both of us, the readings we choose and the framings we use in our analyses challenge dominant narratives of American meritocracy and democracy; we include, for example, critical perspectives from theorists of color and feminist and queer theorists. While we both strive to make sure that all students are able to express their ideas, ask questions, and challenge each other in our classes, we do make it clear that we are not nor do we strive to be “neutral” facilitators or participants. This kind of stance in the classroom sometimes makes our students uncomfortable and it can also raise questions for our colleagues.

What this kind of pedagogical stance can mean is that in any single class, some of Anita’s interventions in a class discussion might be seen as unfairly targeting only particular student comments. As a result, in Anita’s third year review letter, her senior colleagues noted that an “unevenness in the openness with which some theoretical or ideological positions are discussed.” In response, she explained in her tenure prospectus that centering minority and marginalized perspectives in her classes (a goal that her colleagues noted that they supported) meant that she was a “multipartial” rather than an impartial facilitator. Such a stance means that Anita might step in to challenge some statements more than others; it means that readings in her courses challenge dominant perspectives in education, rather than support prevailing narratives about, for example, racial minority students’ intellectual deficits or immigrant students’ linguistic deficiencies.

Recognizing our situated perspective as researchers and teachers means that when Adriana designs her course curricula, she doesn’t think about “balancing” the perspectives in the way that students often expect. For example, a dense reading that critiques State criminalization of Mexicans in the U.S. does not get paired with a reading that endorses the building of a wall between the two countries. Instead, she discusses with students why and how American Studies as a discipline has a stake in producing particular kinds of critiques of dominant discourses around otherness, and she asks the students to build a historical knowledge base of those discourses.

Even as we, in our classes, make clear the epistemological stake in naming our ideological frames, what we hear in these calls for neutrality or even-handedness is a worry that people will feel excluded because a view they hold isn’t represented or validated in a classroom. We do take seriously the imperative as instructors to be inclusive and to make sure all of our students can contribute and question. We want all of our students to recognize the situatedness of their own knowledge and experience as well as be critically aware of the situated nature of any empirical and theoretical work we read.

What this means, in our eyes, is that the students’ call for “neutrality” as way to ensure “both sides” of a story are included is misdirected. The seeming exclusion of dominant, mainstream perspectives does not actually meant that these perspectives are not present in the classroom. Dominant beliefs (about Mexicans, about the U.S.-Mexico border) circulate through our shared societal discourse communities and already frame the critique that we need to bring in. Thus, for the students, “represent both sides” often points to their need to have dominant beliefs reinforced in the face of feeling that those dominant discourses, when seen from other perspectives, are deeply unsettled. For example, learning about the well-known Chicanx slogan–“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”–often leads students to question the “natural” boundaries of nations and citizenship.

But interrupting this notion of “both sides” also means for us the necessary recognition of more than two possible positions or perspectives on an issue. For example, when having discussions about educational reforms, students in Anita’s classes think carefully about the complex and sometimes contradictory needs, interests, and worries that various stakeholders bring to discussion of what needs to happen in schools, including students, parents, communities, teachers, politicians, and business leaders. Recognizing multiple perspectives also easily allows us and our students to acknowledge the multiple intersecting identities that situate each of us as knowers. We hope that these moments of recognition allow all of us to question our assumptions about each other and build connections and empathy in unexpected ways. Indeed, Adriana found that a class activity that invited students to talk about what stopped them from listening to each other and strategies they had for “assuming best intentions” led students to be more generous and empathetic discussants who wanted to understand not just what a classmate believed, but why and how they had come to this belief.

We always end our posts inviting folks to share, and here we’re interested in hearing from fellow faculty and from students about their experiences in the classroom around issues of “fairness” and “balance.”

Inspirations:

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. NY: Routledge, 2000.

Kimberlé Crenshaw. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, pages 1241-1299.

 

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