Subjects or Subjectivites?

As an alternative to the idea that we teach “subjects,” I’ve been playing with the idea that what we really teach are “subjectivities”: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be “taught” – only practiced. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students. Learning a new subjectivity is often painful because it almost always involves what psychologist Thomas Szasz referred to as “an injury to one’s self-esteem.” You have to unlearn perspectives that may have become central to your sense of self. (I wrote more about this here.)

Some of these “subjectivities” are clearly named within different disciplines. For example, in anthropology we simply call it “The Anthropological Perspective.” Sociologists have “The Sociological Imagination.” When I first considered this distinction between “subjects” and “subjectivities,” I realized that for me the content is really just a means to an end – the ultimate end being “The Anthropological Perspective.” For a long time I did not even realize this, and I constantly struggled to pile on content to make sure that I “covered the ground” necessary. It was only later that I realized that if I could inspire the proper perspective, the students would be gathering “content” to serve this powerful perspective for the rest of their lives.

So here’s my question to everybody: Within your own particular field, is there a particular “subjectivity,” perspective, or way of seeing and interacting with the world that you are trying to inspire in your students? In your mind, is this perspective more important than the “content” or “subject-matter” of the course? I would really be interested in hearing more about how this resonates or conflicts with ideas from other disciplines. If you have time, let me know what you think, and how you approach your own class.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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19 Responses

  1. Helen Keegan says:

    What an interesting question – thanks for throwing it out there!
    I’m based in a Science faculty, working with students who are technical, and have for the most part been exposed to positivist traditions as opposed to interpretivist (for example).
    However, my own classes are very much based on digital identity, digital culture, participatory media production – essentially we’re trying to give them a broad experience of technologies, both as producers/consumers and also in terms of developing understandings of production values (‘low’, ‘high’) around the technologies themselves. It’s very much a question of subjectivity, rather than subject.
    The modules I ‘teach’ are now being rolled out across other – related – discipline groups. My colleagues became concerned that I was the only one in our science faculty that did the social tech. stuff and rightly realised that we would need more teaching staff! It was at this point that we were able to really unpack the philosophies/pedagogies underpinning my modules (as a group), and it became apparent that it wasn’t so simple as passing on my course notes to colleagues to ‘learn’ and then ‘deliver’. It’s more a case of modelling behaviours, recognising multiple perspectives, having a critical understanding of media technologies – and these things are just not part of the culture in our science faculty.
    From the learners’ perspective, the vast majority welcome the opportunity to explore technologies from social and cultural perspectives – although we do have the odd one who can’t understand why we’re ‘doing this stuff’ and wants to be trained in the use of equipment, and experiments.
    Thanks again for raising the question – looking forward to reading the responses from others :)

  2. Helen Keegan says:

    p.s. forgot to say, we focus on emergent and negotiated curriculum and open educational practices – it’s very much about taking my students out of their comfort zone, learning through dialogue, sharing and networks. The majority get really into it – some genuinely have transformational experiences and have even changed their career paths accordingly! Then there are a few who resent having to blog, tweet etc. – but often these are the ones who will then email when entering their careers post-Uni, to say “thanks, that stuff was so useful – I just didn’t realise it at the time”…

  3. Prof Wesch says:

    Thanks for sharing, Helen. I have similar experiences with students and faculty – especially those “I just didn’t realise it at the time” comments.

    I heard from several more via private e-mail. I’ll see what I can share from those. There have been some really interesting comments.

  4. I teach in a Professional Writing, Rhetoric, and Technology undergraduate major. I tend to use Burke’s term identification a lot, and explore the ways that the discourses and institutions we inhabit, along with the tools we use, texts we gravitate towards, and activities we engage, all influence our sense of self.

    I teach an undergraduate course on New Media theory, and tend to use Gregory Ulmer’s Internet Invention–I like how Ulmer’s genre of the MyStory encourages them to explore their various backgrounds (career, family, entertainment, community) without insisting upon a critical stance.

  5. Janina says:

    I teach in the department of chemistry and I am also working in the teaching and learning center of my university. We use the term socialization into one’s discipline for what you describe: understanding how the members of the scientific community think, write, do research and so on.
    We hope that students can integrate into their disciplinary community. I have not yet come to a conclusion how to achieve this with my chemists. I try to talk about my own experiences: how and when I learned about what it means to be a chemist, how important it is to make mistakes and exchange about problems interdisciplinarily. I also try to generate situations in and out of class where students practice these disciplinary ways of doing and thinking. In chemistry we are lucky to have a lot of one-on-one teaching in the lab, this helps to really get to know your students.
    To me the change of attitude and perspecitve is way more important than the content I teach. I have nearly forgotten all content I ever learned during my own education but I will always remember how to read a paper, how to write an abstract, how to present a poster and how to do a catalytic hydrogenation in the lab.

  6. I am a junior high teacher, grades 7 to 9, and the perspective that educators at a younger level are trying to encourage far certainly outweighs the particular content that the different subject areas are teaching.

    Although basic literacy must be taught as a particular subject in it’s own right, the process of teaching literacy confirms what Prof. Wesch is arguing. When showing students how to read and multiply we are really teaching, “ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world.”

    Past the primary level the goal of educators is to help students see that they can be excited by understanding the world, that they can have mastery over their surroundings and that in order to succeed they have to learn.

    The political implications of how students are compelled to see and understand their world often leads to conflict between society and educators. Remember at a young age, unlike choosing a post-sec. path, the students do not have a choice.


  7. Excellent observation. (and btw, so nice to see a post from you again!)

    Yes, subjectivities. I often try to teach a worldview. I teach user-interface design, for example. Success there means that students adopt user-centeredness as a general attitude. Same with qualitative research methods.

    But then, my social media research seminar is very interdisciplinary. There, I encourage students to identify a lens and situate themselves in it.

  8. This shift in perspective (from teacher-centered to student-centered) is echoed frequently in current educational dialogue. It shifts our focus from the importance of the content to the importance of learning, retaining, and applying knowledge; it shifts us from a pedagogy of knowledge transfer to knowledge construction; from passive learning to active.

    I love the idea of educators being the “primary adjusters” within environments of learning, where teachers adjust the environment to the needs, learning preferences, and prior knowledge of the students. Leadership is not so different in that leaders also need to be the primary adjusters in the creation of a system that helps others grow, excel, and be productive. The most interesting aspect about this shift (from subjects to subjectivities) is that technology amplifies our capability to “flip” learning from environments of sit and get/skill and drill to environments of passion, empiricism, and constructivism.

  9. Jeremy Price says:

    Interesting thinking about subjects vs. subjectivities — I really enjoyed reading it, as well as the comments. The tension between the two reminds me of a fascinating conversation I had with a 16 year old during my dissertation research about the difference in his estimation between “learning” and “practice” (his terms). He said that with learning the goal is to “get more” while with practice the goal is to “get better” at something.

    However, whenever the philosophical conversation around the ends of education (whether it be higher, secondary, or primary education, although as a researcher I am most familiar with secondary) switches to this track, the liberal humanist in me clamors for some attention in my mind. It seems like “subjectivity” and the introduction/induction of the learner into a perspective, worldview, or practice, also needs to include the fostering of “reflexivity” so that the agency of the learner is not lost. This is a different strand from the usual content-centered vs. student-centered discourse. It seems to me that at some level treating a discipline as a “subject” needs to come in to the picture at least occasionally for learners to make decisions about what parts of the anthropologist’s or biologist’s or writer’s or historian’s perspective to incorporate into their own. Dewey, and his sense of both/and rather than either/or, provides a theoretical backing here.

    Thanks for the interesting ideas to think about!

  10. Sandi Ferguson says:

    As a middle years educator I would like to think that our goal is to consider your term, “subjectivity” as a means of learning rather than the ‘top down’ view that the teacher possesses the knowledge (curriculum) and it is their job to spray it out there for ‘students’ to pray they get most of it (the old adage “spray and pray” method). Yes, I do believe we have moved away from the podium at the front of the classroom and that we are seeing learning as a multidimensional process that includes participation and a lot conversation. However, as you university professors probably notice we still have many students who have learned through modeling that learning does not involve constructing ideas but rather exploring, and most often absorbing, others ideas.

    I believe this process of carving beliefs about learning begins at a very young age where students are lead through a process of ‘research-based best practice’ instruction which we call ‘gradual release of responsibility’ : I do – you watch, we do together, and then you do. Your paper leads me to ponder the idea of subjectivity in this context.

    Maybe students do require some modeling to learn; however, it might be in the process of subjectivity as you suggest: ways of approaching or understanding the world they live in. The focus on ‘big ideas’ in instructional design rather than specific outcomes. Engaging students in a process of inquiry rather producers of products assessing their absorption of content. The teaching becomes the process of sitting beside students and guiding through a process- much in the way we learn how to walk or talk as babies or read as children.

    Something happens in education at some magical age around Grade 3 or 4 where we shift our mindset to the ‘factory model of learning’. We really do need to rethink this thing we call ‘teaching’.

    By the way, did I mention that our work towards creating a new report card system which reflects skills for thinking was overturned by government with a new provincial report card that resembles the one I had in high school in 1975. We are told that is what parents want…

    Thank you for creating this open space to ponder.

  11. Ethna Lay says:

    I teach undergraduate courses in first-year composition, rhetoric, new media and history of the English language, but at base, these are all essentially courses in subjectivity and subjectivities. One common goal of these classes is to observe an/the object through various vantage points and write one’s way into a/the subject for a selected audience and with a selected purpose. A lot of relativity comes into play.

    I don’t for a minute think that I fill up any student’s word-hoard of knowing/knowledge. Instead, my idea of what learning looks like is to orient them to ways of knowing or seeing (as Berger or Bruffee or Rorty or G. Sirc or countless others recommend.

  12. I think some background is necessary for me because my situation is not what I would think typical; although, of course, I could be wrong.

    I teach as an adjunct instructor at a north Idaho college. This is a rural area and I teach at two, and via IVC, sometimes three satellite centers. The age of the students ranges from dual-enrollment high school students to students that are 60+. The majority of my students have usually been out of high school for a while, are married or divorced with children, and have returned to school to seek for a better job.

    I teach Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, and English Grammar and Composition. I’ve also taught American Indian Studies. If I could, I would also teach Linguistic Anthropology. I do not separate these various disciplinary approaches to what I teach. I often go off on tangents in all three, or even more areas (I have also worked as a chef and still enjoy the world of food). In terms of subjects/subjectivities, I think that what I really do is teach students to think critically, that is, across disciplines. This is something that really hit the core of my thinking in a year long class in Anthropological Theory.

    Through the English Division, I receive free booklets and I also read in the texts about “thinking critically” and “reading critically.” To me, that means knowing about how to do research, how to read with an open mind, how to find the author’s point or thesis, how to recognize objective research, and how to understand the subjective aspect of all research. To me, when you suggest the term “subjectivities,” it makes me think of all of the above, and from now on I will talk about how I teach subjectivities, not subjects.

    I think this is also what students do on the internet. Friends on Facebook hit a person with all kinds of different media, social positions, photos, videos, music, articles, games, tests, etc. Wikipedia can be an endless journey into different tangents of knowledge and thought. A person can google anything, e.g., my husband tries to stump Google with new words which are usually his creation…. Books and citations are available to peruse. Students learn so much interactively as you have so well demonstrated.

    I think this idea of subjectivities also meshes well with the recent work on cognition, e.g., Labov’s research on metaphors and framing, Westin’s focus on neural networks, and so forth. We never think in tunnels. And a single subject sounds like a tunnel. Perhaps that is why social networks sites are so popular, because maybe we think along network lines….

    Just my thoughts…. Thanks for the invite.

  13. Kaitlin Mogan says:

    I appreciate all of the thoughts and reflections on this topic. It is obviously a complicated question in a simple disguise. I find myself aligning with much of what Linda and Ethan have to say above regarding the intended result of teaching subjects being to effect subjectivity… but now I’m wondering in my own practice if this is true? I teach high school English and am intrigued by this notion of restructuring my personal pedagogical approached to education but I don’t know how to convert completely. I teach subject, content, thinking, reflecting, and attempt to create opportunities in my classroom where students have to use this ‘subject knowledge’ to justify their perspectives (of course with the hope that the product of this exposure will force a readdress of previous notions, ie subjectivity).

    I wonder though, if this is happening? The question makes me think back to the video recapping the student’s perspectives and honest reactions to the faulty education system (A Vision Of Students Today) that I (unknowingly) continue to preserve. I can look at aspects of my teaching and make the claim that my practice is ideally moving away from this linear approach to knowledge building… but is it really? Do I teach students subjectivity THROUGH my teaching of subjects and content? Can one be a springboard for the other or does there need to be a cultural shift to encourage this type of critical thinking to emerge? Like I said… difficult issue in disguise but something I will continue to ponder. Thank you for the question, I am excited to share it with colleagues.

  14. Deb Brown says:

    For me subjectivity expresses the fundamental framework through which a discipline teaches students to see the world. My education has suggested the following.
    Physics: Everything follows fundamental laws.
    Chemistry: Everything is made up of small building blocks.
    Mathematics: Everything can be expressed with numbers.
    Biology: Everything is understood through groupings based on processes.
    History: Everything must have proof.

  15. Jerrod Thomas says:

    Deb, that was the most objective view of subjectivity I’ve ever seen.
    However, my education draws the same conclusions :)

    Whether or not they know it, my instructors have instilled their ‘subjectivities’ within the material as it was taught.
    It is up to me as a student to build upon that perspective – or accept a better way of understanding – as long as the results are correct.

    These ‘subjectivities’ are sometimes crucial to understanding the content, and in that case should be the focal point of the lesson.

    I am a student at JCCC, and so I’m probably in the wrong place to make statements among collegiate professors, but the power of perspective is key to understanding. Content at the forefront, but…

    Follows calculated theories such as the natural phenomena called gravity. And fundamental laws.

    Everything is made up of small building blocks.

    Mathematics: Variables, infinite possibilities to solve the same problem. Everything must have proof.

    Biology: The Circle of Life.

    History: I wasn’t there, neither was the publishing company, but I do need to know this stuff!

    …the content doesn’t do any good if I forget the 50 vocab terms i memorized last night by next monday. The entire lesson is normally lost because I’m actually flexing my memory rather than my understanding of the subject. My parents were never proud of my understanding though, they want A’s, not an intellectual breakthrough.

  16. Leif says:

    My best teachers never tell me anything other than to question everything.

    My best students never ask me what they should do.

    Great question, thank you!

  17. casey says:

    i think that it is a very dificult subject because there are so many different views on the internet. for example there are many different cultures who have different views on what is said on the interenet. on the internet we only see who we are not what we are as a big comunity on the inertnet.

    i read alot of your articles and videos in my grade 11 media class and find them very interesting!

  18. Eryn says:

    From a students perspective, it can be easy to see how some teachers use this idea of subjectivities and how it can out way the actual content of the course. I am presently writing this comment as a part of my grade 11 media class where my teacher definitely uses this concept. We have been studying a lot of your work throughout our course along with the works of Marshall McLuhan in order to see how media affects our lives. However, more than simply learning about the subject, we experiment and interact with the media, for instance, by commenting on blogs. It is this course that benefits me most in other parts of my life, by showing me the opportunities made available by media and how to utilize them. When I compare these types of courses to some of my others where it is more so just the subject being taught, it is really a whole other environment. Students ask questions such as “is this going to be on the exam?” rather than actually being engaged in the discussion. 
    This is an interesting subject and it was great to hear all the different opinions.

  19. Interesting post. Wondering though whose world view gets privileged in a shift from subject to subjectivities? Is there a singular anthropological perspective or are there choices being made as to what to foreground, exclude, etc.?

    Does power remain in the hands of the teacher even as one shifts from subject to subjectivties? I like the notion of practice.