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.