Bias vs. Perspective

Alright, dear readers, it’s time for another rant. Can we, as educators, please stop teaching students to look for the author’s “bias?” Now, I know that if you’re a high school teacher, this isn’t really your fault, as you’re beholden to curriculum that’s outside of your control. But it just seems so simple to fix, and yet, it’s painfully persistent.  I hoped that this vocabulary might be generational, and that there was a chance that it would fade away in the same way that that old Whig narrative no longer holds the same sway as it did when I was an undergrad. My students now know James VI  and I as so much more than a homosexual old fool – and they look at me with bewilderment when I try to explain how important revisionism was in changing what previous generations had said about that particular king. Thus, I naively dreamt that eventually I would get a cohort who had never become attached to the concept of pervasive author bias; students who felt that the blanket use of that term was as ill-advised as dismissing a king who united Britain and penned treatises about politics, religion, and witchcraft.

 

Some of my colleagues complain about students not knowing how to do research, write a paper, or analyze texts. Not me. I take it for granted that all of those things are long-term learning processes and I’m ready to get my hands dirty, helping my students figure it all out. Me…I get my knickers in a knot when students put up their hands during a discussion, only to inform me that “author x” is clearly “biased.” Why, you ask, does such a simple thing upset me so? Because it’s not actually so simple and it has huge ramifications for the way that students perceive the scholarly process. It contributes to the widespread lack of understanding about what the humanities are and what humanists do. And, as I said before, it’s so easy to fix.

 

It’s gotten to the point that at the beginning of any seminar, I explain to my students that I am banning the word “bias,” unless they’re absolutely, 100% sure that it applies. Instead, they’re to talk about an author’s perspective, or the author’s argument. This gives rise to both protest and confusion. “What’s the difference between bias and perspective,” they demand, “and why does it matter?” And so I explain that bias has a negative connotation in our society – that it implies unfounded skewing of information, or the bending of facts to fit the narrative. Many definitions of the word bias include the concept of prejudice, or preconceived ideas. Perspective, on the other hand, has to do with how someone interprets the facts – the choosing of an interpretational framework without trying to force the square peg through the round hole.

 

This conversation always takes place after and introductory lecture where I have explained that the role of a scholar is to interpret information, and this is why we have so many competing accounts of historical events (or, in the context of my current Media Ethics course, why people tend to profoundly disagree about what one should do in any given situation).  Facts, I tell them, are nothing more than bits of data. They don’t mean anything on their own. Scholars have to collect some facts, leave others aside, and then try to determine what all of this means through analysis. At this point, my students usually nod their heads in agreement, some giving me the “no shit” face, while others have that epiphany moment. It’s true, they say: humans do have to construct meaning from their past, in their present, and for their future. And then, we start talking, and the bias monster still storms into the room.

 

What I’m saying is that even after such an introduction, students still need me to put all this together for them. Most of them cannot see the links between the need for scholarly interpretation and the problem of always speaking in terms of bias. This is because bias, the way they were taught to use it, means roughly the same thing as perspective. But their version of bias/perspective seems also always to be a bad thing – something that they can easily identify and critique. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that this is a hangover from a simpler time, before postmodernism cautioned us that there is no such thing as pure, objective truth. Whatever the reason, it usually takes me about 15 minutes to explain to my seminar group that if they concede that scholars need to interpret facts, that they are then going to have a particular vision of what those facts mean, and that this interpretation is not necessarily biased.

 

This does not mean that a scholar can’t be biased, and so I usually give the hypothetical example of someone writing a book that is clearly racist, and which has manipulated the facts in order to reach a conclusion that is dubious at best. Most of time, however, scholars simply have a particular perspective, which influences their argument. That doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t make them wrong. It simply means that they’re doing their job, and interpreting facts. It is the job of students – who are learning the scholarly process – to decide if they are convinced by said author’s perspective, or if they feel that the facts need to be interpreted in a different way.

 

But what does any of this have to do with my flippant remark that teaching students to talk about bias is damaging to how they perceive the humanities? Simple. If bias is perspective, and perspective is bad, that means that a subjective position of any kind is bad. The corollary is that scholars are involved in a project that seeks – and produces – objective truth. Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I do. What I do is far more interesting, and it involves acknowledging my own limitations and subject position while still striving to discover a little bit more about the human condition. It involves dialogue, and difference, and probably a whole lot of failure. But it teaches us much more about the complexity of human society than the assumption that facts can somehow speak for themselves without any interpretation involved. One might even say that it is a blindness to the need for interpretation that opens the door to bias in the first place. But I digress.

 

I know it only takes me half an hour in lecture, and another 15 minutes in seminar to explain all of this to my students, so it’s really not the time that annoys me. What annoys me is the thought of all those students who learned to think this way and who never end up in my class – or in any other humanities class for that matter. If we keep teaching them to talk about bias, they will continue to misunderstand the value of the humanities. And they will grow into adults who continue to write tirades about the useless nature of non-STEM degrees. And so, I beseech anyone who is reading this: please stop using that word. It is misleading and problematic, and may cause this particular blogger to fall into a rage-induced coma. That’s all for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to rant about soon.

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6 thoughts on “Bias vs. Perspective

  1. Hear Hear! In particular I appreciate: “If bias is perspective, and perspective is bad, that means that a subjective position of any kind is bad. The corollary is that scholars are involved in a project that seeks – and produces – objective truth. Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I do. What I do is far more interesting…” Well said!

  2. Not only is this – the beating back of Gradgrind – important, we also need to show students how to use perspective, not eliminate it. In my Historical Research and Writing class today we examined Moves that matter in Academic Journal Articles, words used by historians to direct attention to what debate they are entering, how they are entering it, and what they have to contribute. I follow the Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say / I Say (2009) idea that templates are useful to situate your own ideas in a conversation already going on. My “truth,” your truth, her truth, their truth doesn’t matter unless you can show how it is part of a conversation (between other “biases” I suppose).

    • Thanks for your comment! I have to say that already owe you a scholarly debt (as I have taught using your textbook several times), and I am extremely grateful for you lending such an experienced pedagogical voice to this feed.

      Your comments are interesting in that conversation has come up a lot lately. I revisited this topic again today in part because it’s an ongoing issue in the classroom, but also because I have been thinking so much about teaching critical reading for the past several weeks. As part of the various online exchanges that resulted from last week’s post, a colleague sent me a link to something that explained the process of reading explicitly as a “conversation.” This seems to be the common theme, and something that students have the most difficulty grasping. They still seem to approach published work as having a special authority, marking it out as either totally wrong — “biased” — or totally right. The challenge, then, is getting them to realize that it’s only kinda-sorta-right, and at the same time, kinda-sorta-wrong, and to engage in a dialogue with it.

      So much to ponder…

  3. Great stuff. However, there is nothing in the curriculum that references bias in high school. It says perspective quite explicitly. Many adults in many contexts struggle with this distinction because they don’t like information that disrupts their own assumptions. Furthermore, bias-talk is also almost always about try to suggest that the way things are or that the perspective of the person shouting bias is natural, while criticism is inherently inauthentic and political. It normalizes systems of inequality, power and authority and tries to insulate them from criticism.

    • Thanks for the insight about high school curriculum. I must confess, I lack knowledge about what the different school boards are doing at that level and have to draw instead on my own memories and the behavioural patterns I my students exhibiting (bias talk seems to come alongside the 5-paragraph essay and other such classics).

      I think you’re right though, and this is about more than what people are taught in school. It’s part of the broader problem of teaching critical thinking and analysis. As such, it’s an uphill battle and I feel like a broken record at times, but it’s so important that I refuse to let it go.

  4. Sarah, if they still don’t get it, try and take them along to a bowling club and, with the clubs permission and with respect for the green, show them how these bowls work. They are weighted on one side with a small piece of lead. If you hold the bowl with the part of the bowl with the lead in it to the right and ‘bowl’ the bowl along the ground, surprise, surprise, the bowl will curve in a line from left to right. Reverse this with the lead to the left and the bowl will travel in a left to right line. This is bias because it has no choice. The penny should drop. Cheers.

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