Making our assumptions about objectivity the subject of our inquiry
Posted by Laurence Abbott
Among the many aspects of my doctoral work that I enjoy is teaching social studies curriculum and pedagogy courses to undergraduates, especially the opportunities to engage students in dialogue and exploration of the role and place of history and historical thinking in social studies. There is a curious quid pro quo in this relationship – while I have the opportunity to share and contextualize insights from scholarly research on history and historical thinking in relation to teaching practice, students share with their peers and me diverse, complex and highly varied understandings of history and its relationship to schools, curriculum, and their future students. For many undergraduate students majoring in social studies, history is a discrete disciplinary domain filled with concrete things, and, while appreciating the work of historians is complex and intellectual, these soon-to-be social studies teachers too often assume that the product of historians’ work are objective accounts of the past.
While this is very old news to the teacher education community, to me it offers a fascinating reiterative encounter with the power of a disciplinary episteme to withstand the bombardment of decades of scholarship in history, sociology and curriculum that informs critical pedagogic practice in many university and public school classrooms. It is interesting to me that many of my students choose to be social studies majors because of their interest in history as a subject, but have never given consideration to reconciling history-as-subject with the subjectivity of historical work. While I do not wish to imply that many pre-service social studies teachers have a dysfunctional understanding of history as a discipline, I do believe more time, effort and resources need to be committed in public schools and post-secondary settings to familiarize students with the complexity of disciplinary historical work.
My own doctoral research attends to the ways social studies teachers’ complex subjectivity interplays with text, especially how this impacts how curriculum documents are read, outcomes understood, and the ways teachers’ interpretations of texts encountered in the classroom helps shape students’ conceptions of past, present and future. So, each time I teach a social studies curriculum and pedagogy course I focus on the importance of learning to ask good questions about the texts we encounter. While we have limited opportunities to spend time working with primary sources, our encounters with the texts that support the course, which include readings drawn from an array of social-studies-related materials, offer analogues for encounters their future students will have with text, including primary sources. To assist my students in developing their own interrogative capacities, I ask students to develop synopses and discussion questions that they share with their peers to foster conversation in relation to assigned readings. In a debriefing that follows the first of these in each iteration of the course, I ask students to give some attention to how and why the synopses and discussion questions vary in sometimes significant ways from student to student.
For some students this is the first time they have given much thought to how their own complex personal subjectivities play a role in how they read, understand and share their textual encounters with others, especially their future students. While some of my students recognize that perspective has something to do with this, few seem to realize the implications connected to acknowledging such complex subjectivities in relation to their teaching practice, to the practice of historians, and even to the personalities of the named and unnamed who inhabit the past taught in schools.
As teacher educators we spend such a small amount of time with our students, especially in relation to the amount of time our students have willingly and unwillingly spent studying the past in the past. While I am under no illusion that together we can break through the bulwark of objectivity in our short time together, perhaps, at least, I can encourage them to climb to the ramparts of their epistemic comfort zones and take a look around for themselves.