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Being Transparent About and Challenging Our Own Assumptions About Material

In my current Writing and Rhetoric class, we are thinking about manifestos in preparation for writing our own. The manifesto forces students and myself to challenge our assumptions about certain topics by both replicating hyperbolic rhetoric and then objectively challenging and explaining the rhetorical moves we have made. Recently, I showed the class a visual art manifesto that I had recently come upon and found to be very complicated, playful, and to be making interesting visual and written rhetorical moves. I had been under the impression that this piece was an anti-establishment piece because of its content and we analyzed it as such.

Regrettably, after we did so I realized I had made a mistake and that this piece of art was institutionally endorsed and even being sold as limited edition napkins by the same institution. I pulled up the same visual manifesto next class and explained that I had mad an assumption that was incorrect and could have led to a slightly distorted interpretation of the piece. Thankfully, our interpretation of the piece was still valid, as part of the idea of the peace was to minimize the role of the establishment and to privilege the potentially transgressive art inside. I used this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of research as a tool for challenging assumptions while also underscoring that our unique, individual opinions and arguments about a certain topic should not be replaced by research but supplemented by it. The argument we had made when we were considering the piece to be anti-establishment (an assumption he students made as well) was not overwritten by finding out something new about the piece but was only made more robust and contextual.

I tell this story to underscore the necessity of transparency and vulnerability. We, as teachers, are as fallible as our students, no matter how more informed we are. Often, we are teaching classes outside of our narrow academic specialization and are trying to form our own opinions of the material ourselves. There are going to be times when we overstep. Instead of ignoring these missteps, we should attempt to publicly acknowledge them in front of the students to demonstrate that making assumptions is a natural act that everybody makes but that everybody should also be fully aware of. Admitting and airing your own assumptions makes you feel more human to them and invites them to self-reflect with you, which makes challenging their own assumptions feel more of a communal, shared activity.

Challenging our Assumptions about Students

No matter how informed we are about the material, we have very little knowledge about our students as people beyond our classroom, especially at the start of the semester. Therefore, we must make sure that we are not projecting our assumptions onto students. I say above that my students also assumed that the piece was anti-establishment because they were the first to articulate this point. I had merely let it go unchallenged. If I had brought the point up first, the students may have just attached themselves to my interpretation because of my perceived authority and I would have no evidence of which to deduce that they actually shared the same viewpoint prior to my statement. Even now, I have no idea if all the students agreed with the statement or whether some of them were just passively accepting it as truth because I, the knowledge-holder, hadn’t challenged it.

During this same session, one student had briefly zoned out to do some quick and dirty research on the artist via Wikipedia. He found that the artist was a transvestite and had non-normative sexual experience throughout his life and started to assume what I found to be some troubling things about the piece of art based upon his findings. I felt that he was making assumptions about the artist’s choices based upon the brief, subpar, biography he had read of the author’s life. I quickly made my own assumptions about what the student’s intent might be but I decided to challenge my assumptions and to frame the next class specifically around challenging assumptions we have about identity categories. It turns out that the same student that had made the troubling comments was also the one who I heard talking sensitively and cogently about identity politics in small groups this next class. I was surprised and sobered by this reminder that my assumption about his comments were not completely correct.

Challenging Students’ Assumptions

It is important that student’s assumptions are always being challenged. Yet, this cannot be done well if we have not already challenged our own. Therefore, I think it is important for the act of challenging assumptions to be a shared activity. Starting with pointing out or investigating our own assumptions will make students feel more comfortable with the process. One activity I have tried is to present an often-debated issue and ask students to write out their assumptions about the topic on the page. I then show a well-argued, objective video on the topic and then ask the students to revisit their assumptions in a group. Finally, we share our thoughts with the full class. I participate as much as they do in this activity. This is only one of many ways to stage a discussion of assumptions. Please share your own in the comments section below.

Additional Reading:

Stephen Brookfield. Teaching for Critical Thinking: a vital resource for this topic with many suggestions for how to challenge assumptions in classroom situations.

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