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Positionality, epistemology, and social justice in the classroom.

I had the opportunity to work at an American-owned maquiladora. This journey made me understand the imbalance of power between the first world and the third. More exactly, I had always been part of a marginalized group. I would fit in the platinum category if one compares my marginality to a credit card. That is, I am economically challenged, a woman, of color, who is queer. My parents and older siblings worked in the agricultural fields of Hollister, California, to put food on the table. Why would an economically challenged woman want to research the question, what is the role of maquiladoRAZAtion in the global political economy? There are a few reasons: (1) The World of Academia does not address issues about the worker from the voice of the worker. (2) Education should be a tool to combat oppression. (3) Education should work to empower all people, not only those who can "understand" academic jargon. (4) The only way to truly address issues of the third is to listen to the voice of the oppressed, and it is this voice that needs to hem the worlds of academia. -- Abelina Campos (1)

Introduction: Why Ask Students to Think About Positionality and Epistemology?

HOW DOES YOUR POSITIONALITY BIAS YOUR EPISTEMOLOGY? I HAVE BEEN POSING this question to students, weaving it as a theme throughout my courses. Of course, a resounding chorus of bafflement greets the initial question: How does who you are and where you stand in relation to others shape what you know about the world? A student's search for answers opens up new possibilities for understanding her connections to the world, as the opening quote suggests. As a reflective practitioner of the teaching profession, I constantly grapple with these questions, as well.

To work toward a just world--a world where all have equal access to opportunity--means, as a start, opening up heart and mind to the perspectives of others. We must be able to hear each other and to respect and learn from what we hear. We must understand how we are positioned in relation to others--as dominant/subordinate, marginal/center, empowered/powerless. In The Feminist Classroom, Maher and Tetreault (2001: 164) describe "the idea of positionality, in which people are defined not in terms of fixed identities, but by their location within shifting networks of relationships, which can be analyzed and changed." For those who teach for social justice, the "and changed" part is crucial: understanding positionality means understanding where you stand with respect to power, an essential skill for social change agents. From this understanding, we have a standpoint from which to challenge power and change ourselves.

Few things are more difficult than to see outside the bounds of our own perspective--to be able to identify assumptions that we take as universal truths, but that instead have been crafted by our own unique identity and experiences in the world. We live much of our lives in our own heads, in a reconfirming dialogue with ourselves. Even when we discuss crucial issues with others, much of the dialogue is not dialogue: it is monologue where we work to convince others to understand us or to adopt our view. Simply acknowledging that one's knowledge claims are not universal truths--that one's positionality can bias one's epistemology--is itself a leap for many people, one that can help to make us more open to the world's possibilities. In a recent book on teaching history, Sam Wineburg (2001:24) states, "the narcissist sees the world--both the past and the present--in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. When we develop the skill of understanding how we know what we know, we acquire a key to lifelong learning." But one need not limit our excursions to days gone by: in our classrooms, the present swirls around us, and the voices of this present can lead beyond narcissism and into deeper understanding of the chaotic world that demands our attention and intervention. When we teach students to understand how their positionality in relation to others shapes what they know about the world, we help them sample the rigors and delights of the examined life. When we ask students to learn to think for themselves and to understand themselves as thinkers--rather than telling them what to think and have them recite it back--we help foster habits of introspection, analysis, and open, joyous communication.

Unfortunately, many students come to college without some of the skills we deem necessary to succeed in academic work. In California, the richest state in the richest country the world has ever known, we skulk in the bottom fifth among states in per capita spending on education. The state system has shortchanged many students who live in poorer school districts: crammed into overcrowded classrooms, led by underpaid teachers who labor in crumbling infrastructure, many students do not get the quality education they deserve. To compound the misfortune, some college administrators and professors view these students--often poor, often minority, sometimes bilingual--as "deficits." They pose problems for our teaching; we have to spend lots of money to "compensate" for their "deficiencies."

Asking students to think about how their positionality biases their epistemology helps us to live an assets model of multiculturalism in our classrooms. For example, we can view speaking English as a second language as a deficit. Alternatively, we can focus on that student's assets: she is bilingual, a facile language learner who has much to teach about bridging cultures because of where she has been positioned with respect to a dominant culture. As a simultaneous insider and outsider, she can help native English speakers see things they might have missed about their own language and culture, about their own positions in the world. By respecting the unique life experiences that each student brings into the classroom--by asserting that the broadest possible set of experiences is crucial to helping each of us understand the topic at hand as completely as possible--we empower all students as knowledge makers. We allow each student to assert individualized knowledge that contributes to a collective understanding. Rather than "tolerating" difference, we move to respect difference, as difference helps us understand our own worldview--and thus the world itself--better. From respect, we move to celebration, as we come to cherish how diverse perspectives enable us to experience the world more richly and come to know ourselves more deeply. To understand our own place in the world requires us to listen to and understand those around us.

Connecting positionality to epistemology simultaneously empowers and disempowers individual expertise in the classroom. Students are empowered because they recognize that they have unique claims, to knowledge that others cannot deny. Only I have lived my life; only you have lived yours. This encourages me to listen to you and you to me, as we each have (by definition) a unique perspective. This is not a lapse into navel gazing solipsism. Rather, if this experience works well, through dialogue we are led into doubts about the certainty of the "correctness" of our own position, as we come to learn that our views may be constrained by the narrow range of experiences we have had. We are then more willing, eager, or obliged to talk with others, as we realize we make assumptions based on our own positionality, and that this must, by definition again, bias how we view the world. Only by truly listening to others can I see how I am constrained and how I can become aware of the conceptual shackles imposed by my own id entity and experiences. The feminist scholar Sandra Harding promotes "strong objectivity." Through recognizing and analyzing the cultures in which we are positioned, and that therefore cannot help but mold our worldviews, we take steps to become more aware and even more objective. We can grasp at objectivity only by examining as many subjective perspectives as possible, and we come to know the world more fully by knowing how we know the world.

Working with Positionality/Epistemology in the Classroom

All experimental pedagogies are risky, particularly for lecturers or untenured professors. Fortunately, I teach at California State University, Monterey Bay, where the scholarship of teaching and learning is taken seriously, and whose vision statement and formal learning goals commit us to serving a multicultural student body in the name of social justice. We are also committed to forging connections with our surrounding community; we expect that students' classroom work will be tied to various forms of community service and community learning. Nearly half our population is made up of students of color; we serve a high percentage of first-generation college students from working-class backgrounds, and many of our students are older than traditional college students are. Most of our students have had to overcome significant obstacles to attend college. We serve them by drawing on their bountiful funds of knowledge as we connect positionality to epistemology in our classrooms.

Each year, I teach an upper division Environmental Justice course. In this class, students study the intersections between environmentalism and race, class, power, and privilege. Each student constructs a "theory of environmental justice" over the course of the semester. Students draw evidence from scholarly work, but also from their service learning experiences; furthermore, I ask students to write and talk about how their positionality biases the epistemological claims they make about justice. in the opening quote to this essay, Abelina Campos explores how her positionality leads her to her senior capstone thesis research question. Cristy Cassel, another student, found she "can't understand how materialism can outweigh the value of life. There's no reason why families should have to struggle for survival or fight to live in a sustainable environment; we all are human beings and have the right to be treated with respect and consideration. We cannot allow greed, ambition, power, or money to drive our world to a slow end."

Cristy's views on what constitutes justice were shaped by what she had seen and experienced:

I grew up in Mexico where money is all that matters, where being poor means living in unbearable conditions. I have seen some of the well-educated people abuse poor communities and their environment due to their lack of wealth. Such communities are left alone without hope of improving their living conditions, knowing that neither the government nor the people with power will ever care to provide some kind of assistance. These same communities live in substandard housing where they lack a potable water system, electricity, and a proper sewage system.... Some houses are built with wood and bricks hammered together and with plastic glued as windows, so if it rains they have leaks and flooding easily occurs. Most of the people living in these communities just dig a hole into the ground and make it into a bathroom. They wash their clothes in the river closest to them or they have their children bring buckets of water from some well that most likely is not safe to drink. Flies and other insects are everywhere sprea ding diseases, because there is trash and stagnant water throughout the community. Children playing outside are constantly getting parasites into their system and infections on their skin. These poor communities are also denied health care because they can't afford it, so they send their children to school sick and without energy to learn.

Cristy's experiences and identity as a young Mexican-American woman--who has been differently positioned with respect to power at various times in her life--lent her unique authority to comment on justice; her contributions enlivened the classroom. That experience compelled her classmates--they needed to understand it--because they realized their own views on justice were shaped by an incomplete relationship with the world.

Simultaneously, Cristy was learning from her classmates' positionalities. A student described knowing hunger as an army wife raising three kids on less than sustainable wages; from this, she knew that even when serving the country according to obligation, the country did not necessarily honor that commitment in a just way. Several white students have grappled with this conundrum: their parents started out poor, but managed to achieve success through sheer hard work. If they could do it, why can't everyone? However, the question does not just remain rhetorical, because another student can tell a very different story, stemming from their positionality: Perhaps it had something to do with the color of their parents' skin? Some students who had hit hard times and pulled out of it share those experiences with the class, so the class may understand how the "system" sometimes undermines justice; others, though, use their own experiences to show that people can, in fact, pull themselves out of bad circumstances. The point is that these students undergo an intensive workshop in understanding how their experiences and identities shape what they know about the world, and they teach their classmates, so that their classmates come to see their fellow students--fellow community members--as sources of valued expertise.

Here, Marc Holbik analyzes his experiences of learning from diverse voices, albeit while situating his positionality as one of privilege in relation to most other residents of Guatemala: He writes that:

The views expressed in my theory are the result of many factors influencing my perspective on justice and life in general, but most of all from growing up as a first-generation U.S. citizen in Guatemala. The path of my foster land has been too often decided by outsiders, and not by the ingenuity of the people who are its inhabitants. Traveling through Central and South America, it becomes a common theme: poverty, injustice, violence, and their Siamese twin: a polarized power structure. Privileged, I had the time and opportunities to search, read, hear, learn, and reflect on the reasons for injustice. From talking to a regional director of USAID to drinking guaro with a campesino in the smoky coziness of a cantina, I sought, and still seek, the wisdom of different viewpoints.

From Marc's analysis of his own positionality, he derives the thesis of his environmental justice theory: "Justice, as an outcome of a conflict that has been creatively resolved to satisfy all participants, is a vision that re-creates the entire framework of our social relations and pours over to encompass our relations with nature. Environmental Justice occurs when all parties affected by a conflict resolution dealing with nature-society relations are satisfied with the outcome."

Mike Bogan draws on Marc's insights. He first situates his own positionality: his parents encouraged him to value, explore, and analyze urban and rural ecosystems, and he sees himself as a fundamental part of the interconnected ecosystems he lives in. He refers to the ideas of his classmates as he writes:

Priya and a few others offered the common theme that many sectors of humanity consume far too much at present. I'm sure if we had some sort of common table to sit and talk about the distribution of wealth, resources would be distributed far more evenly than we see them today. If one was truly connected to the place they live in, they would not be as inclined to take more than they needed from that place, thus leaving additional resources for other people or ecosystems.

The key point to my idea of justice comes from Marc's comments in class. He said that justice can only result from a compromise: using constructive conflict to force us to meet on a common reality.... So, in my view, justice is not what is "right," as that is an impossible term, but rather justice is the result of a compromise between all involved parties.

Mike understands his epistemological claims as stemming not just from his own positionality, but also from what he has learned from others' examinations of their own positionalities.

Positionality, Constructivism, and Learning to Listen

When we interrogate the subjective nature of knowledge in any classroom, we recognize that knowledge does not arrive unmediated from the world; rather, knowledge is constructed by interaction between the questioner and the world. Critics of Maher and Tetreault' s feminist stance on positional pedagogies (2001: 11) have argued there is "little merit in our explorations of the social dynamics of difference and inequality; they saw positional pedagogies as nothing more than identity politics, as pandering to the subjective perspectives of students and thus detracting from the point of classroom teaching: knowledge." On the contrary, only by questioning knowledge--who produces it, how, and from what positionalities--can we fully assess the knowledge claim's validity. We might label this epistemological stance constrained relativism, or perhaps constructivist realism. When we encourage examination of our own knowledge formation processes, we develop habits of informed skepticism, of questioning the authority of al l knowledge sources, including ourselves. Nevertheless, skepticism can easily segue into cynicism or apathy when faced with a relativistic world where truth is not always apparent and easy to grasp. I work hard to avoid fostering these habits of cynicism and apathy. Rather, in a classroom model where students explore and exchange their unique knowledge perspectives, we may all come to more deeply rooted, deeply reflective, shared understandings of the world. We become more connected to that world and to each other; we feel that communally and can act upon that world to change it for the better.

To foster these connections, we must teach how to listen--a fundamental and overlooked skill. At CSUMB, we teach "cooperative argumentation" (Makau and Marty, 2001). It is not an oxymoron; rather, in our classrooms we argue toward consensus rather than toward winning and we listen to understand, not to judge or triumph. When all are experts, because their knowledge comes in part through differently positioned life experiences, all can learn--but only if you listen. Rather than persuading others of the inevitability of your stance, when you listen to others' perspectives, you come to understand how your positionality exists in relation to others; you may question your assumptions and lower the barriers to be able to reach consensus.

In all of my classes, we do consensus-building listening exercises. For the second day of Environmental Justice class, students read Garrett Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics." It is a litmus test. Hardin's classic, controversial essay argues that people in wealthy countries float on a resource-rich lifeboat. Although we might wish to share those resources with poorer countries, to do so would mean we swamp the lifeboat, and everyone drowns. It is a potent metaphor that serves as a focal point to which we return throughout the semester, especially as we continually delve into assumptions Hardin makes about the world, and explore how his positionality might bias his epistemology. (In fact, students write their first and last short essays about this essay.) In class, I ask who tends to agree, who tends to disagree, and who can go both ways with Hardin's thesis. Students break into groups with representatives from each point of view. The task is for each student in a group to take two minutes to explain why they do or d o not agree with Hardin: What life experiences do they bring that lead them to their position on Hardin's thesis? When each person has taken a turn, they ask respectful questions of each other, all in an attempt to come to some consensus statement on Hardin, something to which they all can assent. Rather than trying to convince a fellow student of the correctness of his own standpoint, a student must listen to understand how others' life experiences lead them in different directions in the world; the student must take these experiences in and accept them as valid if he is to work successfully with his peers to reach consensus. Therefore, from the beginning of the class, students are connecting positionality to epistemology, learning to listen as others do the same, and using what they hear to situate their own positionality and epistemological claims.

By encouraging an assets model of multiculturalism through an appreciation of positionality and epistemology, we encourage a nuanced, scholarly, personal exploration of the racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and the other "isms" that roil society and can roil our classrooms if we delve into these topics insensitively. When we explore these issues in the context of academic subject matter, we tie our explorations to students' lived experiences, in a less judgmental and charged way. Everyone's perspective is valued; "bias" is seen as a resource that can help each of us understand our positions in society, can help us gain some perspective on the assumptions we may blindly hold about each other.

Since positionality is the multiple, unique experiences that situate each of us in relation to each other, no one student's perspective is privileged. Rather, all are privileged, and therefore all are empowered to speak: students from minority and majority cultures can help teach each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect. When each student confronts his or her empowerment or disempowerment, privilege or lack thereof, no implicit or explicit judgment is leveled against them. No one student comes to embody the despised oppressor and no one student comes to embody the embattled oppressed. Rather, we encourage a scholarly contemplation and personal appreciation of all perspectives in a less politically loaded, less judgmental context. It is increasingly likely that students who would otherwise be marginalized will be heard, and less likely that they will be heard defensively. In my experience, if anger ensues, it is not likely to be directed at others in the class; rather, anger is channeled toward the forces of society that lead to oppression--and hence that anger is more likely to result in deeper understanding, and, I hope, informed action in the world.

Of course, during some classroom conversations, some voices might seem more relevant to the discussion, their expertise more cogent. When discussing racism, for example, students of color may help white students understand relationships between the empowered and the disempowered, between the margins and the center. These voices carry urgency: lessons are hard earned through their own lived experiences, and through their own analysis of their positionality. We also face a conundrum. In a classroom where all learn that their lived experiences lend them authority to speak on a topic, where the white student internalizes that positionality biases epistemology, then he will wish to contribute his own analyses of racism. Yet, he may dominate the conversation from his position of dominance in society. To deny that white student a voice may shut him down and help to build a barrier to genuine constructive listening; to allow that student to dominate a discussion may alienate students of color in the classroom. Here e nters the joy--and a contribution to social justice--that focusing on the positionality-epistemology connection brings. Rather than a matter for the teacher and colleagues to meditate on in academic forums, the very conundrum becomes a topic for students to mull over and discuss in the living context of the classroom. Discussing whose voice has more or less authority is part of understanding the connection between positionality and epistemology; one can better understand one's relationship to power if that analysis happens in the context of the classroom. As power relations inform every discussion in every classroom, the classroom can become a natural laboratory for analyzing and understanding those power relations.

Politics in and out of the Classroom

Examining the connections between positionality and epistemology is a fundamental part of a praxis pedagogy that my colleague Gerald Shenk and I are developing at California State University. Monterey Bay. In our classes, we ask students to work through a cycle of praxis. First, we ask them to name their own values, assumptions, and passions. They then examine these through study in the disciplines we teach, through discussions with classmates, and through constant consideration of how their positionality is biasing the epistemological claims they make. They then take intentional action in the community, either through a service learning experience, or through a Political Project.

The Political Project, developed by my colleagues at CSUMB, first asks students to define what counts as "politics." They choose a community group with whom they work to change the world in a way consonant with their values: they do politics. In our co-taught Social and Environmental History of California course, students have helped organic farmers market to the campus community; started a new social action zine; petitioned our governor to increase funding for Healthy Start; constructed middle school curricula on reproductive health; organized ecological restoration projects in local creeks; educated their soccer team about election issues; performed traditional Mexican music in fifth-grade classrooms; tried to convince the city of Santa Cruz to build artificial surf reefs; devised a plan to promote carpooling between student housing and campus; and educated women about the dangers posed by tampons, among many other projects. Throughout the semester, and in their concluding papers, students report on how the ir values have changed and reexamine their positionality and the epistemological claims about the world they now make. Through this process, we help prepare students to become ethical, effective, self-aware members of their chosen communities--be they family, social, neighborhood, political, spiritual, or even ecological communities. We help them to articulate, justify, and embody values they find meaningful without imposing our values on them. In addition, we help them to understand where those values come from, what values others hold, and how one can assert one's own values while respecting those of others.

Asking students to study how their own positionality biases their epistemology furthers the program of a liberatory pedagogy. Like Paolo Freire (1997:62), I wish to work with students to mutually achieve "emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality." Like bell hooks (1994: 19, 24), I believe that students "want knowledge that is meaningful. They rightfully expect that my colleagues and I will not offer them information without addressing the connection between what they are learning and their overall life experiences." Asking students to connect positionality and epistemology works to achieve bell hooks' desire that we help students to acquire "ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply." Rather than the teacher--the sage on the stage--acting as the sole holder of expertise to make meaning of material for the students, the teacher starts from where the students are. When students connect positionality to epistemology, we find out where they are because we ask them ! We start from a position of respect for the student, and we start from the position that students ought to respect each other's positions; we foster a comfort that students should have for their own expertise so that they respect themselves as authorities. When the teacher lectures at his students, his students can only see themselves as passive recipients of knowledge. Students are disrespected subordinates. They are not empowered to make knowledge themselves, and they are not encouraged to see their fellow students as respected sources of knowledge. Nor are they empowered to use knowledge they have created to change the world.

Those who would challenge the powerful in society face a strong backlash: witness, for example, crusades against affirmative action, bilingual education, and gay rights. By highlighting alternate claims to power, those who advocate for the marginalized highlight the structures that make dominant positionality appear to be inevitable. By showing the work invested in maintaining those positions, by naming the ideologies that are not inevitable or divinely ordained, we can look for points at which to intervene so that power and privilege may become more equitably distributed. Asking students to understand how positionality biases epistemology and how those with certain kinds of positions arrogate power can be part of an educational agenda aimed toward promoting greater social justice.

Positionality, Epistemology, and the Reflective Practitioner

As my students gnaw on how positionality biases epistemology, so do I. It is an ongoing project, peeling away the layers of my own knowledge, attempting the arduous task of seeing outside of my own position, of trying to gain a foothold from which to look at me. How do I know I am making assumptions about the world if the world only reinforces those assumptions?

As a gay, self-aware adolescent, I began to ask these questions. I developed a minor obsession with examining how the world teaches us that heterosexuality and its norms are the natural, inevitable way to be. It is imperceptible because of its banal omnipresence: it surrounds us through friends, family, advertising, politicians, culture-makers--all the forces that shape our worldviews and self-opinions, that shape our epistemological grasp on the planet around us. Moreover, it is insidious because those for whom the norms work do not ever need to even be aware that they fall subject to these norms. If you are heterosexual, you are not obliged to think about the norms and how they are shaped, because the norms work for you, and nearly every signal you receive reinforces those norms.

When I point out assumptions they make because of their heterosexuality, even my most liberated straight friends sometimes recoil because they had not realized they had anything to question. Their simple displays of public affection are not potentially life threatening; they do not risk being barred from a hospital room should their loved one become ill. No one ever challenged the norms that have always enveloped them. "Norms" are called norms for a reason. You have to first be aware that your positionality might bias your epistemology before you can conceive of a more equitable world, before you can listen to understand, before you can admit other voices and other ways of knowing the world around you. You have no choice but to continuously examine these connections if you want a fair, pluralistic society and an enlightened, expansive view of the planet around you--and this should be a major part of what education is about.

It took an embarrassingly long time before I realized how oblivious I was to my own positionality. As a white male, for example, I never had to examine my white privilege or male privilege--I had never even heard of these terms. No one challenged me to examine my privilege, and I did not need to challenge my privileges because my privileges worked for me. I do not worry about walking alone at night; I am not pulled over on the highway because of the color of my skin. I now take it as part of my work--not just as a professor, but also as a member of diverse communities--to keep examining my assumptions about the world. As a professor, I have to constantly examine power relations, to be aware that my positionality as the Ph.D. holder and grade giver can lead me to abuse my power in the classroom unless I am ever vigilant. Because of the power I hold in the classroom, my assumptions are less likely to be challenged. Things I believe are true--about the world beyond the classroom, the subject matters I teach, the students with whom I interact-- may or may not merely be a reflection of my own identity and experiences. It is only by keeping an attitude of mindfulness, a willingness to be vulnerable, a searching ear, and a constantly engaged critical consciousness that I can move and change. Only then can I really listen to what my students say. Rather than tying what they say into the latticework of my own beliefs, I can start to hear them on their own terms, to conceive of different paradigms, to judge views that may differ from my own as valid, consistent, or worth subscribing to or switching to. I even am currently considering whether my own positionality, as described above, leads me to focus on the connection between positionality and epistemology in ways that might be inappropriate or non-constructive in the classroom!

Connecting to Disparate Disciplines and Communities

It is an admittedly unscientific sample, but I have found that my male science students are more likely to have trouble connecting positionality to epistemology. I ask students to write a "theory of environmental justice" that uses scholarly investigation, service learning experiences, and positionality as evidence. During a recent semester, four male students came to me with the same problem. They could not insert a section on how their positionality biases their epistemology because they could not figure out where it fits: "It interrupts the flow." As they explained it, they are not comfortable with the possibility of the subjectivity of knowledge. They have been taught that truths are discovered irrespective of the discoverer's identity. They see themselves as unbiased conduits for reporting objectively derived facts, and are not comfortable presenting themselves as knowledge makers whose own lives count as factual evidence about the world. Their multiple privileges have made it more difficult to understan d how their positions are positions. Women and students of color, on the other hand, have thus far tended to feel liberated when allowed to show how, for example, their experiences in the world shape their views on justice. Because the positionalities of instructors bias how classrooms are constructed, women's prior educational experiences sometimes have not acknowledged the possibility that subjective, experiential knowledge is valid and necessary for fully understanding a subject matter.

You can help students connect positionality to epistemology in any academic discipline. I offer my courses in our science department, although they are about ethics, justice, history, and politics. However, any science student can study how scientific knowledge is constructed and how the scientific process works if she or he examines how what a scientist knows--or how what "science" knows--is shaped by the positionality of the scientist and the positionalities of those who have been scientists. They can examine why certain questions are asked and answered, how values shape observation, how metaphors shape understandings, and how scientists position their truths with respect to possible competing knowledge claims. Stephen Jay Gould's (1981) The Mismeasure of Man and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's (1999a) The Woman Who Never Evolved or Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (1999b) offer accessible examples of how the positionality of scientists has shaped the knowledge they have produced. Th ey can help students envision how a more self-reflective science, where its practitioners ask themselves how who they are shapes what they know, can lead to more balanced, accurate knowledge about the world. This is not merely an exercise in fairness; it is an exercise about expanding our understanding of reality, where students use their positionality to interrogate the epistemology of the discipline. Part of social justice means an academy where disciplinary theory reflects the positions of a maximum diversity of knowledge makers. Theory that does not reflect diverse positions does not abet the academy's mission of making the world more just; it merely reifies entrenched power. Maher and Tetreault (2001: 62) describe a sociology professor's reaction to student queries:

Their questions, which she took seriously, were located at the bottom of an informational hierarchy and considered in the context of the authoritative knowledge conveyed by the discipline. Students could use sociology to "think about things in terms of the context of their own lives," but they could not use their positions or concerns to critique sociology in turn. A true pedagogy of positionality recognizes that every discipline is always open to critique from the student-expert: if the theory doesn't include me, it needs to change.

No matter where they live or work, students will interact daily with people with different perspectives, whose positionalities bias their Worldviews in profoundly different ways. Education can have no more crucial function than to help students to function most productively and joyously in their communities, to commit themselves to working for a more just society. This means learning to listen with open minds and hearts, learning to respect different ways of knowing the world borne of different identities and experiences, and learning to examine and reexamine one's own worldviews. These skills also seem requisite for the reflective practitioner of the teaching craft. When we constantly engage to understand how our positionality biases our epistemology, we greet the world with respect, interact with others to explore and cherish their differences, and live life with a fuller sense of self as part of a web of community. (2)


(1.) All students whose work I have cited here have given me permission to use their work and use their names. I thank them for their contributions!

(1.) Larry Carbone, Gerald Shenk, Dan Shapiro, Cecilia O'Leary, and an anonymous reviewer offered helpful comments on this essay. Thanks to them!


Freire, Paolo 1997 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1981 The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Hardin, Garrett 1974 "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor." Psychology Today (September): 38-43, 124-126.

Harding, Sandra

1992 "After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics, and 'Strong Objectivity."' Social Research 59: 567-87.

hooks, bell

1994 Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer

1999a The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

1999b Mother Nature: A History of Mothers. Infants, and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon Books.

Maher, Frances A. and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault

2001 The Feminist Classroom: Dynamics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Makau, Josina M. and Debian L. Marty

2001 Cooperative Argumentation: A Model for Deliberative Community. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Publishing.

Wineburg, Sam

2001 Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

DAVID TAKACS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Systems Science and Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay (e-mail:, where he teaches courses in the Environmental Humanities. He was a 2000-2001 Carnegie Fellow for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning where he (with colleague Gerald Shenk) focused on designing effective pedagogies to help students become ethical, effective, self-aware members of the civic and political lives of their communities. They will be continuing this work in 2003-2004 as part of the Carnegie Foundation's Political Engagement Project. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Thought and Action (Fall 2002).
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Author:Takacs, David
Publication:Social Justice
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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