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2.1 Considering your own subjectivity

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss how analysis does not lead to definitive answers but rather to subjective impressions.
  2. Discuss how our points of view are influenced by our connections, values and experiences.
  3. Introduce the reading/observation journal as a means of initially exploring our reactions.

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 110.

Kenneth Burke

This often quoted parable reveals how history functions as an on-going conversation, a conversation that we’re invited to participate in during the time we have on earth. Likewise, when we write an analysis of a subject, we should see ourselves as participating in a discussion on it, one that will continue long after we’ve handed in our essays. Just as it’s unlikely that what we have to say will be the last word, so we should not allow others to have the final say either. Of course, there isn’t just one conversation that goes on in our lives; instead we are involved every day in several discussions, and they all influence each other. Because we do not begin any analysis as a blank slate, we first need to understand why we see a subject in a certain way, by considering how past discussions and experiences inform our reactions.

None of us are raised in a vacuum: our friends, our teachers, and our families influence our beliefs, tastes, and judgments. Though sometimes we may disagree with their perspectives (especially those of our parents), we can never completely escape from them. Likewise, our broader culture exerts a heavy influence. For instance, although you might enjoy shows like South Park or Family Guy that satirize the American family, you might not have liked them if you were alive (and able to see them) in the 1950s when Americans were more celebratory and less critical of themselves. In addition, personal experiences strongly inform our reactions. At some time, we have all heard a sappy song about a person getting his or her heart broken and wanted to scream at the singer to get over it, only to hear the same song again after being freshly dumped and feeling as though it now penetrates our soul.

This holds true not only for works of art and fiction but also for writing that reveal the author’s intentions more directly, such as editorials, documentaries, and essays. For one, we may disagree as to whether the author’s stated purpose is the only reason behind the piece. If, for instance, I were to write an editorial arguing that the government should spend more money on education to make it more accessible to the poor and bring about greater cultural literacy, I know what my friends and family would say: “Yeah, right, Randy; you just want a raise.” And even if everyone were to agree that the author has sincerely stated the purpose of the piece, the effect of that purpose will vary from person to person due to the different experiences, morals, and beliefs that shape each individual’s unique perspective. For instance, a Michael Moore documentary that is critical of American business practices may leave one person (who just received a promotion) seething at him for trying to tear down established institutions, while another viewer (who just got downsized) may applaud Moore for bravely calling our attention to an injustice that needs to be rectified.

I am not bringing this up to suggest that when you prepare to write you should wipe your mind clear of any potential bias. “Objectivity” is an ideal that is largely unattainable, for we all see the world through our own subjective lenses. This is why we need to first acknowledge, understand, and evaluate our subjectivity, especially as it relates to the subject of our analysis. To consider why you react to something as you do, I recommend that when reading a text, viewing a show, listening to a song or recalling an experience, you take the time to pause periodically and record your thoughts in a reading/observation journalA journal for recording your observations or notes about a given subject and your initial responses to the details.. Your responses will vary in length and type, but should essentially consist of two parts: first summarize what you encounter (if it’s a written or visual text, mark the page number or DVD chapter so you can find it again), and then write your reaction to it. The advantage to keeping a reading/observation journal is that it allows you to reflect on your subject as you examine it. Though you might think pausing to write in a journal will take away from experiencing or enjoying your subject, it may actually help you to encounter it more fully. When a piece inspires a particular thought, your mind may wander through its implications even as you continue reading or viewing, causing you to overlook important details. The journal allows you to pause and record your considerations and then return to your focus with greater attention. On the following page are a few examples of reading observation journal entries for an analysis of a book, a business report, and a travel essay.

Response to Virginia Woolf’s Essay “A Room of One’s Own”

p. 5 Wolfe claims that she had to “kill the Angel of the House” before she felt the freedom to engage in her own writing. She clearly associates this phrase with the expectations laid out for women in this period.

This seems a bit dated to me. Most of the couples I know split the household chores. I also know that I would not like it if my girlfriend asked me to do all the dishes for the next two weeks so she could write.

p. 7 Wolfe also points out that to write anything worthwhile we need to have a “room of one’s own”, free from distractions or expectations.

I would love to have a room of my own, but unfortunately as a student living in Southern California, I can’t afford one. And there are plenty of distractions: My roommate’s TV, the passing traffic, the cat that keeps jumping up on my lap. She’s so aware of the problems with gender, she isn’t thinking about social…

Business Report on Buddies, a Family Restaurant Chain

Quarterly Profits were up by 10% on the Lincoln and Elm location, but down over 5% at the Broadway and Fourth location.

Of course several factors could allow for this. The management team at L&E is more competent, but they are also located in a family neighborhood. B&F is more gentrified and customers want something more upscale.

A suggestion was made at board meeting on 12/7 to increase advertising for B&F location and possibly bring in new management.

I doubt either plan will have much success, other family restaurants tried the same thing but failed in that area. Best scenario is to shut down and move to a more family friendly neighborhood, and then consider…

Travel Journal for a Week in Paris

June 23, 8 p.m. Sitting across the coffee shop from me are two Americans, asking for soymilk. The waiter clearly looks confused, so they repeat their request more loudly. The waiter simply walks away, leaving the Americans to comment, “It’s true what they say about the French being rude.”

Why don’t more Americans understand not everybody should speak English and that raising your voice does not help? I made an effort to order in French and the waiter was very nice to me. Another example of how we create and believe our stereotypes.

June 24, 3 p.m. Amazing view from top of Eiffel Tower, the city stretches on as far as you can see in every direction.

On further reflection, however, I preferred the quieter places in the city. I loved the hidden restaurants, the small art galleries, the…

As you can see from these examples, what you write at this point will probably not appear in your finished draft, at least not verbatim. In this chapter and the next two, I encourage you to write in a more exploratory fashion, using your pen or keyboard to discover and develop your perspectives before you present them more formally. Your initial responses should take the form of freewritingA type of writing that comes out as a stream of thoughts unencumbered by grammar, spelling, or a fear of where it is heading., writing that comes out as a stream of thoughts unencumbered by grammar, spelling, or a fear of where it is heading. In addition to freewriting, we will look at several other exercises and heuristicsProcedures, like freewriting, that help writers to discover their ideas., which are discovery procedures, that will help to get you started—but always remember that if you do not take the time to explore your ideas, then your final draft will most likely seem obvious and boring, no matter how much you polish the structure or style.

Exercise

Get a hold of a journal, notebook, or pad, and write “Reading/Observation Journal” on the front cover. Make your first entry about one of the subjects you’re examining for your first essay. Divide the pages between left and right; on the left side, write down what you do, and on the right side, record comments. Your comments might be about what you like/dislike about the subject, how it seems odd or justifiable, how it emerges from social pressures and/or policies, and whether it’s inevitable, modifiable, or avoidable. Make a separate journal for each of your classes and use it to comment on all of your assignments.

Key Takeaways

  • Writing about a subject when you first consider it can help you to formulate a point of view and save time down the road.
  • Your initial considerations do not have to be stated formally or definitively—they can be tentative and exploratory.
  • A consideration of the various implications of a subject results in more original, thoughtful assertions.