Objectivity

Via Wikimedia Commons

Many students come to college believing that academic writing is objective writing, or is supposed to be, and if it’s not, it’s “biased,” which is another way of saying “bad” or “useless.”

There is no such thing as objective writing.

If something is authored, then that human author’s stamp is somehow on the material, if only in the selection and organization of it (even texts authored by computer are ultimately products of the software, which was engineered by a human being, who made choices and set priorities!).

The best we can do, as writers, is to indicate to the reader explicitly what it is in our texts that comes out of our own heads, what is the opinion of other authors cited in our own work, and what is reasoned conclusion or a direct report of data (and with the latter you explain how you derived your data and chose what to share).

Best of all, we can identify and examine our own assumptions about our material, and when appropriate tell our readers what these assumptions are. We can mention that there are other factors or opinions which we have chosen not to go into, and we can say why. (Often, such things are legitimately beyond the scope of your essay, but by telling your reader you are aware that these other factors exist and have made a conscious decision to exclude them — for reasons you briefly explain — then you allow them to trust that you are, in fact, in control of your essay and have done your research. Going through these steps makes your reader more likely to trust you with the main points of your argument, as well.)

In other words, the best we can do as subjective, human authors is to acknowledge our subjectivity, to note our biases and assumptions and to factor them explicitly into our writing. Attempting the impossible task of writing objectively can be more misleading than accepting our bias and moving on.

Yet I often see student papers watered down to the point where no analysis is left at all — in some cases, I know the student had interesting and relevant ideas about the material, and I have asked why it wasn’t on the page. This is when I hear, “I thought that’s just my opinion, so it doesn’t belong in the paper.”

Analysis is a form of opinion — a very specific form that is based on evidence, in which you explain exactly how you reasoned from your evidence to form your opinion. Analysis is what we want.

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