Student Subjectivism

Curtis Allen

What follows is extremely informal, and it is based on nearly two decades of reading college freshman papers. I am writing at the end of 2013 as I get ready to teach two different second-semester English courses, one at Ashland University and the other at North Central State College. Both courses have major research papers as part of the core curriculum, so they share the problem of writing for an academic audience.

Basic Writing Challenges

Besides the obvious problems of language level (Contractions are just barely acceptable; words like wanna and gonna are not.) and persona (Are you writing as the professor's best buddy? Are you the counselor who will solve the professor's deepest personal issues? Or are you going to scream in the professor's face like one of the presenters on "Fox News"?) you need to solve the basic question of how you prove things.

Many of my students have been poorly taught (or have learned poorly), so they have no habit of actually looking things up. High school teachers assigned papers that were mainly reports of the student's feelings. The Internet teems with the most foolish urban legends that claim to be true. Television news has lost its commitment to truth-telling passion: in the old days of Walter Cronkite, the news would not go live with a claim unless there were four independent sources verifying it, but now a bunch of Reddit witch hunters is enough to disrupt the life of Sunil Tripathi, whose only crime was a slight physical similarity to the actual Boston Marathon bomber (Chang).

Now, living in a world that operates entirely on emotions rather than facts, you are asked to write an academic paper that is based on facts. Here are some of your challenges:

1. How do you feel about this?

As I thumb through textbooks looking for suggested writing assignments, "How do you feel?" topics are surprisingly common. I suspect most of your high school writing was about your own feelings too. They are easy to write because you don't have to visit a library—you are quite literally writing off the top of your head. Nobody can disagree with you because it's silly to respond to a paper with "No, you don't feel that way after all."

The problems with feeling essays are that they don't make you any smarter (because you aren't adding any information to your own brain as you prepare to write them) and they don't make anyone else any smarter either (because nobody in the academic world cares much about your uninformed opinions). You can have feelings about Obama's citizenship or wind power on the island of Samsø without knowing (or investigating) a single fact.

2. Teacher politics

You may have had a high school teacher who graded your papers according to whether you agreed with his/her politics—and in some countries student papers are primarily a way to gauge the student's orthodoxy. Writing such a paper becomes an exercise in second-guessing the teacher's affiliations; getting a good grade from this sort of teacher involves stroking the teacher's prejudices.

That pandering is not nearly so likely in a college atmosphere. Yes, there are certain orthodoxies. If you write a paper claiming, for example, that some races are intellectually inferior to others, you had better be prepared for very close questioning about your data. Bell Curve attempted to argue this point, but the right answer to the book's claim is not "I don't agree" or "I don't like it," but Gould's evaluation of the presuppositions and methodology of the study.

In this college (and certainly in my courses) you are not graded on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, a Christian, Jew or Muslim. You are graded according to your ability to present evidence, discuss its relevance, and do the whole project with a fairly mature writing style.

3. Arrogance

About twice a year, I get students who come in with an attitude that says, "Nobody like YOU is ever going to teach ME anything whatsoever!" Perhaps this attitude has been fed by all those terrible ads you see on the Internet ("Your dentist is lying to you") or by Fox News ("Everyone in public office is always wrong"). Some people have told me that the main point of college is to undermine a student's religious faith. Some students have told me that anything in print is—by definition—a lie. And it is pretty obvious to some students that an aging white male cannot possibly say anything worth hearing. The papers written by this sort of person are an over-the-top misreading of Protagoras: He said that man (humankind) is the measure of all things, but this writer asserts, "I, personally, am the measure of all things," so obviously this writer's thoughts settle all argument.

Obviously, if any of these attitudes describes you, then you are going to have a terrible time writing in college (and it does raise the question why you came here in the first place).

Philosophical Challenges

First Hand Experience as a Source of Knowledge

This is a variety of radical subjective empiricism. If the arrogant person has misread Pythagoras, this one has misread John Locke, who said that the only knowledge humans can have is a posteriori, i.e., based upon experience ("Empiricism"). But while Locke was willing to accumulate the observations of others (and thus became the father of the Scientific Method), this person has to see everything for himself or herself.

The problem with student first-hand experience is that it's limited and that truth sometimes goes against our intuition. One common example is the notion that removing a pickup truck's tailgate improves gas mileage. Wind tunnel experiments show that removing the tailgate (or replacing it with a mesh tailgate) makes the gas mileage much worse (Cooper), but it would be tough to sell that idea to the average truck owner. It just seems right to remove that tailgate.

Sometimes first-hand experience can help you get a tricky concept. If you are having trouble understanding the Doppler effect, you could do what Doppler did: stand at a railroad crossing listening to the train's air horn change note as it passes you. Often, though, depending on your own experience is simply misleading, as Blythe McVicker Clinchy found when she interviewed one of her freshman students:

“It is said that the earth goes around the sun,” Kim said. “I don’t have any proof. It's written in books — sure. But the person who wrote it in books could have been misinformed.” (15)

Clinchy asked fifteen seniors in her seminar on Psychological Development in Adulthood to comment, and (aside from being astonished that anyone as ignorant as Kim could get into their college) the best they could suggest was to get a teacher to explain it again. Unfortunately, for someone like Kim, that won't work; she's been trained to disbelieve anything she has not experienced directly, so firing her into orbit really is the only way to convince her of the heliocentric theory¹ of the solar system. Her devotion to subjectivism has insulated her from ever learning anything in college.


I've been told, repeatedly, and usually in the introduction to an extended definition paper, that it's really impossible to to know anything or to define any word, so we should just go with whatever the student has to say. The student resembles Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn't mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

This radical agnosticism—the idea that nobody can ever know or define anything—is a perversion of the writing of Immanuel Kant (or perhaps Nietzsche). You should notice, though, that even the most radical agnostic will eat lunch. For the purposes of this course, you don't gain any points by claiming that knowledge and definition are impossible unless you are willing to work through the epistemology and engage in a conversation with philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

For the record (full disclosure here) I am much more of an empiricist, deeply influenced by the rationalism of Augustine. The argument that "there's really nothing out there" always seemed like a dead end to me.


A little humility

The great thinkers (Galileo, da Vinci, etc.) who shook the foundations of the established world of intellectuals were not, as a rule, at the very beginning of their academic careers. They had done their homework, usually in Latin and Greek, and sometimes (in the case of the later philosophers) in French and German. You need to know what everyone else is saying before you can add anything to the conversation. Get used to it. You are a junior member of the academic world.

A lot of sweat

Any real marksman can tell you that shooting from the hip means you don't hit much. You need to put in your time, listen to the experts.

One student wrote this agentless passive voice sentence:

To be considered “poor,” a person would have to have no income coming in.

That's pretty sloppy because it side-steps the question "by whom?" Not by the reader of the paper, because I have known a number of people whose income simply didn't pay all the bills. Not by the U.S. Government because the Federal Poverty Guidelines say that a single-person family with an income of $11,490 is "poor." No, what the student really meant was "I think that anyone who has any income whatsoever cannot be defined as 'poor' so I'll make that a foundational statement in my paper." She needed to do more homework.

By the way, in the "A Lot of Sweat" category, look to the bottom of this handout. The point of a Works Cited page is to show how outside sources undergird the material in the current paper. It would have been easier to simply do a blog blast about student writing, but that would have proven little.

Balancing act: Plagiarism versus originality

The Purdue OWL discusses the odd balancing act that all American college writers face: We are expected to come up with original material and thinking BUT we are expected to stand on the shoulders of the scholars who have come before us. It's an odd and difficult problem, but the solution is not to retreat into "I think that" any more than it is to retreat into copying the work of others and presenting it as your own.

Are you entitled to your opinions?

Yes, after you know what you are talking about. An informed opinion, resulting from critical thinking, is what we're aiming at here. (By the way, this is what's wrong with the majority of "opinion" you hear on television or the Internet—the mouth engages before the brain. People who do not know, for example, the statistics on unemployment have no business giving their opinion on a government policy concerning joblessness.)

One last blast: clichés

Student subjectivism has generated its own class of language—much of it very hackneyed. You would do well to avoid both the language and the underlying concepts.

to me
This, of course, is the classic announcement that we will not get anything except the author's gut reactions. It has become an ossified cliché, so it has lost its grammar and we get some truly amazing statements as a result:

People who do these things to me are truly educated people.

the author was trying to say
This is both a mind-reading exercise on the part of the student and an assertion that the student is superior to the author—obviously the poor, pathetic author couldn't get the words out, but this student has cracked the code.

in my opinion I think that
Amazing: we are about to read about your opinion concerning your thoughts. These subjective buzz-words often get a bit overdone, don't they?

it is generally known that
Yes, there is something known as common knowledge. (Lincoln was the 16th President; John Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic President.) Do not, however, use this passive-voice agentless statement as a shield for your own unsupported opinions. It is NOT generally known that the Illuminati control the Federal Reserve. In fact, it's probably not true, and bludgeoning us with "generally known that" doesn't relieve you of the task of producing evidence for your assertions.

Works Cited

"2013 Federal Poverty Guidelines." Advocacy Tools. Families USA, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013. <>.

"Avoiding Plagiarism." Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). Purdue University, 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <>.

Carroll, Lewis. "Through the Looking-Glass." Project Gutenberg. N.p., 8 Jan. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <>.

Chang, Andrea. "Reddit Apologizes for Fueling Boston Bombings Online Witch Hunts." Featured Articles from the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2013. <>.

Clinchy, Blythe McVicker. "Beyond Subjectivism." Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 34.1 (2009): 15-31. The Polanyi Society. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <>.

Cooper, K. "Pickup Truck Aerodynamics - Keep Your Tailgate Up." SAE Technical Papers. SAE International, 8 Mar. 2004. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <>.

"Empiricism", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 December 2013, 04:26 UTC, Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <>

Gould, Steven Jay. "Mismeasure by Any Measure." Human Intelligence: The Bell Curve. Ed. Brian Beatty. Indiana University, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <>.

Herrnstein, Richard, and Charles Murray. Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994. Print.

Poster, Carol. "Protagoras." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., 27 Apr. 2005. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <>.

¹That word theory often causes trouble. When an academic writer uses it, the meaning is not "anybody's guess is as good as anybody else's." Academic writers like to reserve the word proof for abstract, established facts (2 + 2 = 4) and theory for the explanatory critical thinking that draws observations together.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University or North Central State College
Revised 7/22/14 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: