Positive Ambiguity

In “Racisms, Heterosexisms, and Identities: A Semiotic Phenomenology of Self-Understanding”, Jacqueline M. Martinez (2003) discusses what happened to her when she began to read This Bridge Called my Back:

“I suddenly lifted my eyes, straightened my back and pushed myself away from my desk. The  sense of recognition was overwhelming. I was stopped. I was frozen. The words reverberated through my body. I had to get up and get away. I remember pacing the floor of my apartment, moving things around, moving in a seemingly aimless way. But, make no mistake about it, I was directed. I had crossed a point of no return, and a new field of possibility (and danger) had emerged before my eyes…I knew the texts were demanding that I interrogate the exact life circumstances in which I had come to think, feel, see, experience, and act in the ways I had” [italics in original].

For me, these are rupturing experiences, because I can’t go back to where or who I was before. For students these moments can be experiences of “positive ambiguity.” According to Martinez (2003) positive ambiguity occurs when students, through engagement with the course material, “see things they had never seen before, and new possibilities for understanding themselves and others emerge” (p. 117).

I have been talking a lot with fellow graduate students about how to address racisms, sexisms, ableisms, and so forth when they come up in the classroom, particularly with white, male-identified students. Rather than receiving the course material with openness and accepting the invitation to “interrogate the exact life circumstances in which [they] had come to think, feel, see, experience, and act” in the world, many white students become defensive, closed, and angry during discussions about power and difference.

As teachers in training we must ask, how can we facilitate positive ambiguity in the classroom, while troubling systems of power and domination?


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