The place we speak from: Negotiating positionality in higher education

As researchers who produce new knowledge, and as educators who communicate and build learning communities around systems of knowledge, we always speak from a particular position. This position is constructed by and through the various intersections that make up our identity, including our experience of gender, class, race, age, and ability (Crenshaw, 2017). 

At the recent Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia (HERDSA) conference in Melbourne, I noticed positionality recur as a concern across a number of presentations. Multiple presenters commenced their talks by acknowledging their positionality as researchers, and in other talks the concept was implicit.

So, what is it?

“Positionality” (Jacobson & Mustafa, 2019) refers to the idea that our identities emerge from specific social structures and that these structures influence or construct our position as a speaker (Hayes, 2021). In a research context, to acknowledge one’s positionality might involve the researcher stating the various intersections of identity that they experience, along with a reflection on how this may construct particular privileges or disadvantages that could feed into their research in conscious or unconscious ways (Montgomery, 2014).

Acknowledging positionality also involves an implicit critique of the positivist conception of an ‘objective’ and dispassionate researcher. Recognising positionality brings into focus the levels of social access (that is, the spaces we can move through and why) that work to define the parameters of engagement in how we conduct research. At its core, this is a reckoning with the position from which we approach the production and communication of knowledge as individuals, and on organisational and social levels. This reckoning can reveal the way in which the position we speak from has capacity to transform approaches, processes and outcomes around that knowledge production. 

A case in point

One of the sessions at the HERDSA conference that got me thinking about positionality was Professor Michelle Trudgett’s keynote, titled “Redesigning landscapes architects overlooked: Indigenous Australians (re)creating spaces in the higher education sector”. Professor Trudgett, who is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Leadership at Western Sydney University, discussed her research into the historical contexts and recent trends influencing Indigenous Australians’ participation in higher education – both as students and as organisational leaders.

Professor Trudgett presented data detailing the rates of degree attainment by Indigenous Australians over the decades, revealing a distressing gap in participation in higher education for this country’s First Nations peoples (Trudgett, 2015; Page, Trudgett & Sullivan, 2017). We learned how this gap has the knock-on effect of creating challenges in securing much-needed Indigenous leadership and senior executive positions in the higher education landscape (Trudgett, Page & Coates, 2020). In the audience discussion that followed, a call was made to conference attendees to advocate for more Indigenous senior executive opportunities in our sector. Attendees were asked to look at the management structures in their faculties and, if no Indigenous leadership positions exist, to ask why not?

Along with this work to be carried out on an organisational level, a simple individual action was suggested: that Coordinators audit their reading lists to analyse how many Indigenous scholars are represented.

Are there diverse perspectives included in your learning materials? How might your own positionality influence whose work you choose to share with students?

Such questions resonate with broader discussions around “decolonising” curriculums and embedding Indigenous knowledges in Australian higher education (Harvey & Russell-Mundine, 2019). Acknowledging individual positionality – and how this can affect our teaching and research practices – might be one step on the way to orienting our Universities to be more inclusive of diverse ways of knowing. A resource that might support with this task at the University of Sydney is the Library’s recently launched Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resources collection. This collection highlights content produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples, or related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics.

Another useful resource is this blog post by Christine Harrington that presents some helpful prompting questions, along with practical suggestions, for educators seeking to reflect on their positionality in relation to their role as an instructor with a view to improving student success.

Positionality matters

One of my takeaways from the HERDSA conference was that conversations about positionality matter. More and more scholars in education are bringing these discussions to the table. Re-assessing learning materials or research citations through this lens can be confronting work to undertake, potentially precipitating a questioning of deeply held assumptions. Yet the lineages of knowledge that we produce and reproduce in our reading and reference lists, also produce power effects in the world. We can choose the world we want to bring into being by choosing which voices we actively enable in the conversation, and whose are left out.


Image: Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Published by jessica tyrrell

humble educator | radical creativity | critical curiosity

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