The ‘interpretive turn’ has taken hold in recent decades as a research approach across empirical social science. What these approaches share is ‘an overarching appreciation for the centrality of meaning in human life in all its aspects and a reflexivity on scientific practices related to meaning making and knowledge claims’ (Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2014: xiv). Whereas the contributions of interpretive research and interpretive research methods are clear and well established, the literature on interpretive research hardly touches upon the question of whether an interpretive perspective lends itself to – or even demands – a particular style of teaching.
This question lay at the heart of a roundtable discussion we organised at the 9th annual Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) International Conference, held at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, in 2014. This session followed on another organised by the second author at the previous year’s conference. The IPA conference attracts scholars from a wide range of disciplines, drawing largely from public policy studies, but also from public administration, organisational studies, political science, anthropology, environmental studies, food and health policy and science and technology studies. Participants represent universities and research institutes from dozens of countries on six continents. Interpretive policy scholars apply interpretive and critical theories and methodologies to understand various dimensions of policy-making processes and practices, including policy contestation and policy implementation, in a variety of regional, national and local contexts and substantive fields. Common approaches include framing analysis, various forms of discourse analysis, narrative analysis and feminist analysis, among many others.
The starting point of the roundtable was our shared belief that it does, indeed, make sense to think about teaching ‘interpretively’. But what might that mean? How does it differ from other ways of teaching? What ‘lessons learned’ can we glean from our varied experiences as interpretive researchers which might be productively applied to interpretive teaching? What are the primary objectives of this approach to teaching, and do these objectives differ from those of more ‘traditional’ approaches? Does an interpretive approach change the respective roles of teachers and students, their self-understandings or their relationships? Might this approach be applicable for some sorts of students, courses and subjects, but not for others? And what is ‘good’ teaching in an interpretive mode? These are the sorts of questions we were asking ourselves and which participants raised in the session.
This essay begins with our understanding of the defining characteristics of an interpretive perspective. It then reviews the focal points of our roundtable discussion, with a special emphasis on our own reflections on our individual teaching experiences. With hopes of provoking a wider conversation, we conclude the essay with an invitation to others to respond.
As a starting point, we consider ‘teaching interpretively’ as the application of interpretive methods and methodologies to teaching. Interpretive methodologies and their attendant methods draw on ideas that derive from phenomenology and hermeneutics and some critical theory, with echoes in pragmatism, symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology (Yanow 2014). From phenomenology come three key ideas: the place of a priori knowledge, intersubjective knowing and situated or contextual knowledge. Phenomenologists focus on making meaning of events, acts or situations, ‘bracketing’ the phenomenon itself and looking, instead, at sense-making (consider, for example, the work of Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schütz; see Berger and Luckmann 1966). By contrast with positivist philosophies, phenomenologists argue that the world cannot be apperceived directly through sense data alone. Instead, something intervenes between senses and sense-making – a lens, a frame, a paradigm, a weltanschauung or worldview – that shapes the meaning we attribute to what we observe. This ‘filter’ develops out of our prior knowledge, education and experience. Meaning-making is not infinite, however, because we live in interaction with one another within societal-cultural contexts, and in and through those interactions we develop an intersubjectively shared understanding of the world around us – the common sense, everyday, unspoken and unwritten, in part tacitly known ‘rules of engagement’ that enable us to navigate our lives.
Hermeneutics contributes the idea of interpretive or epistemic communities of knowers: a group whose members share a set of rules for interpreting the objects of their study, and the set of rules themselves. Originally drawn from (often contested) interpretations of biblical texts, these ideas were extended to other sorts of texts and, in social scientific applications, ‘text analogues’ (Taylor  1979; see also Ricoeur 1971) by scholars such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans Georg Gadamer. As we create the artefacts (language, objects and acts) that populate our lives, we embed within them what is meaningful to us (values, beliefs, feelings), in a representational or symbolic relationship. Each time we use one of these artefacts, we re-instantiate its meanings – although here is where change is also possible. Symbolic meanings are shared within interpretive communities, but not necessarily across different communities. As they accommodate multiple meanings, symbolic artefacts need to be investigated for what is meaningful in any given situation. The hermeneutic circle, an important element of hermeneutics, captures the idea that parts and wholes only have meaning in relation to one another. As many have noted, the hermeneutic ‘circle’ is more spiral than circle, as one does not, in fact, return to the precise point of departure in (re)creating meaning. This circle-spiral idea also reflects the interpretive learning process: one learns from what one knows as much as from what one does not yet know. Interpretive understanding ‘moves forward in time in a continual process toward deeper and richer understanding’ (Bentz and Shapiro 1998: 170).
From pragmatism, interpretive thinking draws the idea of inquiry being sparked abductively by a puzzle or surprise. The inquiry is context-specific (this puzzle), and, like the hermeneutic circle-spiral, inquiry is iterative and recursive. Critical theory adds the dimensions of power-sensitive inquiry and an attention to silent, and silenced, discourses. Symbolic interaction and ethnomethodology offer other versions of these several ideas.
We surmised that these ideas can, and do, inform not only research practices but teaching practices as well, and we set about designing the conference session to think more explicitly about the character of these practices with others who, we thought, might share similar interests.
Our respective experiences and interests
While each of us came to the question of teaching interpretively with different teaching experiences (e.g. more and less seniority; European and U.S. contexts; graduate and undergraduate students; working in public administration, public policy, political science and organisational studies departments), we shared a strong interest in launching a conversation that might speak to, and with, a wide and diverse range of teachers. Here, each of us takes up the particular set of interests he or she brought to the table.
At the time of the conference, I was an assistant professor in my fourth year of teaching in a master’s programme of public administration. My research focuses on the ways interpretive practices (framing, discourse, narrative) influence policy-making processes. I am also interested in the ways civic organisations organise citizens (broadly speaking) to influence public policy. I teach about these topics. When Richard Holtzman invited us to think about what teaching interpretively means for us, I began by contemplating the ways I bring my skills and practices as an interpretive researcher into the classroom and how I might be more intentional about using them to create ‘practices of freedom’. I had picked up a book by bell hooks called Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994). I wanted to understand more about what she meant by this intriguing title and whether teaching interpretively could be a part of teaching as a practice of freedom. I have had a sense that I wanted to shift my teaching in a way that would be more dynamic, engaged and liberating, while still trying to understand what this would mean in practice. I wanted to draw on my practices as an interpretive researcher, and on what I could learn from bell hooks’s book, to see if I could better understand what types of interpretive teaching practices might be liberating for students and myself, what types might be less so, and how continually to open up space for problem solving in the classroom that can handle complexity and contradiction.
My engagement with the idea of teaching interpretively was stimulated by a shift in perspective. Rather than asking, ‘What do my American Politics students need to know?’ I have begun to ask: ‘What do my students need to be able to do?’ Unlike the straightforward delivery of course content, the development of skills and aptitudes (for example, innovative and adaptable thinking, organisational design, critical thinking, information literacy, data analysis and communication) cannot be served up by instructors and consumed by students. These must be practised. But how can practices be taught? Perhaps the answer lies in an instructional approach derived from and grounded in the concepts and processes of interpretive thinking. To explore this idea, I sought to adapt five components of an interpretive approach by reconceiving teaching as a form of practice that is: (1) problem- or puzzle-driven, rather than theory- or methods-driven; (2) developed from the student’s own prior knowledge; (3) practical in its orientation and presentation; (4) driven by an open-ended, iterative learning process built around doubt, discovery, failure, reflection and repetition; and (5) aimed towards contextual meaning-making, rather than generalisation. To assess the application of this approach to undergraduate teaching and learning, during the fall 2013 semester I prototyped a new curriculum in my senior undergraduate seminar for Politics and Law majors. My hope is that such experiments might contribute to, and perhaps widen, the conversation about skills-based teaching and learning.
I have been teaching for a little over ten years, mostly first-year undergraduates in Public Administration and mostly courses in qualitative methods and organisational theory. While working on my PhD I did quite a bit of teaching. I did not receive much training in teaching. I developed, as I think many practitioners do, my own ways of going about it: trying out things, talking to colleagues and students, and occasionally reading texts, in order to become a better practitioner. Some years ago, I started to think through the way I teach, being unsatisfied with what I was doing and gaining more interest in what motivates students to show up to class, to read the assigned material beforehand and so on. The roundtable helped me to explore the relationship between doing research and teaching. Preparing for it, I asked myself, ‘What elements of interpretivism call for a certain kind of teaching?’ and ‘What teaching principles might those elements suggest?’ A tentative answer to the first question would be (1) an interest in meaning-making practices coupled with a sensitivity to local knowledge and contexts, (2) an iterative, cyclical, abductive way of working towards results (that is, starting from a surprise or a puzzle, a moment when expectations and experience clash, rather than from an inductive or deductive approach) and (3) an interest in the socio-political construction of knowledge, joined with a modesty towards our own products and a critical stance towards the powers that be.
In teaching a range of courses in the fields of public policy, organisational studies and research methods, predominately (but not exclusively) for ‘returning’ (that is, older adult) undergraduate and graduate students, in the U.S.A., Europe and elsewhere, I have thought on and off over some thirty years about some of the ways in which teaching may be informed by an interpretive orientation. The link between interpretive research and interpretive teaching is not determinative: it is, indeed, possible for people to conduct their research in ways consistent with interpretive philosophical-methodological principles, while teaching in ways that are informed by other presuppositions. Still, I believe there is something distinctive about an ‘interpretive’ mode of teaching. For me, this is the antithesis of the authoritarian, ‘my way or the highway’ mode of teaching that characterised significant arenas of my own formal and non-formal educational experiences. That means, for me, first and foremost, treating students as equals-in-humanity (enacting Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ relationship). In practice, this means trying to hear and understand students’ ‘local knowledge’; being open to multiple possible interpretations of what we are discussing; decentring my expertise and authority in the classroom, therefore, in order to make room for their own expertise in their own lives and ways of thinking; and being open myself to ongoing learning. Some of this orientation I absorbed from theorist-practitioners whose thinking I encountered while working towards my Master’s degree: Paolo Freire (for example, 1970), who advocated for decentring authority and expertise by starting with what his students knew (a hermeneutic principle); phenomenologist Carl Rogers (1980), whose client-centred psychotherapy focused on figuring out what was on his patients’ minds, rather than imposing his own meaning on what they told him; and William Perry (1970), whose research revealed the hidden curriculum of undergraduate education which worked to move first-year students from their absolute beliefs in a world of blacks and whites to more variegated beliefs in a world of mottled greys, an idea I re-encountered later in feminist standpoint theories (for example, Harding 1987). Taken together, these works suggest that ‘interpretive’ instructors might design curricula in ways intended to help students come to know and articulate their own tacit knowledge and to support their developmental shifts, including assigning work that asks students to draw on their own experiences and which challenges assumptions about objective and universal knowledge claims.
Reflections on what it means to teach interpretively
Is teaching interpretively the same practice as researching interpretively? This might mean honing listening skills, engaging in explicit co-creation of ‘reality’, and searching for understanding. It may also mean appreciating local knowledge(s) and perspectives and iteratively processing analysis and engaging in knowledge creation, all of which are orientations used in interpretive research. Looking across our individual reflections (in the previous section) and building on the discussions we had at the roundtable with a wider group of colleagues, we suggest three general themes regarding the practice of teaching interpretively.
An engagement with context, appreciation for local knowledge and focus on meaning are cornerstones of interpretive research. Interpretive teaching would, then, mean stimulating student interest in these three orientations. Teaching interpretively, we posit, would also involve valuing students’ own knowledge(s), backgrounds and prior experiences and seeking to draw on these in linking to course topics. What students might bring to a classroom is not just formal knowledge picked up in educational environments, but also other kinds of knowledge derived from experiential and other forms of knowing, all of which can be valuable in classroom interactions, serving as potentially interesting material to work with. Teaching interpretively might also translate into a teaching programme that would allow students to explore their worlds abductively, like interpretive researchers. This would mean creating the time, space and opportunities to try out different approaches and ideas and to experience how learning involves actively engaging with what is being learned. It might include providing students with guidance and a safe space to discover, fail, reflect and repeat their way through individually selected research projects. Finally, teaching itself could become a constant searching for new ways of working, with the risk (or advantage) of putting both the teacher and the students on unstable ground.
bell hooks says, ‘Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary,’ but it can be ‘when we ask that it [fulfil this function] and direct our theorizing towards this end’ (1994: 61). hooks identifies a link here between the act of theorising and the experience of liberation. The implication is that efforts to engage students in theorising – that is, in applying different interpretive structures to real-world policy problems like poverty, immigration and healthcare (in the sorts of courses we are involved in) – would help them develop tools to question and think critically about the policy areas they are studying, including challenging problematic assumptions in the theories that guide public policies. Engaging students in theorising would also involve challenging them to rethink their own theories and knowledge. Teaching interpretively also directs attention towards the means by which students participate, not just in the instructional process but in determining what that instructional process will be. Aletta Norval, for instance, considers how participation may foster ‘democratic subjectivity and the creation of open, critical participatory processes that can sustain practices of freedom’ (2014: 63–4). In these ways, teaching interpretively has to do with creating contexts that will spark students to think critically about their own theories, the theories they are offered in class and the theories of the practitioners they study, try to understand and in some cases emulate – or explicitly avoid emulating.
The third theme of teaching interpretively concerns being sensitive to students’ mixed backgrounds, prior experiences and abilities. Here is another analogy between teaching interpretively and researching interpretively. In conducting interpretive interviews, for example, the ‘interpretive’ interviewer tries to understand where the interviewee is ‘coming from’ and why s/he is telling something about her/his life in this particular way. This is akin to the ethnographic sensibility (Pader 2014) that informs field research. Such a way of engaging people can apply to the classroom as well. Once again, we are interested in students’ prior experiences and background: What previously acquired cognitive and experiential frameworks shape their inquiry? How do these compare with our own frameworks and that of the material we are reading? This time, though, the engagement is not so much with students’ knowledge as interesting material to work with as it is with students as persons in whose development one potentially plays a role.
There are challenges here. How do we value the perspectives of students whose values we do not share (e.g. if they devalue women or make harmful assumptions about the poor or make racist remarks)? The interpretive process becomes complex in contemplating such interactions. It is possible to share argumentation and evidence that challenge harmful assumptions, but this has to be paired with respect. Passionate humility, for instance, would suggest marrying one’s own value commitments with the recognition that others may not share them (Yanow 2009) – an attitude one may strive to teach and to model in teaching. Teaching interpretively would also call for reflecting on the ways in which authority is manifested in the classroom, in order to support a context for individual development and learning.
We came to this roundtable discussion with more questions than answers, along with a willingness to reflect on our own challenges in the classroom, an eagerness to hear about the insights and experiences of others and an openness towards considering and experimenting with new ideas. We understood the occasion as a unique sort of ‘professional practice panel’, organised with the hope that through collaborative reflection and discussion, all participants might come away with ideas for developing a healthier and more mutually advantageous marriage between our too often estranged teacher and researcher selves. In this short essay we have just scratched the surface of the topic. We might ask, for instance, what elements of the regular set-up of courses and classrooms either prevent or stimulate interpretively informed teaching. Might interpretive teaching be more suitable – or simply easier – when working with students who themselves have work and life experiences that they bring to their studies more than with traditional, immediately post-high school undergraduates or immediately post-college graduate students? We have not drawn fully on the role of experiential learning or on theories of andragogy, both of which concern adult learners. We believe that giving students a structure in which to excel at learning is essential, but we have more work to do to formulate how this can best be achieved. The pragmatic considerations of this issue cannot be overlooked: In what ways is our ideal something that can be realised in the settings in which we teach? And would it be equally applicable in curricular areas other than the particular corners of the social sciences in which we work? We also wonder at the parallels between an ‘interpretive classroom’ and teaching informed by feminist theory: might the same question be posed concerning the relationship between feminist research methods and feminist pedagogy? Additionally, ‘critical management’ scholars have been paying attention to enacting their approaches in teaching; are these efforts and this thinking, too, parallel to ours?
In addition to engaging these questions, we would be interested to learn about initiatives others have developed in their classes which are relevant to the questions we have raised. There is much in the interpretive approach to be explored in teaching contexts.
HardingS. (1987) ‘Introduction: is there a feminist method?’ in S. Harding (ed.) Feminism and MethodologyBloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press1–14.
NorvalA. (2014) ‘Beyond deliberation: agonistic and aversive grammars of democracy: the question of criteria’ in A. NorvalS. Griggs and H. Wagenaar (eds) Practices of Freedom: Decentred Governance Conflict and Democratic ParticipationCambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press60–84.
PaderE. (2014) ‘Seeing with an ethnographic sensibility: explorations beneath the surface of public policies’ in D. Yanow and P. Schwartz-Shea (eds) Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn2nd ed. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe194–208.
TaylorC.  (1979) ‘Interpretation and the sciences of man’ in P. Rabinow and W.M. Sullivan (eds) Interpretive Social Science: A ReaderBerkeley: University of California Press25–71.
YanowD. (2009) ‘Ways of knowing: passionate humility and reflective practice in research and management’ American Review of Public Administration 39 no. 6579–601.
YanowD.  (2014) ‘Thinking interpretively’ in D. Yanow and P. Schwartz-Shea (eds) Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn2nd ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe5–26.