Friday, December 13, 2002

Teaching and authority

In haste, as I've just started packing my office to move back into our renovated building Monday (after 2 1/2 years in temporary quarters which I will miss). A nightmare--this is exam week and grades have to get in and my office packed at exactly the same time.

One Pot Meal has come back to the topic of teaching with some very thoughtful reflections. When I started using the internet in teaching what I most hoped was that it would encourage students to be exploratory learners. It doesn't work as well as I would hope--they just want to know what they need to know for the test. But I keep trying. I wrote some thoughts a couple of years ago on The Authority of Experience.

The question of authority is really interesting. In some sense I believe in undermining it, at least undermining the old idea of a one-way flow where I tell the students what they need to know. But where I have the authority to give a grade, to pretend that I don't have authority over students is not helpful to anyone. I think sometimes students don't want the professor to give up authority partly because they are lazy and partly because their parents are paying and they are giving their time believing that the professor has something to give them, and they see authority as how that works.

That ties into AKMA's thoughts about elitism. His argument made me nervous; it seems to me to go too far towards the idea that elites are justified by efficiency. Elites too often use that argument to keep out anyone whose politics they disagree with (I was on an NSF panel for a while and was particularly struck by that in some of the proposals we reviewed for small conferences of experts). I've seen it happen so often particularly that feminist critics are dismissed as a waste of the time of the "real" experts.

But elitism is efficient; the most efficient way for me to get facts into my students' heads is to lecture. I've actually done an experiment that showed that was true, at least in the short term. On the other side, discussion courses at their worst don't rise above what the students already know, and I have real doubts about that as a learning experience. We have to live in the messy middle. When do I want my students to reflect what they learn back into their own experience or to have the experience of wrestling with an idea? Then I need to give them responsibility. And when do I have something to give them that they will be glad to get from me? I actually end up doing a lot of the talking in class, but I do it not as a know-it-all authority but as a role model of wrestling with the questions. I select my topics carefully to not scare them off but then in a subtle way I am gut honest about my thinking process.

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