TITLE: Teaching with Authenticity and Authority
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 31, 2012 4:01 PM
What is this?
Over the last few weeks, we've been processing student
assessments from fall semester. Reading student
comments about my course and other profs' courses has
me thinking about the different ways in which students
"see" their instructors. Two profs can be equally
knowledgable in an area yet give off very different
vibes to their class. The vibe has a lot to do with
how students interpret the instructor's behavior. It
also affects student motivation and, ultimately,
Daniel Lemire recently offered
two rules for teaching in the 21st century,
one of which was to be an authentic role model.
If students know that "someone ordinary" like a
professor was able to master the course material, then
they will have reason to believe that they can do the
same. Authenticity is invaluable if we hope to model
the mindset of a learner for our students.
It is also a huge factor in the classroom in another
way as well. Students are also sensitive to whether
we are authentic users of knowledge. If I am
teaching agile approaches to software development but
students perceive that I am not an agile developer
when writing my own code outside the course, then they
are less likely to take the agile approaches seriously.
If I am teaching the use of some theoretical technique
for solving a problem, say, nondeterministic finite
state machines, but my students perceive that I do
something else when I'm not teaching the course, then
their motivation to master the technique wanes.
I think that how students "see" their instructors is
affected by something as important as being authentic:
being authoritative. I don't mean authority
in the sense of power, in particular power granted
from on high. In my experience, that sort of authority
is surprisingly ineffective as a tool for getting
students to follow me into a difficult forest of
knowledge. They respect the authority, perhaps, but
they tend to balk at orders to march into the dark.
I also don't mean authority born out of perfection.
If that were the case, I could never step into a
classroom. Just today, I made an error in my compilers
course while demonstrating a technique for converting
nondeterministic finite automata into deterministic
automata. Such errors occur frequently enough to
disabuse both me and my students of the thought that
mastery means always getting the right answers. (But
not so often, I hope, as to undermine students'
confidence in my mastery of the material.)
Instead, I am thinking of the persuasive or influential
sense of authority that comes out of mastery itself.
This sense of the word is more faithful to the origin
of the word in the Latin
also the source of "author". An author is someone who
originates or gives existence to something.
Among the earliest uses of the "auctor" or "author" was
to refer renowned scholars in medieval universities.
Such scholars created new knowledge, or at least
discovered it and incorporated it into the knowledge of
the community. They did not simply mimic back what was
I suspect that this is what the crowds thought in the
Bible passage from Mark given above. The scribes of
the time could read scripture and recite it back to
people. They could even teach by elaborating on it or
relating it to the lives of the people. But the essence
of their teaching was already present in the scripture.
Along came Jesus, who taught the scripture, but more.
His elaborations and parables brought new depth to the
old laws and stories. They taught something new. He
was speaking with authority.
The sense of authorship or origination is key. We see
this sense of authority when we speak of authors. In
modern times, the word "auctor" is sometimes used to
denote the person who donates the genetic material that
serves as the basis for a clone. This usage draws even
more heavily on the idea of creation residing in the
That's all fine as philosophy and etymology, but I think
this matters in the classroom, too. The authoritative
teacher does not simply "read the book" and then lecture,
which at a certain level is simply reading the book to
the students. Good teachers understand the material at
a deeper level. They use it. They apply the
techniques and makes connections to other topics, even
other course and disciplines. They create new ideas
with the course material. They don't simply relay
information to students; they also create knowledge.
Such teachers are able to teach with authority.
One of the big challenges for new instructors, especially
new ones, is to learn how to teach with this kind of
authority. Some assume that their status as professors
grants them the sort of authority founded in power, and
that is what they project to their students. They know
their stuff, yet they don't speak with the sort of
authority that resonates with their students. When the
students respond with less than capitulation, the
professor reacts with power or defensiveness. These
only make the problem worse.
It takes experience in the classroom for most of us to
figure this out. I know it took me a while. It also
takes an openness to change and a willingness to learn.
Fortunately, these are traits possessed by many people
who want to teach.
When things are going wrong in my classes these days,
I try to step back from the situation. I ask myself,
Am I being authentic? Am I speaking with an authority
born out of scholarship, rather than an authority born
out of status? Am I letting my students see these
A new teaching with authority.
-- Mark 1:27