TITLE: Teaching with Authenticity and Authority AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 31, 2012 4:01 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
-- Mark 1:27

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, student learning. 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 auctor, 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 already understood. 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 root word. 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 things? -----