The Question of Authority and the Empowering of Students

In the readings for this section of class, I noticed a recurring theme: the level of authority the students have, whether in the classroom or in crafting their papers. James A. Berlin discussed the benefits of a “dialogic classroom” and Kristie S. Fleckenstein modeled a concrete way for students to take control of editing their papers, thus giving them authority over their papers. These two readings help us to look at the classroom as an open forum and students as agential and capable of great things, who simply need help finding the right tools to aid them in their education. In contrast, Bartholomae appears to views students as less-than and in need of immense guidance in order to achieve “good writing.” The difference between these readings was striking to me, in particular, as I think about the level of authority I want to hold in my own classroom.

In Berlin’s ideal classroom, students are free to critique ideas presented by the instructor and they are encouraged to engage in a dialogue that includes the professor, rather than is directed by her. This requires an intentional step back on the part of the instructor. She must commit to letting go part of her authority in order to enable students to begin to think for themselves about these subjects. In forwarding this position, Berlin is aware of the problems that might arise. He recognizes that students might be uncomfortable with a professor who does not embrace his role as Prime Giver of Knowledge, and push the prof to give them the answers rather than happily engage in a Dialogic Classroom.

 

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Students often view teachers as Gatekeepers of knowledge.

 

But what Berlin does not do is give us a solid sense of what this classroom looks like, what techniques will be successful, what strategies to avoid. His focus is on presenting the idea that students learn better in this sort of environment, and he leaves it to others to figure out the details. This is where Fleckenstein picks up the torch. While she doesn’t follow directly in Berlin’s footsteps, she presents one way to conduct peer-review that allows students an element of responsibility and authority that would mesh well with Berlin’s Dialogic Classroom. Fleckenstein’s process is guided enough to help students who might have no idea how to read a paper give helpful feedback, but also loose enough to work in practically any scenario, which places the power of editing in the hands of the students. Her strategy is simple, but effective. She mentions that a student was able to use it on her own paper even when her peer-reviewer did a sub-par job (86). At the end of the day, having been introduced to this particular strategy, these students will have it in their tool bag for future use: they will be better writers after this exercise.

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When you empower students to be better writers, they might just become excited about writing!

On the other side of the spectrum, David Batholomae seems to argue that students have no power and that they do not have authority to speak on any subject in a specialized field of discourse. While I can understand Batholomae’s point (that first year students don’t know as much on a given topic as someone who has spent years of their life studying the same topic) he seems to imply that any act of writing by first year students is “appropriation” and that they have nothing to offer any reader. As I read his comments, I could only imagine that they would work to silence students and others learning how to engage in academic discourse. As he says, “to speak with authority [students] have to speak not only in another’s voice but through another’s code; and they not only have to do this, they have to speak in the voice and through the codes of those of us with power and wisdom” (610). It is likely that Bartholomae intends these arguments to help teachers understand the uphill battle facing their students. They must work extremely hard to enter a field of discourse that is entirely alien to them. However, when read in light of Berlin, I found Batholomae’s points to be restricting rather than empowering. While both want to help their students to become better writers, I find myself gravitating towards the dialogic classroom of Berlin over the approach of Bartholomae that is obsessed with an “academic” voice and level of polish to the thoughts rather than the quality of the thoughts themselves.

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Is dialogue the best approach to teaching?

However, I find myself wondering how this approach might work (or turn to catastrophe) if I, a female instructor in her mid-20s, were to attempt to relinquish authority in a classroom of freshmen. This is where I would appreciate more hands-on and practical discussions about classrooms and pedagogical strategies. I can easily see myself using Fleckenstein’s peer review system, but while I like the idea of a classroom where teachers allow the students to drive the conversation and find their own answers, I am uncertain how far I can step back before chaos will take hold. I suppose that is what teaching is all about, though, taking pedagogically informed chances, rolling with the punches, and adapting a strategy that will fit your own teaching style as well as any course objectives/assignments that will be imposed upon you. At the end of the day, I am learning, good teaching can’t be taught, it is something that must be found through trial and error and a lot of suggestions along the way.

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3 thoughts on “The Question of Authority and the Empowering of Students

  1. This reading response takes up a number of interesting topics but focuses particularly on the contrasts between Berlin’s and Bartholomae’s views of student learning and student writing. The response also makes a very strong connection between Berlin’s dialogic classroom and Fleckenstein’s rationale for her peer review activity. The response’s conclusion asks if youth and gender might make the dialogic classroom challenging in ways that Berlin doesn’t acknowledge. Does Fleckenstein’s strategy answer this question at all? That is, will youth and gender make a difference in how well that strategy will work? Depending on your thoughts about that, how might this change or deepen your concerns?

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  2. Returning to this much later in the semester, I’ve become pretty confident in my ability as a young woman at the head of a classroom to take charge and wield authority in a manner that students will respect. Having observed a class where the instructor is also a young woman has helped in this, as well have my experiences teaching this class several times now. I think that a lot of problems can be alleviated by a sort of “fake it until you make it” attitude, since if I am confident that I can teach the class (at least on the outside), the students will also be confident that I can teach them.

    This is different from the sort of “fake it until you make it” concept that Bartholomae seems to support. In Bartholomae’s context, it is the students who are faking it in their writing, which limits the power that is granted to them, and actually withholds authority. What I am championing has nothing to do with writing itself, but everything to do with my persona at the front of the classroom.

    I might not be able to step back right at the beginning of a semester, but I believe that I can cultivate a classroom of respect and dialogue, where this would be accepted by the class.

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