Class, Just Call Me Ephraim: A Word On Authority

I have made the decision that once I become a teacher I will introduce myself to my students by my full name, Ephraim Hussain.  Consequently, they will have the option of either calling me Ephraim or Mr. Hussain.  My feeling is that they will opt for the former, and that is indeed my intent by opting not to impose the conventional “Mr.” title.  Now this may seem like a relatively minor aspect of my future teaching practice, and indeed one might view my concern with the matter of how students are to address the teacher as completely inconsequential and silly.  Here is why I would strongly disagree with that sentiment.

A while back, a fellow blogger and I engaged in a riveting discussion about a host of issues  relating to the American educational system.  At one point, Diana (not her real name) made the point that I did not appear to place much value on most of my college professors and their respective classes.  She based this assertion off of my previous comments in which I expressed my deep frustration with three things: college professors that place undue emphasis on rote memorization and superficial learning through one-sided teacher lecture and multiple choice testing regimes, plainly incompetent professors who may have be experts in their respective fields but really have no idea how to make course content meaningful to students, and the presentation of controversial content in an uncontroversial and supposedly objective manner that foregoes the possibility of students engaging in critical, liberating, and potentially uncomfortable dialogue around research and exploration into opposing viewpoints.  Indeed, Diana, was spot on when she made her point, but unfortunately she was trying to use it as a springboard to disagree with me and say that it is primarily the student’s responsibility to find meaning and purpose in a class no matter how many legitimate faults he or she can find with the way the professor is conducting the class.  In other words, this was her justification for rationalizing the performance of a bad teacher in a bad system.  Of course there are students who are capable of making meaning out of a classroom and indeed I have done that numerous times, but that is no rationale for not changing the system, and the flip side of this is that there are many students, even well-performing students, who become disenchanted with their lives as students because of teachers who use authoritarian practices, who do not believe in them, and do not respect them.  I must however qualify her statements so far mentioned by saying that when I asked her whether I should be questioning and critical of my professors and the content they put forward, she answered emphatically in the affirmative.  But nonetheless I feel I must point out the contradiction between that and her subsequent rationalization of a broken system.  I am not trying to be condescending, just commonsensical.  If ever there was a legitimate justification for us not taking steps to improve teaching as a profession in this country by first, clearly stating and outlining the goal and objectives of education in a democratic society, second, upgrading the coursework and quality of teacher education programs to reflect those goals and objectives, and third, requiring college professors to procure teaching degrees and undergo certification processes before being allowed to teach, saying that it is the primarily the student’s responsibility to make meaning out of a poor classroom environment is not one of them.  This represents yet another example of how Americans in general tend to be so adept at collapsing the public into the private and the systemic into the personal even when said system is directly hurting their lives.  Of course, it is easier to blame a student for refusing to be unquestioningly obedient and accept the dysfunctional status quo that continues to shortchange him and all his fellow students out of a truly democratic education, because then the people in power will be absolved of any and all responsibility to make the necessary changes that the system demands.  But anyway back to business here.  This was my response to Diana’s statement/rhetorical question,

I am not going to place value on my classes and professors just because they are my classes and my professors and are in a position of authority. Authority is earned. It is not blindly given. That would be wholly uncritical and rather anti-reflective. For example I had a genetics professor who used a lot of images, diagrams, and concept maps from the textbook in his teaching. Often, rather than making eye contact with his class, he lectures while continually staring at these diagrams. Incredibly enough, he will sometimes teach for long periods of time with his back facing us making it seem like he is talking more to himself than to us. One often gets the sense that he is unprepared for a lesson before he enters class, because, he is constantly trying to negotiate the meaning of these diagrams in the classroom. For example, he will be looking at a diagram and then suddenly say, “This looks wrong” and then stare at it for five or ten minutes trying to figure what he thinks is wrong. I recall one instance where he spent more than half the class period doing this while we all sat in stone cold silence. At times he will even try to enlist our help in trying to understand what he is supposed to be teaching us. Now there would be no problem with this if it was done within the context of a democratic classroom where student voice actually mattered and affective learning was taking place, but in this instance it just seemed like he was using us to bail him out of an embarrassing situation.

Should I value this teacher? Should I value the college professor who just views his or role as a lecturer and nothing more, which is the great majority of them. Should I value a class where my voice and my fellow student’s voice are not given any chances to be heard in the context of the content at hand? Lecturer and teacher are not synonyms, but at least in the college which I attended, this is the underlying assumption of nearly every professor. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t disrespect these professors. I actually make it a point to express my concerns with some of them in casual discussions in their offices especially with those in the biology department since I was a bio major. Surprisingly most of them share my concerns, and they do happen to be genuinely concerned with the dominance of traditional lecture-style pedagogy and multiple choice testing regimes and marketplace for grades mentality that dominates my particular college…and then when I ask them what is being done to change this culture they invariably say its a very hard and long process changing culture and pedagogies. Not much more of an answer is given than that. But I have my own theories on why things don’t change. Lecturing is easy for the teacher. Adminstering and grading pre-written multiple choice exams is the easiest way for a teacher to conduct his or her class. In addition college professors, are not required to have teacher certification and go through a teacher certification program in order to teach. So they really have no knowledge of educational theory and varying pedagogies and all the knowledge that would come with going through a quality teacher education program. Again, I don’t blame them individually. They’re the product of a larger system that is deeply flawed.

And here is her response to my response,

“Authority is earned. It is not given”

Actually, that is not true. Authority is given, in many cases, whether it is earned or deserved. It is one of life’s lessons. You can either accept it to the extent that it exists or you can let it make you bitter and disrespectful of all authority.

Unfortunately, some of the worst teachers are the brightest minds in their field. If you are at a top university, that Genetics professor is probably one of the top in his field. TA’s, while accessible, could be even worse, in my opinion, because they didn’t have the teacher training either and they were usually overwhelmed with their own studies. However, they were usually pretty bright and could help you if you ran into a problem. I didn’t utilize my professors or my TAs the way I could have while in college. Wish I had handled that differently. BTW, the problem with you Genetic’s professor seems to be common among the biological sciences and math. I had some pretty awesome professors in other areas.

“Should I value this teacher? Should I value the college professor who just views his or role as a lecturer and nothing more”

Should? I don’t know if you “should”, but I “would”. You have to look at the whole package. That professor probably didn’t choose to be a professor to “teach”. It is unfortunate, but that is the way big universities work, possibly many small ones, too. You are there to learn, so it makes you upset that he/she is not a better teacher. But are you receiving any benefit from being in that class or that school? Does getting through that class allow you to take a higher class that has an exceptional teacher? Will graduating from that school benefit you in your pursuit to be a history teacher? If not, then perhaps you are taking the wrong classes and/or you are going to the wrong school – for you.

This is not the entirety of her comment, but it is the part that I will be responding to in this post.  Just to be clear, I did not respond to this comment primarily because I got drawn into other discussions within the same comment thread, but nevertheless I have never quite forgotten what she said here about the nature of authority and I feel I need to address it, albeit indirectly because it’s a month too late to anymore to the comment thread.

I probably should have used exact language in my comment, but nonetheless I thought my meaning was clear enough based on my previous statements.  I stand by the statement that authority is earned, not given.  If it is blindly given and uncritically received or if it is given and received under threat of force, intimidation or various other forms of extrinsic motivation, it is not true authority.  A person who holds true authority does not need to use force to justify it.  He or she holds authority  by virtue of being authoritative.  What does this mean?  It means that the person who wishes to gain authority does so by forging relationships of mutual love, trust, respect, and care with the people whom he or she desires to gain authority with…..with not over.  This is the difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian.  An authoritarian does not have true authority over the people he or she rules over because that authority was not gained through relationships of mutual love, trust, and respect.  The oppressed who suffer under authoritarian rule despise the authoritarian.  Their only reason for not demanding an immediate end to their oppression is fear of reprisal.  For the student, grades are that extrinsic motivator, that source of fear, that gatekeeper of oppression, whether the teacher perceives it or not.  Certainly, it is not as serious as would be the teacher holding a gun to a student’s head and ordering him to complete his homework, be quiet and listen to the lecture, and complete this test or else, but the point is not lost on the relative lack of severity of the threat.  And indeed the threat of a bad grade and all the consequences, whether perceived or real, that stem from that result, can bring much stress and anxiety into a student’s life.  A classroom in which a teacher uses various extrinsic motivators in order to “motivate” his or her students to complete the boring worksheet homework assignments, listen and memorize the contents of the one-sided lecture, and then regurgitate that same contents on a multiple choice exam is an authoritarian classroom.  Why?  Because what these students are learning more than anything else, more than any of the course content their supposed to be learning is that to get through life, one just has to obey, obey,obey.  Life after school is just about following orders and doing as you are told no questions asked.  It does not matter if what is being done to you is wrong and unjust.  It does not matter if the system, the status quo you live under is inadequate and oppressive and screaming out for radical change.  You just have to slog through it, because guess what kids.  In the words of my fellow blogger, Diana, “Authority is given, in many cases, whether it is earned or deserved.  It is one of life’s lessons.  You can either accept it to the extent that it exists or you can let it make you bitter and disrespectful of all authority.”  Diana’s rationale here for why I should uncritically accept the unjust forces that shape mine and other’s existence is so flawed, I hardly know where to begin.”  Firstly, it’s the perfect rationale for a system of education in a fascist regime that requires blind obedience to its supreme leader and ideology.  Therefore, automatically, it is incongruous with a system of education that seeks to produce citizens of a properly functioning democracy who must be not only able but willing to challenge the power structures which perpetuate an unjust social order.  Secondly Diana’s rationale utilizes a false binary to make its argument.  I do not have to nor should I accept the fact that positions of authority are bestowed upon people who absolutely do not deserve them.  I am thinking primarily of our politicians who more often than not rule againsand on us rather than for and with us.  I will acknowledge it as a product of our flawed democratic system of government, but that does not mean I accept it.  And if I do not accept that, it does not automatically mean I am disrespectful and bitter of all authority.  Again, even though I detected no malice in Diana and, indeed, I did enjoy our discussion, I can not stand by and accept these accusations of absolutes as a legitimate constituent of intelligent dialogue.  It’s like accusing me of being a liberal or a left-wing loony-tune just because I’m not a conservative.  Those kinds of accusations just lead the discussion into anti-intellectual waters and if there is ever a discussion I refuse to engage in it is one that devolves into name-calling by way of leveling false binaries.  Authority that is not legitimate according to the conditions I stipulated earlier is false, and therefore it does not merit my respect.  Bitter is the wrong choice of words to describe my view on authority.  It implies that I do not give careful consideration in discriminating between the people who deserve authority and the people who do not, and that is just plainly false.  In line with the feelings of most Americans, I do not view our members of Congress, Republican or Democrat as having any legitimate authority, and if I were to meet one of them, I would not start off by saying “Thank you for serving our country.”  Granted, I would be cordial but only to the point that they are willing to seriously answer my serious questions and engage in serious and meaningful dialogue.  If they are not willing , as so many of them show themselves unwilling to be when asked a tough question by journalists (I’m talking about the real journalists, not the talking heads, who actually ask tough questions), or they begin to show disrespect towards me by skirting the question, lying, or getting argumentative, then I would first inform them of what they are doing, why it is wrong, and why I refuse to engage in it, and then that would be the end of that.  Do you, the reader, consider this analysis of authority to be bitter?  I consider it well-reasoned enough.

Out of this blog discussion about the nature of authority, springs my decision to introduce myself to my students as Ephraim Hussain.  If they want to put a “Mr” title in front of either my first or last name when addressing me, they will be perfectly able to do just that.  But they will not be required to, and here’s the short answer after the long answer for why.  As a student, placing a Ms. or Mr. in front of a teacher’s name before addressing him or her is so widely practiced that it has basically become an unwritten rule.  But why has it become a rule at all?  One reason is because there exists a relatively unquestioned cultural norm which dictates that the older you are, the wiser you are and that teachers just by virtue of their being older are automatically assumed to be wiser than their students.  This assumption is internalized by both the teacher and the students.  But the more important reason points to the dominant cultural belief regarding the nature of authority that Diana expressed so eloquently and which I will repeat once more, “Authority is given, in many cases, whether it is earned or deserved. It is one of life’s lessons.”  Now when people use the phrase “It is one of life’s lessons”, it most often translates to “Suck it up and deal with it.  This is how the world is and how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future whether you like it or not.”  But of course reasonable people know this argument to be false in most if not all cases.  If we believe one thing today, we can believe something else tomorrow.  It may take some serious self-reflection, but it can be done.  Indeed it’s how progress happens.  There are positions in our society which we term “positions of authority” and it is taught to us at an early age and vigorously reinforced through our student careers that the people holding these positions deserve unequivocal respect just by virtue of their holding that position.  Teachers, principals, and various forms of school administrators are examples of those positions and indeed they are the positions of power which students most often come into contact with besides their parents.  And one of the ways we display this unequivocal respect and deference towards our teachers is by putting a Mr. or Ms or Mrs. in front of their names.  But if one subscribes to the more rational view of authority I have put forward in this post, then, indeed, there is every reason to discontinue this “gut” practice.  When I use the term “gut, I mean to say, we do it because we feel it’s right to do based on cultural norms pushed on us by various forces, not because it actually is.

I remarked previously that my decision to not require my students to address me as Mr. Hussain or Mr. Ephraim derives from the blog discussion I had with Diana.  That is not true of course.  It merely provided me with the best anecdote with which to explain my reasoning.  I have spoken many times on this blog about the one professor who changed my life and inspired this passion in me to become not just a teacher, but an activist teacher.  It was my first semester of junior year and fittingly enough he was my Philosophy of Education professor.  Now he didn’t force us to call him Mr. Johnson (not his real name) but every time a student would do that in the course of a class dialogue he would ask them why they were doing so, and then we would get into the most interesting and enlightening discussions on the nature of authority and respect as it relates to the relationships between students and their teachers.  He was the only teacher I ever had who explicitly came out and said “Guys, I derive my authority from you.  If am not teaching you and you are not simultaneously teaching me and we are not learning from each other than my authority does not exist.”  I couldn’t believe that one of my teachers, one of my actual living, breathing teachers, was coming out and saying this on the first day of class, something that I had wanted to scream out to all of my teachers since high school but never had the courage to do so.  Well now I have the courage and now I know fully, why it is not only my right but my duty to challenge false authority wherever it lies and why my ultimate authority as a teacher derives from my students.  Indeed this responsibility resides in all of our hands, in a democracy which demands the most critical, thoughtful, and intellectual civic engagement of its populace in order to function properly.  The only question that remains is will we, the people, answer the call of a prosperous democracy., or will we continue to passively languish in an unjust order which resembles nothing of the sort?  Part of the answer to this question lies in whether we will continue to educate our children to blindly obey, obey, obey or whether we will wake up and educate them to engage in Paulo Freire’s definition of the praxis, reflection and reflective action.  I choose to educate them for the latter.

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