There’s a very interesting article up on Eidolon* by Lisl Walsh called Giving It Up in the Classroom, about navigating questions of authority in teaching classics: the authority of existing interpretations and scholarly consensus that manifestly needs to be analysed and criticised (indeed, this is our core task in teaching students, even if they think our job is to convey a fixed body of essential information and then test them on their ability to regurgitate it), and the authority of the teacher. The crux of the problem that Walsh addresses is the relationship between the two: the risk that, in developing a critique of the former and emphasising the openness and ambiguity of historical and literary interpretation, the teacher undermines her own authority, with adverse consequences for student motivation and learning, and thereby for course evaluations, career prospects etc.
I am very conscious that my take on this theme comes from an extremely privileged position: as a white, middle-aged male with a clear, BBC English voice, a head of grey hair and a tweed jacket, my authority has not been openly questioned in a classroom for many years, however much I drop hints that intelligent dissent is actually a route to improved marks. It probably doesn’t help that I was re-watching Life of Brian the night before last, so Walsh’s article summoned up echoes of “tell us how to develop our own individual take on the subject, O master” – it’s perfectly possible that my attempts at encouraging the interrogation of authority are constantly undermined by my embodiment of it. I really don’t face the dilemma that she does: “how does a person occupying a non-authoritative body teach a bunch of authoritarians living in a racist, sexist, ableist society what a responsible postmodern approach to Greco-Roman antiquity looks like?”
One of my initial thoughts was that the various teaching techniques Walsh suggests – decentring authority, empowering students as knowledge-producers and monitors, and moving towards a consent-based classroom – represent a means of working around rather than confronting the problem of students’ assumptions about authority and how to ascribe it. On reflection, I don’t think this is untrue; there must be a risk that the teacher using these new methods gets improved evaluations because students are scoring for stereotypically feminine qualities like being helpful, supportive and friendly (cf. recent studies on the different things that male and female students praise in male and female teachers), while the conventional image of academic authority as male (white, middle-aged, tweed-jacket-wearing) remains fully in place. But it’s probably beside the point, or at least secondary to the key outcomes of (i) greater success in teaching students to adopt a more critical and self-aware approach to antiquity and (ii) improved evaluations without the teacher having to resort to self-policing to present as a more conventional academic authority.
My other reaction was a stab of envy at the freedom that teachers outside the highly regulated UK system seem to have in organising their courses. The idea of allowing a class to debate and decide upon how the course should be assessed is simply inconceivable in a world where everything has to be specified and approved months or years in advance, and giving the students freedom to shape the course content is problematic when the exam paper has to be written when classes have barely started. Of course there is some scope for flexibility in other areas, such as non-assessed presentations – but there is flexibility precisely because such activities are not regarded as important (because they don’t feed into the degree results directly), and most students seem to have internalised the idea that only marks, and things that have a direct bearing on marks, really count.
Indeed, my experience (and Walsh’s article has really brought this into focus) is that students get ever warier of choice and freedom when they think it might matter; they really want to be able to leave things to higher authority. The obvious example for me is the first assessment exercise in the course I’ve taught for years on Approaches to Ancient History, where students have to write an analysis of a journal article: free choice of article, free choice of what they choose to analyse. This is not enormously popular; I took a poll this year, and an clear majority of students voted that in future there should be a set choice of three or four articles; not my problem as I’m moving universities and no longer teaching the course, but that is striking.
Indeed, I now feel as if all the advice I offered about how to choose an appropriate article may have been counter-productive, as it emphasises the ways this exercise might go wrong (all true; it is difficult to analyse an article that doesn’t actually have an argument, and taking something from 1951 is generally a bad idea) and makes the stakes of their choice obvious – better to be assigned something that is definitely the right sort of thing by someone who knows what is needed. Whenever I suggested that credit would be given for well-chosen articles and interesting approaches, it just highlighted the existence of articles that would be bad choices, and approaches that would be boring. I almost feel that they regard this as a trick or a trap: it’s not true (they think) that there is no single correct way of doing things, as I claim, but rather there is a correct way that I’m refusing to reveal to them.
I should of course emphasise that Not All Students – but it’s still reminiscent of the Garfield cartoon where, as the Caped Avenger, he liberates animals from a pet shop who don’t actually want to be freed. The way forward – or so it seems to me after reading Walsh’s article – is to focus students’ attention on the structures and institutions of knowledge as well as on the processes of constituting academic authority, helping them to recognise them as artificial, contingent and problematic – even if, in the short term, they can work to the advantage of at least some people.
[Update: if you’re in need of a pick-me-up in these dark, terrifying times, go to the Eidolon Facebook page and read the comments under the post about this article, which include a careful explanation of how feminism is basically Marxism and therefore has no relevance to the Classics. As a Marxist (or Marxish) feminist classicist, I feel my identity is suddenly called into question…]
*Oh yes, great opening. There’s always something interesting up on Eidolon – and I don’t say that solely because I’ve got a piece appearing there in the near future…