I grew impatient with discussions of authority in the classroom years ago. It was all the rage when I was in grad school, where (not having taught very much of anything) we debated endlessly how to establish authority (if that was the right phrasing for it) while enacting feminist pedagogy by decentering ourselves in the classroom. Some people were great at making themselves the center of attention while talking about how they weren’t the center of attention, others had the kind of presentation that students tend to recognize as authority embodiment (imposing white cis-male) but still didn’t feel like they were in control of their classroom. Others had no idea what we were talking about because the role of sage-on-the-stage came (or was given) easily to them.
I never liked how the conversation always became about what the instructor was doing wrong or how they should internalize their seeming lack of authority as a personal failing. In faculty mentoring situations since then, I’ve seen and experienced how these conversations can become a kind of cultural policing: look and act this way, be more like X -- regardless of how impossible, ill-fitting, or unprogressive that might be. People can share what works for them in a classroom, but there is no telling what will work for others. And if you are naturally strong in teaching in certain ways, that means you will probably be weaker (or perceived to be weaker) in other ways. I’m not saying authority in the classroom is not an issue, but how best to build it yourself or support someone in that endeavor is murky.
In the online world, the discussion of “authority” in the classroom shifts to being about “presence.” For an example of this discussion, see the Carleton Educational Development Centre’s pamphlet, “The Role of Presence in Online Courses.” In a face-to-face situation, the instructor is in the room and that basic level of connection and authority-building happens instantly and subconsciously, because students have been acculturated to it since pre-school: they know who the instructor is and that teacher figure has a presence in their mind. There are all kinds of psychological, social, and emotional reasons why they/we still need that figure in an online course (see the pamphlet above).
But if this is true, then as an instructor, one needs to figure out a way to show oneself in the course and, interestingly enough, we go right back to the discussion of authority in the classroom. Just like in face-to-face courses, how an instructor manifests their presence (and authority) matters, and it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits all solution.
I talked about my experience with teaching Hist 3120 The History of the Body fully online in a previous blog post. When it came to the question of presence in that course, the subject matter afforded me an opportunity to present it to the students as a problem (although, I could have done this in any course, I think). With the help of Carleton’s studio technicians, I made this video drawing attention to the interconnected topics of embodiment, authority, and presence in a virtual classroom.
The study I talk about in the video was reported by Matt Shipman in the North Carolina State University News, “Online Students Give Instructors Higher Marks If They Think Instructors Are Men,” December 9 2014. It’s mind-bendingly awful to watch yourself in a video and then think about other people watching it too, but I offer it here as my way of thinking about this complex question of authority in the classroom and how that manifests itself online.
Danielle Kinsey is an assistant professor in the department of history at Carleton University. She can be reached at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca.
© 2018, Canadian Historical Association. All Rights Reserved.