Walking the Line, part 2: Authority

When I began working as a postgraduate tutor (graduate teaching assistant or TA to my international colleagues) I was terrified that I would lack that intrinsic authority that all my professors had appeared to have so effortlessly. My undergraduate advisor was a woman who exuded confidence and my MA supervisor spoke at least ten languages and taught modules on everything from Reformation Europe to the Pirates of the Caribbean.  How could I hope to compete?

I muddled through on a mix of awkward rambling (confusion tactics), approachability (lulling them into a false sense of security) and authoritarian marking (fear). It seemed to work, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a imposter. I hoped that acquiring my PhD, and that all-important prefix of Dr, would imbue in me that sense of authority I was certain I lacked. As I stood before my first lecture I could not help but think that the Emperor knew full well he was naked.

I have often spoke to postgraduate tutors about authority in seminar teaching. I was not remotely alone in my (unwarranted) feelings in inadequacy. I knew far more about these topics than any of my students, by virtue of osmosis* if nothing else. Moreover, university students have been conditioned from a very young age to respect authority figures but virtue of their office, not their age or credentials. I knew that I could speak for 45-50 minutes on a topic, and my students would sit, quietly, attempting to absorb any new information I presented. It was pretty unlikely that fruit would be thrown or heckling commence.

So, when I speak of authority in my role as teaching fellow, I do not mean obtaining that base level of polite attention we expect to receive when speaking to any audience. I want my students to listen to what I say and think ‘I get it.’

It would be nice if they occasionally thought ‘wow’ as well, but maybe that will come later.

In illustration of this theory of authority I present two anecdotes for you contemplation and commentary:

I am currently presenting the second lecture of my new module, The Atlantic World1492-1815. Last week, I discussed the ebbs and flows of Atlantic World Historiography and the ways in which historians can look at Atlantic History. It was a theoretical lecture without many names or dates to take down. This week I covered the state of the four continents in the mid- to late-fifteenth century, presented a basic chronology of European exploration and discovery, and discussed the myths and legends surround Columbus and how they have affected our view of the Atlantic World (and our starting date of 1492). About half way through 90% of my students stopped taking notes. They closed their laptops, put down their pens and started staring at me. 

Were they enthralled? Confused? Bored? Did my lecture lack detail? Were the facts presented too similar to those they learned in previous modules or the reading they had done? I have never believed that lectures should be text-book replacements, but without a long list of names and dates for them furiously scribble down, my own sense of authority was shaken. What, if anything, were they getting from my lecture?

I am riding down in the elevator from own of my seminar sessions and I eavesdrop on the conversation of three non-history students discussing their modules.They complain that the lectures and seminars are worthless. They describe their lectures as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘narrative’ and complain that they discuss exactly the same ideas in seminars that they had heard in lecture; they don’t learn anything new.

From what I can gather, they were describe the sort of lecture I had tried to avoid, one that provided students with a set of facts to learn. Indeed, they complained that they lecturer had given them only raw, narrative details and then prohibited their essays for following the same format. As for seminars, I had hoped that my lecture would provide a wide context and that the students would debate the details in their small group discussions. But, if I am not providing details, if I am not providing the raw knowledge, do I possess authority? If I do provide those details, but demand analysis and conceptional thinking in the assessment, will my students feel lost and unsupported?
My adventures in teaching fellowship continue next week with: Teaching v. Learning, The Eternal Struggle

*to my biology friends: I know that osmosis only refers to water through a membrane, not knowledge into a brain. But diffusion just doesn’t sound as good, and you know it.

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