In a recent column I addressed what makes it difficult for students to speak up in peer groups, especially to express opinions different from those that others in the group offer. As I’ve noted before, some columns continue to follow me around, and this one has. Current thinking has me wondering about speaking up in the face of authority, whether to challenge its legitimacy or, more often, simply to question an action taken by an authority.
If it’s challenging for students to speak different perspectives in peer groups, the difficulty of confronting a teacher looms even larger. For the most part, students are respectful. We’ve all had a few who aren’t, but the majority don’t raise objections even when they should. Many of us who’ve engaged in protest bemoan student passivity. On the campus where I taught the administration changed a parking lot convenient to a classroom building from a student to a faculty lot. Students were furious. Lots of them commuted. They complained in class, but when I suggested a “protest” (recounting with only a few embellishments how I’d protested the Vietnam War), they announced they “couldn’t.” “We take classes from faculty who park there. They’d be mad at us and take it out on our grades.” Really?
Even though most students respect their teachers, many faculty have concerns about their authority. New faculty do need to earn it, and for others, given gender or ethnicity, it’s even harder to earn. Experienced faculty fear the loss of authority as well—that nightmare scenario of a class spinning out of control, refusing to follow teacher directives. It can happen, but most of the time the fear overshadows the reality.
I have the same question about challenging authority as I had about speaking up: How do we teach students to question authority and constructively confront it when they need to? Yesterday afternoon, I found an example that illustrates an answer. Imagine the first day of class. The teacher arrives after the students. She’s not smiling, speaks formally, and begins without any introduction. She tells students to turn off their phones and put them away. They are not allowed to use them, and that needs to be clearly understood. Students nod and put their phones away (it is the first day of class).
At that point, the teacher pulls out her phone and starts scrolling through email, websites, etc. She says nothing. Students look around uncomfortably. If they start making noise, she looks at them sternly. Five minutes pass. Finally, at 10 minutes a student asks, “When will class start?” “In a minute,” she responds, still working her phone. At 15 minutes she puts her phone away, looks up, smiles, and proceeds to go through the syllabus, asking for questions along the way. There’s a round of introductions and then the teacher encourages students to ask questions—anything they’d like to know about her or the course. Students ask about her pets, college major. She keeps asking, “Anything else you’d like to ask?” Finally she prods, “Nobody wants to ask about what happened during the first 15 minutes?”
That no student asked is telling—an indication of just how powerful teacher authority is. Jafar (2021), the faculty member who uses this exercise, writes that her goal is “to challenge the passive student role, shift the typical dynamics in the classroom, and encourage students to see themselves as active participants in their education” (p. 73). She admits that the exercise comes with risks—perhaps larger ones for junior faculty or those whose authority, for reasons of ethnicity or gender, students may question. The exercise might be more appropriate in an upper-division course, although Jafar uses it in an introductory one. She recommends thinking through responses beforehand. Say a student asks whether what’s happening is an experiment. You might respond, “Does it look like one? Please give me a minute to finish up here.” She’s used the activity multiple times, and it makes for rich discussion throughout the course. Students find it a memorable event.
Jafar’s detailed account of the exercise and events surrounding is worth reading. It illustrates how students can learn about their role in the presence of authorities. An activity like this enables teachers to move beyond telling students to speak up, ask questions, and be good educational consumers to powerfully illustrating the need to question authority. The failure to question reinforces the powerlessness of those not in positions of influence. It emboldens those in power to act with impunity, whether they do so in the classroom, on campus, in the community, or on a national stage.
Jafar, A. (2021). The lasting impact of a first impression: An exercise for the first day of class. Teaching Sociology, 49(1), 73–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X20966709