Contradictions of authority in radical pedagogy

In reading about “politics of knowledge”  today I was reminded of a horribly unresolved issue: the contradictions of authority in radical pedagogy. Let me quote a classic case from Saundra Gardner, Cynthia Dean and Deo McKaig’s 1987 article, “Responding to Differences in the Classroom: The Politics of Knowledge, Class, and Sexuality.”

Because this was my first officially designated women’s studies course, I thought it had to be “truly feminist” in content and form… Instead of being the source of knowledge and socially distant, I would become a peer and facilitator of knowledge. Thus, I perceived, as have others, that the “truly feminist” classroom is one in which I would give up my official trappings, merge with the class, and, in the classic sense of “instructor,” become invisible.

By playing such a passive role, I set the stage for the following dynamic that emerged early in the semester. The feminist majority, or those students with a strong background in feminism, began to use their knowledge as a source of power. As a group, they were articulate and dominated the class discussions. They often talked at rather than with the other students and, as a consequence, effectively silenced the nonfeminist minority. Thus, rather than sharing ideas and learning from each other, the students used differences in knowledge to create a distinct hierarchy in the classroom, with knowledge being a source of power over others. In other words, the feminist majority defined the class as their class and soon became the new caste of ‘men,’ while the remaining ‘women’ sat passively, accepting their subjugation.

Subsequently, there emerged a series of classroom comments in which many students said they didn’t feel like they belonged, they didn’t feel solidarity with each other, and so on. They also

…suggested that I become “more visible” and assertive and  that I provide more structure, synthesize ideas and  comments more often, and “wrap things up more tightly.” Thus, they wanted me to reclaim my professorial authority and share my expertise, or, as one member of the class commented, “You need to act more like a teacher and less like one of us.”

The teacher decided to take a more active role as a discussion moderator and eventually concluded:

I learned that to define a “truly feminist” classroom as one devoid of any authority is a great disservice to the instructor as well as to the students. As Culley pointed out:

“It is only in accepting her authority — by this I mean the authority of her intellect, imagination, passion — that the students can accept the authority of their own experiences. The authority the feminist teacher seeks is authority with, not authority over.”

It took me some time to realize experientially what Culley meant.  “Authority” can, indeed, be a source of empowerment. As I learned to accept mine within the classroom, the students learned to accept theirs, and we all benefited.

So professorial authority shifts from vile symbol of patriarchy to source of empowerment. This odd contradiction is diagnosed to some degree by Lauren Berlant, in “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy” (1997):

Feminist/countercultural work in the university was imagined paradoxically: in a moment of disbelief in institutions and in the notion of a meritocracy this was also a moment of faith in the kinds of personal values and critical social knowledge radical teaching and institutional activity could ratify. The promise was that the counterknowledge and donated activity of feminists would create a new meritocracy, somehow without the violence of hierarchy, fear of difference, and disciplinary defensiveness that frequently serve as a bar to recognition of subaltern talents, knowledge, language, and experience. It would change knowledge, change the world, create new norms of expertise, and reimagine the practice of authority. This was at once a radical claim but also reflected a belief that the intentions of good people could radically modify institutional power/knowledge relations while also training students to wield authority and compete with each other in the public sphere.

…Central to the feminist project was a feminist version of the nostalgic rhetoric of the charismatic teacher. Slightly more collaborative than the traditional patriarchal forms, the feminist discourse about teaching has almost entirely been concerned with the responsibility of the teacher to have and to yield–but not entirely–her charismatic authority. The teacher’s very talent–her imputed intimacy with theoretical and practical knowledge, her capacity to contain and rework the world in language and other forms of knowledge and activism, the resources she has committed to merging everyday life with political desire–is posed as the student’s central resource, a relay between a real world of injury and a possible world of dignity. (153; my emphases.)

The point about about yielding professorial authority but not entirely is really important because, as Berlant wants to point out, there’s a basic contradiction in the project of making students liberated, or conversely, of relying on a charismatic teacher for liberation. In Gardner, Dean and McKaigwe’s piece, we can see this contradiction stretched out over time, spread over the following sequence of events:

1. The democratic teacher yields up authority to students, tries to make everyone co-equals.
2. Students are unhappy, feel a lack of “structure,” perhaps develop hierarchies of their own, and ultimately demand that the teacher resume his or her authoritative role.
3. Teacher resumes a certain degree of authority, perhaps using their power more actively to facilitate a more collective discussion, or even to neutralize emergent inequalities among the students.

So, as Gardner, Dean and McCaig put it, the precondition of their students coming into their own authority as participants is the teacher accepting their own authority as teacher. But this, as Berlant points out, is really only a revised version of the old-fashioned scenario in which the teacher is the fundamental authorizing force of classroom action and legitimate knowledge, a scene, as she says, only “slightly more collaborative than the traditional patriarchal forms.”

Ultimately, Berlant argues for withdrawing somewhat from the “mania for the intersubjective” that yields fantasies of complete intimacy between teacher and student, looking instead toward a revised concern with the ethics of professionalism and the politics of academic labor, towards recognizing the “limits of faculty magic.” Not that this represents the abandonment of the utopian. But it’s worth juxtaposing another case study here: one in which the chaos and uncertainty of ceding professorial power yields, not a pragmatic resumption of that power, but rather an agonizing but ongoing process of renegotiation and authority transfer.

In “Participation, action, and research in the classroom” (1997), collectively authored by Johan Elvemo, Davydd Greenwood, Ann Martin, Lisa Matthews, Aleeza Strubel, La urine Thomas, and William Foote Whyte, we get a more polyvocal view of what happens when teachers try to cede their authority to the class: half the class contributed to a joint publication reflecting on their experience. Importantly, this was a class on participatory action research, in which:

Social research expertise is mobilized in a non-authoritarian fashion. The social researcher contributes to the process as a facilitator and teacher, as well as a team member who assists in the deployment of methods and in the development of the analysis…

PAR is based on the assumption that all human beings are knowledgeable about their own situations and capable of analytical activity that can contribute to the generation of new knowledge and plans of action. It is also based firmly on the assumption that, while knowledge of research methods and models is valuable, the complexity of social problems is such that no outside research expert can ever become as knowledgeable as a team of ‘insiders’ can about an organisation or situation.

Now, what’s interesting here is that, while Davydd Greenwood (who was later one of my teachers) began teaching the course in a traditional manner grounded in his professorial authority, a student eventually challenged that pedagogy, on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the democratic process of inquiry that PAR involves. In other words, the course’s dissonance between form and content became the ground for student demands for classroom democracy. Apparently, at first this only affected the content, and some weeks later, a crisis over gender and dissatisfaction with the class precipitated a women-led effort to create much more equal structures of classroom participation. If I understand correctly, the idea is that women’s prior experience with institutionalized sexism left them more conscious of problems in classroom participation, and women-only discussions created solidarity needed to act on this consciousness.

At any rate, it seems that the desire for fully democratic participation was never simply or unproblematically realized, and the problem of the professor’s authority remained an actively debated issue throughout the rest of the semester. Here, I want to quote from the participants’ extensive reflections on classroom authority and expertise, starting with Lisa Matthews, Aleeza Strubel and Ann Martin’s conversation:

AM: In many ways Davydd was our expert.

LM: Definitely. And as the expert I think he had the burden, the responsibility of grasping the whole context and of understanding what each person’s place in that context was. And despite his greatest efforts to not be the leader or the expert, he was. There are responsibilities incumbent upon that position.

AS: Isn’t that sort of hypocritical of us to put him in the expert role?

LM: No.

AS: But the whole point of the PAR process is that we’re all experts in some area. Are we saying that his area of expertise was in terms of the whole PAR process and therefore it was okay to put him into the role of the expert?

LM: Until he had imparted his knowledge or until we had access to his knowledge, yes.

AS: But the point is that we did all come with experience and knowledge.

LM: I think you’re right, but there are certain things that make PAR work and certain things that don’t let PAR work. The expert of any PAR group has the background and knowledge to understand what is going to get a group up and running. I think one of our biggest problems was that Anthropology 620 didn’t get up and running until the last session. It seems to me that because there are certain things that make a PAR group work, the expert needs to utilize that knowledge and then he or she can step back and be an ordinary member.

AM: That picture is quite a different picture from the way we perceived and treated Davydd in the beginning, isn’t it?”

LM: Yes.

AM: In that sense he was the expert and I think the discovery we made was realizing that we were experts too. We had the knowledge and the experience. But the model we were following and the role that we were putting him in weren’t appropriate.

AS: Part of it for me was stripping Davydd of his expertise. He had done the Mondragon work and not only was he the Professor, but he was the ‘Expert’ on PAR. Then I realized the gender issue was slipping by him, and that I was the ‘Expert’ on this subject, or Kym Fraser or Ann, or any of the participants who cared enough to really think and work through it was the expert. It dawned on me, maybe it’s not so much that Davydd was no longer the expert, it was just the changing notion of what an expert was. It is really connected to issues of power because I was underestimating my own expertise. (8-9)

What I find crucial here is that, for AS, the definitive moment was when she found it in herself to strip the professor of his expert role. Hence: it isn’t enough for the professor to cede power; students must also take power. It isn’t enough for teachers to cede expertise; students have to find grounds for acting on their own expertise. Note that, contrary to the first scenario I mention here, student empowerment did not follow from Greenwood resuming his authority more actively, but rather from the teacher abdicating authority long enough for the students to take advantage of the opportunity. This seems to presuppose tolerance for the anxieties and frustrations brought about by a prolonged lack of structure — a tolerance which may have been legitimated by the fact that uncertainty and compromise are, in this case, also intrinsic to the course’s subject matter. PAR, after all, is a mode of inquiry predicated on lengthy grappling with complexity and ambiguity,  and hence not susceptible to positivistic simplifications.

Greenwood then commented on his own ambiguous role: one where total abdication of authority was impossible, and yet where a lot of waiting and self-restraint seemed ethically and emotionally necessary to him:

It felt senseless to me to discuss and advocate participation without modeling it to some degree in the classroom. I doubt that it is possible for anyone to learn about participatory processes in a meaningful way without engaging in participatory processes themselves… It is possible to lecture on this subject… I have been told how to participate in the most authoritarian ways but the dissonance I experience under such conditions profoundly upsets me. (17)

I faced continuing pressure from some members of the class to retake the standard faculty position. There were repeated offers for me to do that, right up to the end. I found myself spending some energy resisting the pressure to do what would be easiest for me and apparently for some members of the group, namely to take charge again.

…This raises complex issues about the kind of leadership that a teacher should exhibit in these settings. If the teacher abdicates entirely, then the advantages of his/her experience and knowledge are lost. If the teacher does not work to eliminate the standard hierarchical pattern, he/she cannot facilitate the participatory process very effectively.

…Another dilemma in the class was a strong tendency to assume that participation would mean the end of leadership and the creation of some form of radical equality. This is consistent with a common American mind-set that equates democracy with radically homogeneous equality and that equates active leadership with authoritarianism. Frankly I was surprised by the strength of the notion that participation is somehow posited on homogenization… I reject the idea…

[Also] I was struck by a very strong tendency in the class to believe that democratically-developed solutions should produce harmony, which is to say that they should be satisfying to all members. Such an expectation assumes that democracy works because people are basically quite similar or at least can be satisfied by similar measures. If we assume that people are fundamentally dissimilar, then the notion of democracy as a noisy place where harmony and simple consensus are unlikely and where most solutions are compromises for everyone involved, comes to the fore. (19)

(Note in passing the critique of the assumption that democratic participation=radical equality or that democracy=consensus and agreeability — certainly this is sound in practice, even while consensus and radical equality still seem to me occasionally plausible political ideals.)

Greenwood agrees here with Gardner, Dean and McCaig: participation doesn’t mean that there should be no leadership. However, what seems to be different is that, in this case, the teacher’s leadership is supposed to be used above all to set the process in motion, after which there is ideally a transition to collective leadership rather than individual professorial authority. As Laurine Thomas observed:

Initially the majority of the group seemed to want Davydd Greenwood to have the final say when decisions had to be made. However, many including Davydd himself, soon became uncomfortable with this view. Yet, the fact remained that the majority of us were students, who outside of the PAR situation, are inferior in the academic hierarchy to professors. Furthermore, several noted that Davydd was by far the most experienced with PAR in the group.

Consequently, despite his protests, we were generally unwilling to ignore the difference and permit him to assume another role. In one memorable exchange during the meeting, one individual criticized him for being oblivious to her discomfort with the way the seminar had been proceeding. Others wanted to know why he had not exerted better control in certain situations. Throughout the seminar, when we were confused we tended to turn instinctively to him for clarification and guidance. In short, we magnified the real power he possessed and developed a perception of him as the ‘expert-in-charge’ when in reality we were all experts-in-charge.

Interestingly, Davydd seemed perplexed at times about the exact nature of his role. Early in our discussion he referred to himself as ‘the democratic police’ for the seminar, yet he later stressed how important he felt it was that ownership of the seminar was turned over to the entire group. Presumably we agreed with him yet, as one member observed ‘delegating authority whether as a professor or a manager, often results in feelings of uncertainty’ on both sides.

… We eventually reached a consensus which was captured in the following observation ‘Getting rid of the leader does not eliminate leadership. It merely means that leadership is now within the group. Leadership responsibilities now revolve around the group.’ This acknowledgment perhaps provided a measure of relief to all concerned, but it also raised new questions regarding each participant’s role and responsibility in what had occurred earlier in the seminar and what was yet to come. (23-24)

The start of this description is fascinating because it gives a tiny glimpse of the phenomenology of classroom authority: a world of deference, of “magnified” distortions of the teacher’s real power, of critiques and complaints directed to the teacher as if they are  the sole judge, of teachers’ uncertainties about their power. I note, also, that this description is interesting especially because it is written by students, who are practically never included in the metadiscourses on teaching that appear so often in journals like College English, and whose own thoughts on their pedagogy are relegated to the fairly impotent confines of This lack of dialogue on teaching is only highlighted by the absurd multiple-choice course evaluations that many colleges treat as a substitute for student engagement in pedagogy.

But the end of the description I find more inspiring. Can there be effective group leadership in a seminar? Yes, problematically, in a way that “raise[s] new questions regarding each participant’s role and responsibility.” This would look more like:

1. Teacher cedes authority. Ambiguity and unstructure ensues. Teacher resists demands to take a more authoritative posture.
2. Students come to the realization (perhaps catalyzed by the course content) that they can enter the field of classroom authority by developing their own intellectual authority (perhaps as experts on gender, for instance).
3. A shaky sort of group authority emerges, with the ethical imperative to lead the classroom spread across the participants. Presumably everyone suffers from more net pedagogical obligation than would obtain if it were all left on the shoulders of the legitimate professor.

Now, this is a nice scenario, but not one I’ve ever experienced in a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago. Most of my classmates really, truly, honestly, and totally unreflectively believe that the disciplinary expertise of the faculty should translate unproblematically into a professorial dictatorship of classroom process. (In other words, they can’t imagine the PAR axiom that content expertise needn’t translate directly to process expertise.) Most of my teachers are not ready to facilitate the kind of metadiscourse on classroom authority that is a prerequisite of this situation. Ingrained student deference is coupled to an ingrained faculty habit of preferential entitlement. Even in very tiny classes that made substantial space for student input, students are mostly too hesitant and disengaged to be effective classroom leaders.

To be sure, participatory pedagogy is not a panacea. It won’t alleviate other kinds of institutional realities: economic inequity, class prejudice, overcommitment, overambition, fatigue, etc.

But the sad thing is that mostly it isn’t even tried. Instead a routinized standard of student “participation” — typically, leading one seminar discussion per  course and uttering a certain number of utterances — is translated into a bureaucratic condition of one’s seminar participation grade.

4 thoughts on “Contradictions of authority in radical pedagogy

  1. Great post. I want to raise here an issue we’ve talked about elsewhere, which is your tendency to see the cleavages in authority that obstruct a genuinely equally distributed relation of knowledge-power in a classroom as a consequence of student/faculty expectations of deference. Implied but not explicit in this discussion is student non-solidarity with other students. Do you think that’s just false consciousness? Do all students have the same interest? Do we need to pushing a bit what a class and a classroom are for, and not presume that they’re for the same things?

    My experience (with a few exceptions) is that students are not interested in metapedagogic experimentation unless it will advance their career aims. Just installing a rotating chair is a nightmare, and has to be enforced top down (top down democracy is very unpleasant, as your anecdote suggests).

    1. nice to hear from you, though I may have to think differently about this blog now that your comment provides evidence of it having a readership! Of course you are right — as a matter of empirical fact students come in all shapes and sizes, with different, divergent, even contradictory desires, expectations, interests, solidarities… and in keeping with this, I think that no, non-solidarity isn’t just an effect of false consciousness distorting some purportedly “actual” or even “material” ground for solidarity. I would read non-solidarity as more an expression of the real state of student social (non)relations, and the achievement of student solidarity not as the retrieval of what should have been there all along, but as an emergent outcome of a new set of social relations generated internally in the classroom. At least, that seems to be what happened in the PAR class here.

      So whatever the prior interests are, it seems that they ought to be transformed through the pedagogical process — and although I take your point also, completely, that there are different kinds of classrooms, I am very skeptical that a graduate seminar can be something that comfortably accommodates an authoritarian banking model of education. Even on an old-fashioned Humboldtian ideal, it seems like the basic pedagogical presumption of a seminar is one of intellectual equality in inquiry on the frontiers of current scholarship. (William Clark has an article on the origins of the research seminar, I should re-read.) OK, so there are times when students just want to assimilate a body of literature — if they’re grad students I would argue that they don’t need a *seminar* to do that since they ought to be able to teach themselves, or do a reading course. Also, I’ve seen some students invert their sense of intellectual inferiority into a kind of fantasy of the genius professor who knows everything, a person whose very presence is intellectually sanctifying even as it constantly reconfirms the impossibility of being like them. Not sure that that kind of “student interest” is something to encourage!

      I agree that there’s something inadequate about my basing my analysis of why pedagogy isn’t more radical on regimes of deference alone. Incidentally, I don’t think that deference expresses anyone’s interests very effectively at all, other than the incredibly pessimistic interest of navigating an already authoritarian status quo without changing it. Sometimes I think deference can be a vestigial adaptation from other, more authoritarian contexts that lingers and obstructs; sometimes it expresses other kinds of uncertainties and social dynamics (eg, anxieties over departmental/disciplinary membership). Haven’t worked through this at all yet.

      But do you think that the variation in student interest, as legitimate as it is, ever *ought* to entail traditional, authoritative pedagogy? That seems like something you might be saying. And I’d love to hear you expand on the “few exceptions” in which students are interested in metapedagogical experimentation. I want to add something more also about my personal attachment to this kind of pedagogical utopianism — and btw I actually do think there are settings where hierarchy is effective and relatively unproblematic, theatre production for instance — but anyway, I recognize that generalizing my desire may be problematic, but I feel like I can’t help wanting to.

  2. quick clarification — by ‘deference’ i don’t mean having good manners or even tending to acknowledge that someone else is better read and more experienced; by ‘deference’ I mean more like a self-disrespecting abdication of intellectual and pedagogical agency.

Comments are closed.