But you ARE the professor…

Here is a handy anecdote that reminds us of the pedagogical contradictions of radical pedagogy (which I’ve covered before):

But my favorite story about him [one Andrew Levine] concerns the first class he ever taught. It was during the exciting days of anti-Viet Nam War protests and Columbia building seizures, and Andrew was totally engaged. I ran into him as he was off to teach his first discussion section ever. He explained to me that he was eager to break down the authority structure of the classroom. He was going to ask students to call him by his first name [this is back when no one did that], and would have the students sit in a circle so that he would not be in a superior position standing in front of the class. “Andrew,” I said, “these students are not stupid. They know that at the end of the semester, you are going to be the one giving them a grade. You can’t pretend not to be an authority when you really are one.” “No, no,” he protested, “this is going to be different.” Several hours later, I saw him again, and he was quite crestfallen. “They treated me like The Professor,” he said sadly. “But you are the professor,” I said.

The story is from Robert Paul Wolff’s memoirs from the 60s. Of course, it was naive on the teacher’s part to imagine that a change in naming and seating practices would magically transform authority structures. But there are still some things to learn here:

(1) We’re reminded that pedagogical innovation can emerge preferentially from politically charged historical moments, like the Vietnam protests. Implication: we can’t and shouldn’t presume that all historical contexts offer identical pedagogical options. I know this sounds really simple, but I find it hard in practice to have a sensitively historical and institutional way of thinking about pedagogy, even though I know this historicism can be therapeutic. If egalitarian pedagogy doesn’t work at my university in Chicago, maybe that says more about my institution than about the pedagogical project itself…

(2) We have here the rise and fall of a utopia in the span of a few hours. We’re reminded at the outset that the students are not stupid; they understand that outward signs of equality are hardly the same thing as equality. And yet the young professor still believed — we’re not told why — that this is going to be different. There’s something utopian about that kind of moment of stubbornness, about the refusal to accept the socially inevitable that can sometimes (though admittedly not in this case) itself help shift the parameters of social inevitability. Stubbornness is a brilliantly political emotion. I don’t have an analysis of that yet, though I’m interested in what happens when stubbornness becomes a political symbol. Perhaps I should think about pedagogical stubbornness as well.

(3) The moment of the professor being interpellated as the professor by the students seems worth thinking about. (“They treated me like The Professor!” we’re told sadly) Are the students demonstrating instrumental rationality in this moment, tacitly calculating that it’s just not worth their while to participate in their professor’s privileged anti-institutional desire? Are they just demonstrating some kind of typical student habitus of deference or a will to self-subordination? Or is there some more positive interpretation of this kind of student behavior? Autobiographically speaking, I’ve had lots of great teachers who I happily treated and recognized as teachers, even while usually still trying to assert my own intellectual agency one way or another… I haven’t really worked this through, so far.

4 thoughts on “But you ARE the professor…

  1. Interesting stuff. I’m sure that mere habit is one reason students did not respond in the way the professor hoped, but I’m sure that, as you suggest, other forces are at play as well. Students want to impress each other, so one would need to consider how to influence this aspect of student culture. Students want to impress authority figures to the extent that they may actually prefer their be an authority. Students want grades and recommendations, so a professor must credibly promise that the desired behavior will be rewarded, or at least not punished.

    Perhaps it would be revealing to consider a distinct, and more common, conflict between professors desires and students behavior. Professors want their students to study hard, but the extent to which they do varies dramatically (and apparently has fallen since 1961.) See my recent post: http://permut.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/declining-standards-in-higher-education/

  2. You raise a bunch of interesting points. It seems to me that the best argument for student participation in pedagogy is that, in my limited experience with it, you just learn more that way, and you’re more interested in what your peers are saying, and more committed to the social group of the classroom (all of these of course go together). Of course, these aren’t considerations that will sway all students, but I think teachers who are trying alternative pedagogies could often be better at explaining these kinds of possible benefits in advance.

    Incidentally, about impressing one’s peers, I was just reading this article about grading being outsourced to students, and the teacher claims that for her limited small-scale case, students actually worked harder when they were being evaluated by their peers than by their professor.


  3. I agree that student participation in pedagogy can have big benefits in some circumstances. I’m even glad that people are experimenting with ideas that don’t seem broadly applicable to me, like that Duke professor.

    Based on that story, I’m not really sure what the young professor hoped to accomplish. Did he later find ways to achieve his goals? Did his goals change?

  4. I have no idea about the long term effect on the professor… it’s pretty obvious what he hoped to accomplish to me: to “break down the authority structure.” Which I think was a goal in itself. But what he later thought, we’re not told. The guy is probably still living and we could track him down and ask, I suppose!

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