While I learned a good skill from a terrible teacher and a less-than-perfect pedagogical approach, learning to question rather than instantly trust information become an invaluable skill for my future education. While I probably wouldn’t have, until my senior year of high school thanks to Mr. Lewis, associated authority with a “positive connotation of any kind” as Lunsford puts it (72), I had learned something Janet had yet to learn in her experience according to Penrose and Geisler, in that I understood that “there is authority to spare – that there is room for many voices” (517) even if that belief wasn’t validated until later classroom experiences. A classroom that, as Lunsford puts it, focuses “on a community ethic that would recognize and value difference, on negotiating responsibilities, [and] on developing inclusive understandings of authority” (75). My first college paper, with Professor Fitzgerald at Fullerton College, was a personal paper.
In high school, I had never really focused on the personal and instead wrote five-paragraph essays on books we read in class agreeing or disagreeing with an idea in the prompt or, sometimes if the teacher was fun, we wrote the same model of essay about a movie. Professor Fitzgerald gave us encouragement to be ourselves and even allowed the use of profanity (which, as a teen that questioned and rebelled against social conformity and traditional forms of political authority, was a treat I took advantage of) within our work. He embodied Sommers’s idea that “if given enough encouragement,” students “can claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence…not to write in the persona of Everystudent” (285).
These papers opened lines of dialog with the professor in which he considered us the authority on our writing topics. The students had been allowed to enter the “position or platform from which writers can speak, and in doing so, gain respect,” that comes with being an authority according to Wardle and Downs (578). Mr. Fitzgerald and I also discovered a shared like for punk music and, after class, would discuss bands and recommend records to one another and give each other feedback outside of class. The effect was positively “humanizing,” as Freire would put it.
Suddenly, I wasn’t responding to a book or a movie, I was talking about the music I loved, my experiences in life up to that point, and what I thought about school and society. Best of all, my opinions were all valid as long as I supported them within my writing with analysis and my writing prompted intrigue, discussion and delight from my teacher.
After my entry-level English course with Professor Fitzgerald, I continued to take him for other, more advanced English courses. While his earlier class had us write using our own authority, his later classes had his students incorporate authority into papers they first wrote as opinion. I soon became a Writing Tutor at Fullerton College and have seen this model used in many paper prompts to get students to start using their own voices as the primary source of authority within their papers and using other author’s voices as secondary to their own.
It was a style that tried to bridge the gap between writers like Janet, a freshman, and writers like Roger, a doctoral candidate, in Penrose and Geisler’s research. They noted “Janet and Roger focused on different issues when reading, set different goals for writing, used evidence for different purposes, and developed quiet different understandings of the subject matter they worked with” (508). Assignments like Professor Fitzgerald assigns fosters students to develop “a mix of membership, expertise, and…the ability to be listened to and heard,” (Wardle 587) instead of setting themselves up to “align…with one of the positions already available” (Penrose 516).
While there are multiple forms of authority and, likewise, paralleling forms of classroom management which model student’s perception of classroom authority, it is my personal experience that growth as a student, a writer, and a person best comes from a classroom that fosters the growth of an open discourse between teachers and students.
Learning to question any authority that claims to be absolute and instead looking for authority to come with “knowledge or experience” as a guiding figure creates a classroom that helps students “understand the development of knowledge as a communal and continual process” (Penrose 517). Writers can learn that their own opinions, both in the classroom and in their paper, are the primary force that drives the learning and writing process and then can learn to put outside authority’s opinion in the passenger’s seat while the student drives the discourse.
While classrooms like Professor Fitzgerald’s are the best classroom style for fostering writing, in my opinion, there are other styles in which, although less successfully, skills needed to become an authority in writing can be acquired. I wouldn’t send my worst enemy into Mrs. Gee’s classroom, but it was in this battleground that I learned to challenge classroom authority and to voice my opinions.
Mr. Lewis might seem like he had an insane approach to teaching in the classroom, but his extreme actions prompted response, albeit in the form of nervous responses, from his students so a discourse could open up about the different kinds of authority. My sixth grade classroom taught me to challenge my grade-school ideals that authority was absolute, nurturing, and unwavering. My twelfth grade political science classroom taught me the textbook definitions of authority. My English 100 course taught me how to become an authority in my own writing and my later writing courses in college taught me how to synthesize my arguments with support from other authorities.
Mr. Lewis concluded in his lecture that, while the school gave him authority as a teacher in our classroom, his authority was limited because he also had to answer to a higher authority – the dean of our school, who would have his head if a student complained that he had failed them for not doing a handstand. He taught us that no authority has absolute power unless we, as students or as people, believe the authority is unquestionable.
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