Reconstructing Authority: Negotiating Power in Democratic Learning Sites

By Spigelman, Candace | Composition Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Authority: Negotiating Power in Democratic Learning Sites


Spigelman, Candace, Composition Studies


I am greatly attracted to peer relationships in the teaching of writing: I used writing groups in my composition classes before they were popular; I directed a learning center where "knowledgeable peers" offered various kinds of writing assistance; and last year I introduced classroom mentors into my basic writing class. One reason I emphasize peership activities has to do with my own discomfort with too much classroom authority. Yet I appear to be in good company, for as Susan M. Hubbuch points out, academics in general and writing instructors in particular tend to feel guilty about assuming power, which to all of us "smells of coercion" (35). Rather, we want to empower our students, often by way of collaborative, community-fostering activities. Furthermore, the social turn in composition encourages writing teachers to model more democratic activities in hopes of training students for participatory democracy. We want to resist authoritarian classroom arrangements because we want students to be active in their education and in their lives. We see that peer relationships are, in Kenneth Bruffee's words, a "powerful educative force" ("Collaborative Learning" 638), a force recognized by John Dewey in the general education of children and espoused by compositionists representing a range of pedagogical and political perspectives, including Bruffee, Peter Elbow, Stephen Fishman and Lucille Parkinson McCarthy, Andrea Lunsford and Lise Ede, John Trimbur, and Greg Meyers.

But what is actually demanded of us or expected of our students when we attempt to de-center the university classroom? Can we truly shed the mantle of authority? According to Hubbuch, instructional authority is necessary for students' academic achievement: students depend on understanding particular teacher expectations in order to fulfill their roles as learners. When we frustrate or constrain students' dependency role by asking them to share our authority, we tip both the cognitive and the psychological scales, which, ironically, may "render the student incapable of learning... [and] render the student powerless" (40). In a similar vein, Russel K. Durst addresses the pragmatic needs and expectations of many students attending college today and examines the conflicts that ensue because composition's cultural studies focus often appears at odds with these expectations. In Durst's view, most students want their teachers to assume central authority in the classroom. Furthermore, Lad Tobin argues that our de-centering efforts and methods may exacerbate, rather than resolve, power imbalances by driving them underground. In democratic classroom settings, competition for grades and instructor approval remain unacknowledged forces, which ultimately sustain teacher power. Andrea Lunsford observes that students usually expect instructors to enact exclusionary, individualistic, judgmental forms of control, and may actively resist less oppressive instructional methods. Recognizing the historical, social, and cultural forces that support traditional views of classroom relationships, Lunsford states, "We shouldn't fool ourselves that creating new models of authority, new spaces for students and teachers to experience nonhierarchical, shared authority, is a goal we can hope to reach in any sort of straightforward way" ("Refiguring" 71). Indeed, college writing teachers often find that even more circuitous efforts to refigure authority are confounded.

In the discussion that follows, I want to add another layer to the already complicated problem of power relations in democratic classrooms that Lunsford suggests. I will describe my efforts to develop a "new model of authority, a new space," using peer group leaders, advanced standing students who facilitated writing groups in a first-year basic writing class and who met with me in a weekly seminar. I will draw upon learning center theory to account for the student mentors' positionings within their groups, their group members' constructions of their authority, and their conflicted status in the seminar class. …

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