“Respect my authority!”

7 02 2012

I spent an hour of my day yesterday watching the Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers” on Google video. [It was for research! Honest!] I had forgotten that the Groucho character is actually President of the university in that movie. Rather than trying to undermine authority, as I remember the Marx Brothers doing in most of their movies, this time Groucho is authority! The humor, of course, comes from the fact that he hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s doing.

He isn’t the only one.

Do you see where I’m going with this? No, I’m not saying that every administrator is like Groucho, but there are lines that no administrator should cross, like when Groucho takes over an anatomy class in the movie. Professors care about teaching. Administrators care about winning football games. It’s supposed to be the academic division of labor, but it’s not anymore.

Switching from Groucho to Cartman for the duration of this post, Cartman is funny in the above because in real life elementary school students have no authority at all. Most professors, on the other hand, do. At the very least, knowledge in our chosen fields gives us the authority to teach those fields to students. Even if you’re a bad teacher, you still know more about the content you teach than most administrators do and you know a lot more than all the outsiders who keep trying to tell you how to do your job.

What I’ve been wondering is why we professors don’t use our authority more often. When administrators tell us that online classes are the next big thing in higher education, why aren’t more of us willing to tell them that they shouldn’t be? Isn’t that what academic freedom is all about? When edtech entrepreneurs try to sell our campuses expensive equipment that we don’t need and won’t use, why don’t we tell them to peddle their wares somewhere else? After all, how many of them have ever taught anyone anything? When Arne Duncan tells secondary school teachers how they should run their classrooms, why don’t those teachers point out that Arne Duncan has never taught a day in his life?

When Cartman demands that you respect his authority, he’s using authority to mean power (as reflected by the nightstick that he’ll kneecap you with if you choose to defy him). What I mean by authority here is expertise born from experience in actual classrooms. Nobody will ever respect your authority unless you’re willing to make use of it yourself.


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