Voice of Authority in Teaching

When I was in the Navy, I was contemplating whether or not to stay with my ship in Japan, or if I should try to find a ship stateside. I was very far from home for two years. In some ways I was happy. I had a lot of freedom for person my young age, with plenty of new places and experiences to explore. In other ways, I was unhappy. I was so far from home, I never got to see my family and life was one culture shock after another. I was never truly comfortable.

Discussing this with a “Marlboro Man” type of fellow from western Nebraska, Dan Hall (he even looked like the Marlboro Man) –  I mentioned that I should ask my parents to tell me what to do. Dan told me, “what an awful thing to put on your parents. Make your own decision. I was looking for an authority figure to tell me what to do. I wonder if ultimately I was planning to hold them accountable if things didn’t work out well for me. In any case, Dan was right. I needed to make my own decision. I never did discuss it with my parents.

In a way, I still found an answer with an external authority figure by having Dan tell me it was up to me. Intellectually, I was in a place that respected authority in all matters, and my opinion counted for little. The Navy is a great place for people who enjoy having others tell them what to do.

After a couple of years, again I wrestled with a big decision when I decided whether or not to re-enlist or to be discharged and return home to Kansas. Again, I thought about discussing it with my parents, but ultimately after weighing the benefits (and experiencing combat action in the Persian Gulf War) I decided I’d had enough and I left the service.

Fast forward to today. I am still amazed to find myself a teacher. Not only a teacher, but a college professor. It took me several years to identify with that role and refer to myself as such. Many times I still simply tell people that I teach.

I have never much identified with the role of teacher as authoritative expert, but simply as a person in the role of a guide to learning. I suppose part of it is that I came into this game late enough that the internet was already an established part of our lives, and access to information was no longer the obstacle it once was. With abundant information available, and my years of experience in computing, together my students and I could be partners in learning where I could help them figure out for themselves how to get where they wanted to go.

But this grand vision only works out well some of the time. Most of the time my students look at me incredulously, wondering when I will step up and become the authority that they have been conditioned to rely upon. My attempts at inquiry style learning to be driven by student interests often fall flat. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is due to my insensitivity to their personal level of intellectual development. “You can do this,” I say. “No I can’t,” they reply (or at least think.)

I have to find a way to start paying more attention to where they are, if this is going to work out. My attention to levels of intellectual development began when a few years ago I first learned about William Perry’s model in this area. It has been in the back of my mind, but has not come to the forefront of my thinking about my teaching until only recently.

In an article written earlier this year, Marcia Baxter Magolda (2012) discusses creating learning partnerships for transformative learning. Learning partnerships encourage positions of self-authorship. Her key aspects of building learning partnerships include:

  • Respecting learners’ thoughts and feelings, thus affirming the value of their voices
  • Helping them view those experiences as opportunities for learning and growth
  • Collaborating with them to analyze their own problems, thereby engaging in mutual learning with them
  • Drawing attention to the complexity of their work and life decisions and discouraging simplistic solutions
  • Encouraging them to develop personal authority by listening to their own voices in determining how to live their lives
  • Encouraging them to share authority and expertise while working with others to solve mutual problems.

When I reflect on these attributes, I notice that I may currently fall short on several. I am not certain that I ever draw attention to life’s complexity and the need for complex solutions. And I’m not sure when, or even if I am a “Dan Hall” figure who helps them to develop their own voice and authority. I typically begin with the assumption that they already have this, and find myself frustrated when they fail, even to begin.

But how do I accomplish these? Again, Baxter Magolda offers some suggestions. First, share authority in the classroom. This has not really been a problem for me. If anything, perhaps I assign too much authority to students leaving it up to them to figure out everything, rather than assisting and being a co-learner with them.

Also, faculty need to have experienced the personal transformation themselves into self-authorship and be willing to serve as a model for students. This includes being put in the vulnerable position of discussing the process and the struggles we have experienced, instead of always presenting to them the knowledgeable and polished person that we may be today.

Finally, I believe it also will require developing a structure from which to operate, that takes into account the needs of each student. According to Baxter Magolda example, faculty “spent hours structuring class sessions and assignments to link to learners’ capacities, evaluating students’ work, and addressing tensions that arose among students.” This is probably an area where I need to spend much more time exploring and learning how to better connect my assignments to existing learner capacities.

The more I learn about intellectual development, the more I see my own struggles and tendencies. From time to time, I still am seeking external authority, I still want someone to tell me what and how to do things. As a doctoral student, it has been especially challenging to find my own voice of authority as related to research, because it is still new and I am still learning. However, the more I explore this, the more I learn and the more confidence I gain. Maybe someday I will find a place that really works well both for me and for my students.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2012). Building learning partnerships. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. 44(1), 32–38.

2 thoughts on “Voice of Authority in Teaching

  1. Bill, thanks for your story of Dan Hall, and for pointing to Baxter Magolda’s work on developing that atmosphere of “self-authorship.” It is tricky (and vulnerable) trying to model being a “partner in learning” when students are still in the mode of expecting a professor to have all the knowledge.

    There is also the flip-side danger of students who think this means there is no foundational knowledge worthy of learning, if one thinks anything can be looked up on an as-needed basis at the instant of necessity. So you included an important point about “. . . presenting to them the knowledgeable and polished person that we may be today.” I’m not sure about how polished I really am, but, yes it is important for us to present and model for our students that the foundation of what we have learned in the past has gained us something solid and worthy of attaining, even as we strive to grow and learn more along with them.

    Interesting stuff! Thanks!

  2. Bill,
    Your post was very inspirational (even if that’s not exactly how it was intended). I am a future high school English teacher, currently at the University of South Alabama, and many of my education classes still don’t acknowledge that the educator is not an omniscient ruler of a classroom who the students should look to for all learning. I appreciate your teaching method and hope to incorporate it into my future classroom.
    Josh Adkison
    University of South Alabama
    EDM 310

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