The academic as authority figure

Sheila Trahar makes some interesting comments on the social and cultural responsibilities attached to teaching students who perceive the academic as an authority figure. She writes:

“A critical pedagogic approach seeks to dismantle the hierarchy that creates a power differential between academics and students (IPPOLITO, 2007) yet in seeking to dismantle such hierarchies, we may overlook the different ways that people understand each other’s behaviour and “hierarchies”, especially in intercultural higher education contexts. “Hierarchies” may be very familiar to many students who can feel threatened by apparent attempts to dismantle them. No matter how much we talk of shifting and fragmentary identities (SARUP, 1996; FOX, 2006) resisting essentialised notions of the latter, we all bring different understandings to the international classroom, including ways in which the relationship between learner and teacher is conceptualised (SALILI, 2001). To what extent then, in seeking to dismantle this “hierarchy” are we acting in ways that are at best counter cultural for many people and at worst dismissive of their traditions? Through my practitioner research as a narrative inquirer, I have learned that, seeking to dismantle or dismiss the authority vested in me can be threatening for those students who are more familiar with positioning the academic as an authority figure. It is much more inclusive to accept the different conceptualisations of the teacher/student relationship, certainly at the beginning of that relationship, as this can lessen the anxiety of such students.

Trahar goes on to note: “In addition, I have explored the cultural embeddedness of some other culturally inviolable Western academic traditions such as critical thinking and plagiarism elsewhere (see TRAHAR, 2006a, b, 2007, 2008). Those such as WELIKALA (2008) engage in similar critiques:

For instance, for Japanese learners, criticality is interwoven with their norms related to interpersonal relationships. Moreover, they do not relate verbal silence to intellectual passivity. Their argument is that critical learning also involves critical thinking, and hence, for them, arguing for a point of view itself is not an assurance of critical learning (…) those who talk too much during lessons may not be critically reflecting but ‘shouting’ since they have language fluency” (WELIKALA, 2008, p.166).

There is of course a more fundamental and perhaps more uncomfortable question to ask (BACK, 2004) which is to what extent are we, certainly in the UK given our history as a coloniser, perpetuating imperialism by not opening up all of our higher education practices to scrutiny for their unacknowledged cultural entrenchment? “Even the cultural hybridity permitted within an internationalised HEI is scripted by the neoliberal presumption that Western norms should prevail” (SIDHU, 2004, cited in HAIGH, 2008, p.430). I suggest that engaging in narrative inquiry to research intercultural communication in learning and teaching in higher education is a way to challenge this neoliberal presumption.”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Sheila Trahar ‘Beyond the Story Itself: Narrative Inquiry and Autoethnography in Intercultural Research in Higher Education’ FQS Forum: Qualitative Research Sozialforschung Volume 10, No. 1, Art. 30 – January 2009


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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