Sources of Authority
We share the goal of moving students beyond thinking "it's all opinion" to thinking that there are sets of criteria that serious thinkers on the subject use to analyze literature and working with children. We found as we discussed this issue of students' developing sets of professional and academic criteria that we share a dilemma that we did not realize crossed disciplinary boundaries. What do we want to communicate about taste or professionalism, and what do we believe should be left up to students to decide for themselves?
We both want students to accept what we regard as our considered professional values, at least to some degree, but we hope they will come to that acceptance on their own. Confessing to this dilemma and the contradictions inherent in it helps us to look at it seriously. What for Joe concerns elitism, taste, and popular culture, for Rachel is a matter of respect for cultural differences and professionalism. As community college teachers our collaboration leads us to a larger issue of the academy or profession fitting into the community college student's world and the community college student's entry into the academy or profession (see Laden, 1999 for a discussion of community college students' border crossings and border knowledge).
I hear students protest that no one can say how anyone else should behave with children when we discuss the decisions teachers make in difficult situations. Should a child be punished for an infraction? Should teachers reward desired behavior with stickers? They say that everyone has the right to her own beliefs. "It's all opinion. Nobody can say." Yet, the literature of the field does say. Where does that leave the students?
I want students to learn about and consider what many teachers call professional attitudes and behaviors, even when some of those attitudes and behaviors go against the grain of the student's common sense or personal knowledge. At the same time, I want students to hold onto and dig deeper into the meanings behind the knowledge they have from their early experiences and their communities. That way, students will address professional ideas critically instead of ignoring or dismissing them, and they certainly will not just accept them at face value.
Early in the semester my class generates a list of favorite and least favorite books, and invariably several books appear on both lists. When I ask what that means, some students say, "It's all opinion. Nobody can say which book is a good book." But as a teacher and an experienced reader I realize that I do have my own opinions, which I consider to be more-informed and more authoritative, about which books (or poems) are good and which are not. I let students make their own choices for these projects, but looking at them together with Rachel, I often felt a sense of embarrassment that my students were choosing poems I would never have chosen as a reader or a critic.
I hope that through taking my class, my students will gain some understanding of what the accepted, canonical, academic values are for literature—what makes a classic classic, and what quality means. But I also want them to feel authoritative in their own choices and their own opinions about quality and value. I want students to think carefully about literature, knowing what has critical acclaim while simultaneously being able to defend their own preferences.