Don't Mention the Chickens: Authority and Persuasion in the University Classroom

Literature Review


Hanna Arendt's essay "What is Authority?" explains that authority is always based on a hierarchical organization. Historically, this has been desirable, even necessary, for society to operate well. (2). It is a worthy endeavor, then, to attempt to define authority, not just in dictionary terms, but also in practical applications. Many authors have touched on the idea of authority, and specific to my own aims, have developed the idea in a way that truly clarifies what authority looks and acts like in a university setting. Authority's limits are also addressed here to some extent, as well as what happens when authority goes too far. These authors also try to nail down what authority should be in the university, and how it should be used for the maintenance of a productive and democratic society.

Defining authority. The article "Authority, The Autonomy Of The University, And Neoliberal Politics" defines the type of authority given to professors as being epistemic (318). This means that professors are the authority in a specific field of knowledge, in which they are expected to be highly knowledgeable. In a sense, the professor's judgment supersedes the student's own, regardless of the student's own knowledge and experience (321). However, teachers also have deontic authority, which means their authority derives from holding a position in the school in which they teach (322). This means that professors are not only authorities in the sense that the message they communicate is more likely to be accepted as true, but they are also authorities in the way that they are able to exercise certain rights over the student. These rights include holding grades over their heads, making students conform to certain rules of the classroom, and attempting to keep students in line with university mandates (323). There is a fine, but extremely important line between authority and coercion. It would be somewhat easy for a professor to use this double-authority he or she holds over the students to force them to bend to whatever will or agenda he or she espouses. This is particularly the case, given how students may be inclined to accept the professor's word as intellectual gold based on his or her authority alone. However, this is wrong, and, according to Kodelja, contrary to the aims of the university, which are "to prepare students to use their own understanding" (324). Kodelja claims that the modern university is losing its autonomy, upon which it can base its authority. Because of outside pressures from government and society to insert "neoliberal ideas" (325) into the curriculum at universities, the university can no longer perform its true function of teaching students to think for themselves. In a sense, authority is used to teach adherence to authority-- in effect, authority for authority's sake.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks addresses this problem. hooks discovers in her undergraduate education experience that the primary goal seems to be "to learn obedience to authority" (Hooks 4). Both hooks and Kodelja attribute this refocus of education to stimuli outside the university itself. For hooks, a black student in a recently desegregated white school, the abuse of authority comes from a fear that the education of black students will lead to an uprising and an overthrow of the white power that currently exists (3). hooks describes her experience in university classrooms that, she says, "were the one space where pedagogical practices were interrogated, where it was assumed that the knowledge offered students would empower them to be better scholars, to live more fully in the world beyond academe" (6). To this end, hooks proposes that everyone in the classroom must be seen as equal, and their collective influence is the key to having an intellectually stimulating classroom experience (8). Here, hooks clarifies that the ability to create an "exciting" classroom environment is the responsibility of both the professor and the students (9). Teaching, she posits, is performative, and as such, it must be persuasive, because professors must be able to teach in each unique classroom situation in the ways that are best suited to that audience (11). hooks says, "The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself" (11). The world outside the university reflects the one inside the university, and vice versa. Racial, cultural, gender, and class battles are being waged every day, and unique voices must be present. Kodelja cites examples of how education systems are used to promote "economic and social progress" (325). Arendt says, that "[w]herever the model of education through authority...was superimposed on the realm of politics...it...pretended to educate while in reality it wanted to dominate" (16-17). As hooks describes, the society outside the university requires the participation of the university classroom to achieve its ends-- in her case, the conformity of anything perceived to be "different" from the norm (5).

Authority vs. Persuasion. Both authors shine light on the fact that there is a definite difference between authority and persuasion. Arendt says, "[a]uthority...is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation" (2). Kodelja further explains this by clarifying that authority is based on trust, while persuasion holds power because it is coercive (320). However, Kodelja makes it clear that all types of authority are not lost when the professor must use persuasive means to communicate. He or she only loses his or her epistemic authority, that is, the authority that comes with the students’ trust that the information he or she shares is true (323).

Further, it is interesting to note that adherence to authority could be seen as “irrational”, because those who obey the authority do so believing the person they follow is right, regardless of how the followers actually feel or what they think about it; “Does this mean that what authority says is to be accepted by someone who is subjected to authority irrespective to that person’s own judgments of its merits? Some philosophers think so” (Kodelja 321). The "1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure" document contains a section that is startlingly reminiscent of this idea:

The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own.

The difference between Kodelja’s statement and the “1915” text is that the “1915” document has added the stipulation that the person who is under the authority is a student, who is, apparently, inherently immature.

Don't Mention the Chickens: Authority and Persuasion in the University Classroom


Ward Churchill was a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Though he was tenured, and the courts later ruled that Churchill was wrongly fired, he was removed from his position in 2007. The university and investigators who examined his case claimed that he was guilty of “research misconduct.” However, it is generally believed that the true reason for his dismissal was that he made inflammatory comments against the government, specifically in his essay “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” This incident leads to questions about the legality of such a dismissal. Was Churchill within his rights as an American citizen to refer to people working in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns?” (Churchill). Distasteful as this and other statements may be to many audience members, most would submit that Churchill should be allowed, under the first amendment, to share opinions like these, no matter how repulsive the language is. However, what about his rights as a professor? Are his authority and his methods of persuasion compatible in the context of a university?

I began to ponder this issue shortly after hearing about Churchill’s case in a documentary. Personally, I may disagree with his stance on 9/11 events. However, I found myself oddly intrigued by his case. I wondered what academic freedom truly is, what it allows, and what, if anything, it disallows. Kodelja claims that professors have epistemic authority, that is, authority derived from the students’ belief that what the professor is saying is true, and that the professor is a reliable source, because he or she possesses the knowledge to back up any assertions made in the classroom (Kodelja, 318). This authority creates a tightrope of sorts that the professor must navigate in his or her classroom discourse. There is a difference between authority and persuasion. In fact, when persuasive methods must be used to convince listeners that a message is true, authority is lost (320-321). This is not to say that authority cannot be revived and maintained again, but simply that belief in this case does not arise from the authority the professor has. In this case, authority gives way to persuasion, and the means the professor uses to convey his or her message are more the focus than the message itself. In a classroom, then, persuasion must be used with great care—not avoided altogether, as Kodelja suggests: “Thus, although it is true that a university professor temporarily undermines his or her epistemic authority on entering into critical dialogue over substantive issues with students, it would be wrong for the professor to try to avoid such dialogues or polemics in order to defend his or her authority” (324).

These are the scholarly distinctions on which I base my search, but how do these definitions play out in the real world? Context is certainly a factor in what rights are maintained for professors and students. Whether they have actively considered this question or not, professors almost definitely have an idea of what persuasion and authority mean in the context of the classroom. One nagging question is, what differences do professors and students perceive between persuasion and authority? Do they perceive that there are any differences between the two concepts? Specifically, on the Christian campus of Wayland Baptist University, how do professors view their own authority in relation to persuasion?

Research Method


Because an answer to my questions is not readily available in any existent study, I believed it necessary to conduct research of my own. Scientifically based methods did not appeal to me in this regard, because I felt that the conclusions drawn from such a study would be incomplete. I believed these methods would reduce the information into numbers, which do not fully explain the actual situations in context. To achieve a fuller picture of reality, I here turned to qualitative methods of investigation. Specifically, I would be better able to understand organizational communication, such as what occurs in a large educational organization, when combined with performative communication, as happens in the classroom, in a way that pure science would be unable to do (Lindlof and Taylor 22-26). Such a qualitiative study would "preserve and analyze the situated form, content, and experience of social action, rather than subject it to mathematical or other formal transformations [emphasis added]" (18).

Interview Method. In an attempt to better understand how authority and persuasion are actually practiced in the university, I put together an interview guide for the purpose of interviewing select professors and students on the campus of Wayland Baptist University. My goals from these interviews were, first, to determine what, if any difference professors and students could see between persuasion and authority. I believed that these differences would not be as clear cut in the minds of the individuals I planned to interview as they are when demonstrated by Kodelja and Arendt, and in fact, might be entirely unrelated to these definitions. I especially expected there to be a discrepancy between what the students perceived to be true and the descriptions from the experts. Secondly, I wanted to try to discover how persuasion and authority are used on the Christian campus, Wayland Baptist University. Here, I based my questions on the ideas laid out by Kodelja and Arendt in order to assess what was actually occurring, whether those events actually coincided or contradicted the critics’ ideas. I wanted to try to get a glimpse of how both the professors and the students were affected by persuasion and authority in the classroom. I was also interested to get the take of both the professors and the students on the text from the “1915” document, which explicitly states that students are immature and incapable of making their own judgments.

Subjects Chosen. Given the specificity of my research questions, I felt that it would be difficult to glean quality information from a random sampling of interview subjects, even though all professors and students will have encountered authority both in and out of the classroom. It was important for my research to relate to teachers and students who specifically encountered the opportunity to give or receive personal opinions and beliefs in a classroom setting. I needed to sample the Wayland community using theoretical construct sampling, because my subjects must meet certain criteria (Lindlof and Taylor 126-127). To this end, I chose to interview three professors and three students who were. These fields of study must be ones that were largely lecture and discussion-driven, as well as areas in which literature could contain controversy, whether political, social, or historical. Political science, history, and English were the three into which I narrowed my focus. I chose three professors and three students who represented the general participants in the discussion of these subjects.

Validity. The validity of my research results is not meant to be judged by whether the results confirm any pre-determined hypotheses, but by whether "a right interpretation" has been reached. The data should be credible, even if it is impossible to be entirely objective when analyzing it (Lindlof and Taylor 240). In my research process, my subjects and I are striving toward a mutual goal of understanding. Social constructivism explains this as people making meaning and knowledge together, using a shared context and background (32). Therefore, we are both presenting our perspectives as an orientation from which to view the research questions (34-35). As the researcher, it is further my job to see the situation from the "actor's point of view to understand what is happening" (31). Given all this theoretical background for my analysis, my findings provide a snapshot of how concepts like authority and persuasion are transformed into reality in the context of the Christian university.

Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill, the professor whose firing sparked debate over the limits of academic freedom in the university.
Ward Churchill, the professor whose firing sparked debate over the limits of academic freedom in the university. | Source

Interview Questions

For professors, my questions were geared toward how they teach and interact with students. What subject do you teach? What classes do you teach?

How do you define authority?

How do you define persuasion?

How do your personal beliefs and ideas appear in the classroom?

How is speaking openly about your personal beliefs accepted in the context of Wayland Baptist University?

What is your response to the quote from the "1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure" that says,

"The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to for many definitive opinion of his own."

How does your classroom facilitate open discussion between you and the students?

For students, I was specifically interested in their ability to interact openly with the professor in the classroom. How long have you attended Wayland Baptist University? What is your major?

How do you define persuasion?

How do you define authority?

Have you ever spoken about your personal beliefs or opinions in the classroom? What was the response?

How have your professors brought their personal beliefs and opinions into the classroom? How did you feel about the way they did it?

How is speaking openly about your personal beliefs accepted in the context of Wayland Baptist University?

What is your response to the quote from the "1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure" that says,

"The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to for many definitive opinion of his own."

How does the classroom at Wayland facilitate open discussion between you and the teacher? You and other students?

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Should the university be a place for government to attempt to influence society and the economy?

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Works Cited

"1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure." American Association of University Professors. n.d. Web. October 2013.

"Academic Bill of Rights." Students for Academic Freedom. 2007. Web. October 2013.

Hess, Diana E. Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Horowitz, David. Indoctrination U.: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. Print.

Lindlof, Thomas R., and Bryan C. Taylor. Qualitative Communication Research Methods. 2nd ed. California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.

Kodelja, Zdenko. "Authority, The Autonomy Of The University, And Neoliberal Politics." Educational Theory 63.3 (2013): 317-330. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.

"Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." kersplebedeb. n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

Where it all happens....
Where it all happens.... | Source

"Some People Push Back": On the Justice of Roosting Chickens

The following link is to Ward Churchill's article, which started nationwide controversy about academic freedom. This particular source is the most complete online version of the text, and also includes additional material written by Churchill after the original publication of the article.

Churchill's Article

1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure

The document that outlines academic freedom for both students and professors in the university:

1915 Declaration

More from Ward Churchill

Churchill's Language Use

In the accompanying video, Churchill explains some of his wording choices, specifically "little Eichmanns."

Churchill's words are direct, insulting, and confrontational. Despite the distastefulness of his comments, they are certainly powerful. Should university classrooms provide latitude for professors in speaking words that so forcefully direct thought?

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is an advocate for academic freedom.  His foundation, Students for Academic Freedom, works on campuses nationwide. http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/documents/1925/abor.html
David Horowitz is an advocate for academic freedom. His foundation, Students for Academic Freedom, works on campuses nationwide. http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/documents/1925/abor.html | Source

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