The blessing of an extreme lack of authority

I wish someone had told me years and years ago:  It is not only OK, it is a gift to possess no authority or expertise whatsoever.

Sure, in areas of life in which I am the responsible party, I need authority to carry out my work. And I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life thinking hard about the authority of teachers and teacher candidates, and how writing forges authority.

But today, I’m seeing that in some cases, authority just gets in the way.  There’s a blessing in feeling so novice in a thing that one can simply show up and learn.  And that’s just what I’ll be doing on Friday at a conference session I’m excited about.

At the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, a roundtable session (Session A.06) will focus on “Religion, Spirituality, and the Work of Literacy Education.”  Tables will gather to listen and discuss very smart scholars sharing research on aspects of literacy education as it intersects with religion and spirituality. The papers are fantastic. They are wide-ranging, from histories of religious oppression expressed in English Language Arts classrooms to efforts to read more mindfully, drawing more explicitly on religious literacies, to accounts of spiritual dimensions of students’ and teachers’ engagement in English teaching and learning. My role is to provide a “response.” This is open-ended, but the typical thing to do would be to summarize the papers, synthesizing them and drawing forward key themes and an agenda for future research.

For the two weeks I have had the papers, I have been unable to write that kind of statement.  Don’t get me wrong– I CAN write one and have written them. My problem isn’t lack of ideas or lack of experience of the task. It’s that I don’t think these researchers need that kind of response from me.  Fact: they are ALL out ahead of me when it comes to research and theory in this area. For many of them it is a specialization; for me it is a set of curiosities. While I know how to speak authoritatively on this topic and in this setting, and could do it, the truth is that I lack any real authority with this group of people.

So. Am I stuck?  No! The opposite!  Because I am a learner in relationship to these people, what I can do is just be me. I can tell some stories that connect to what I have read, and I can offer my stories as question sites to which their very smart work might be applied. So, people who show up can expect to hear not a “Respondent talk” but instead a couple of funny stories, told with love, and a whole bunch of questions.

If you’re at NCTE, come to the session!  It’s going to be wonderful. A.06, 9:30-10:45 am, in Room 127.

Advertisements