Where does professors’ authority in the classroom come from?
On one level the answer is simple: it comes from our mastery of our subject matter – it comes from our knowledge and training. In that sense, anybody with a Ph.D. who walks into a classroom should have authority. But we know that’s not the case. There are many professors who have to work very hard to establish themselves as authority figures. Some reasons for this have to do with personalities, level of confidence, and other personal attributes. But that doesn’t explain why, for certain groups of professors, their authority is not a “given” and it is not assumed. To believe that it is ignores the connection between individuals and their experience with (or lack of) privilege as members of particular groups. So, yes, we walk into the classroom as individuals who have mastery over our field, but a growing number of us also walk into the classroom as members of under-privileged and/or under-represented groups.
Consider the following examples: When I was in graduate school I once watched students by-pass a 50-something female professor who stood at the front of the classroom and go right to the 26-year-old male graduate TA; they all thought he was the professor. Another time, I was a TA for a class where on the first day of the semester, a student asked the young-looking female professor : “Do you even have a Ph.D.?” More recently, a colleague of mine co-taught a course with a male professor; students routinely referred to her as “Miss” but referred to him as “Professor”. Juxtapose these with another example from when I was a graduate student: I was a TA for a male professor who lost student assignments, lost his train of thought, lost his lecture notes, and lost his matching socks, but never lost his authority in the classroom! By that I mean that students never openly challenged him or his expertise or training, and never once did they think that he was not the one “in charge” (if they did they certainly never let on).
We could explain the above discrepancies by asking about each individual professor’s characteristics. But such a focus would only reveal part of the story. A focus on personal attributes alone would ignore one of the basic insights of social constructionism: Believing is seeing. That is, what we choose to see (how we understand reality) is a reflection of what we already believe to be true. Take the example of the male professor who fumbles and forgets things in class. Students are likely to see him as an example of the stereotypical “absent-minded professor”. Yet, the same behavior in a female professor and/ or faculty of color would likely be seen as evidence of them being unprofessional, or not being qualified for the job. A common perception regarding challenges to professor’s authority in the classroom seems to be that it reflects their own failures as a person, or that individuals somehow “bring this upon themselves” by not playing the role of the professor well enough. This, to me, is a very narrow way of approaching the issue of challenges in the classroom. It is tantamount to arguing that certain groups of people are much more likely to be “randomly selected” at the airport for additional-screening because of their own failure to somehow comport themselves as the ideal traveler. Or that an African American man’s higher likelihood of being pulled over while driving reflects his own failures as a driver. Sure, there are some travelers who act suspiciously, and some people who drive recklessly, but this approach fails to acknowledge that as a pattern certain groups of people are more likely to be screened at the airport, or pulled-over while driving.
We all try and bring our best practices, our most “professorial” personae to our classrooms, but we also bring a whole lot that we can’t leave behind. When you belong to a group of individuals who are under-represented in the academy (or within particular fields), and who have certain expectations and stereotypes attached to them, you quickly come to realize that even in the college classroom you may get pulled aside by students for “additional screening”.
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus  and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.