social relational

Alex Reid (network authority) has clarified his notions of authority, positing an interesting view of authority as situated in networks. He writes

So authority is always a networked condition. As the network changes so do the conditions of authority. So the traditional classroom offers one type of node or portal into a network of information (through the authority of the teacher), but when the rest of the network changes...

and

So I return to the point I'm trying to make here. My professional knowledge remains valuable. My knowledge continues to authorize me. But the shift in the network changes the conditions surrounding that authority and alter its relative value. Before the pedagogic value of my authority took shape in the lectures I gave, the other activities I orchestrated in the classroom, and my evaluation of student writing and tests. Now my ability to develop pedagogic value from my authority takes form in a different context.

Definitely. Also, as we are embedded in more than one network simultaneously, and so are our students, the different nodes in our networks perceive our authority differently. In a class of mine some time ago, one student was perceived by three others as persona non grata (due to aggressively asserting his ideas), while others in the classroom valued his opinion. One student said that he had his "own ideas," which was "very important." These niches aren't fixed as the student himself felt it important to get along with all classmates, worked at that goal, and by the end of the course had been able to collaborate pleasantly with at least two of the three.

Even so, a few caveats, because it is unlikely, at least for some time into the future, that an instructor's authority changes much simply because his/her pedagogical network changes. One is that although students can turn to other professors' online materials in the "academic marketplace where others are moving on, leaving me behind," they probably won't unless those other online materials aid them in meeting the expectations of the instructor who hands out their grades. Another is that the authority embedded in networks is governed by social relational models (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity). That is, the authority of instructors is not based as much on their pedagogic methods as it is on the authority accorded to instructors by virtue of their being instructors, at least for those students in a class. For others simply wanting to learn, then the pedagogically related network authority can increase.

Despite these qualifications, the idea authority being embedded in networks is a notion I plan to keep in mind and consider how to incorporate into my own pedagogical practices.

The end of "The Social Nature of Blog Comments", a post in which I applied Alan Fiske's social relational models to blog commenting, states that these relational models can also affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Let's take a look at each of the relational models to see practically how they can operate in a class.

Communal Sharing (CS): Have you ever noticed that students tend to sit in the same seats throughout the semester that they occupied on the first day of class? When classes are "homogenous", it may be simply a matter of keeping one's initial territory staked out. In an ESL class, however, students quickly aggregate with members of their home countries. In one of my classes a few years back, such groupings stood out: five Chinese students (in pairs or triads) usually sat together, as did two Indonesians. The two Malaysians were usually within one seat of each other, and the lone Turkish student, a male, always sat with one of the other two males. The two Spanish speakers did not sit together, because on the first day, they had sat with others, and quickly grouping with others, did not break those groups, although they would speak together at the beginning of class and they did a collaborative paper together at the end of the semester, as did the three younger Chinese, and also four other women. Briefly, these students formed groups on the basis of nationality, gender, or initial seating position in the case of the two Spanish speakers.

None of this is particularly new. When teaching or working abroad, expatriates form groups. In the U.S., we often see students hanging out in the student union or dormitories with other students of their own background. It's normal to seek out people like yourself. In the classroom, however, forming groups on the basis of language encourages students to use their L1 instead of the L2. In an EFL setting, students may form groups with friends rather than on the basis of complementary abilities that may be more useful for learning. Most teachers know this. Still, having a theoretical understanding of how and why groups form, along with an understanding of student social expectations, can help in designing class activities involving group work.

Authority Ranking (AR): Generally speaking, authority ranking is the main social relational model governing interaction between students and instructor, but it is usually not so among students. There are exceptions. For instance, the social cue of age seems to delineate an AR model among Chinese students. In my classes, I've noticed that the eldest Chinese student seems to hold a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group. In one of my classes, for instance, the eldest, a female, was usually the only one who would speak in whole class discussions, unless I called upon a younger Chinese student. Depending on whether one wants the students to participate equally in a conversation, it might be important to consider whether and how an AR model might be operating.

The AR model explains why students are averse to peer reviewing essays. Such a task is perceived as placing one student in a position of authority, a position that violates the Communal Sharing and Equality Matching models that students use in their social relations with one another. If a teacher wants students to engage in peer review, then it should be framed so it is not perceived as an action of authority but of collaboration in which students are helping one another as equals rather than directing as authorities.

An AR model may be permitted in one situation but not in another. In my other post, I noted that although students usually follow a teacher’s guidance, they may not in some contexts. Graduate ESL (English as a second language) students will accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but reject content changes if the paper is in their discipline, an area in which the student feels they have more authority than the teacher. I've also noticed that older students tend to disagree more, too. Age grants a certain amount of authority.

Authority Ranking is a legitimate, not a power, relationship when both teacher and students (or employer and employees, or supervisor and supervisees) agree on the parameters of authority. Only when one, either teacher or student, insists on a certain outcome and obtains it without the other's approval does it become a power relationship. Yes, the distinction can be a fine line.

Equality Matching (EM): EM and CS are the main social relational models operating among students with knowledge being a major resource shared. In one of my classes, two students sought help from the class mathematics major for help in their lower-division mathematics courses. Another student, writing a paper on the notion of jihad in Islam, queried many Muslims who resided in her dormitory. Other students consulted students who had previously taken the class. Without more information, it is difficult to differentiate between communal sharing and equality matching in these examples. That is, if no return of a favor was expected in these cases, then the knowledge was a communal resource available to all. If a potential favor was expected at some time in the future, then the social relational model would be an equality matching one. Even so, these students sought resources in groups of which they were members, whether ethnicity or dormitory, so that both communal sharing and equality matching relational models were likely influencing their social interactions.

Although not common, EM can also occur between student and teacher. One of my students agreed to do interviews for my research because it was “a good chance to practice speech.” In effect, we exchanged favors.

EM supports the use of cooperative learning, in which students have different tasks and must share their results with team members in order to complete their own project. Note that the students need to have different tasks rather than the same ones; otherwise, no real favor or resource is being exchanged.

Market Pricing (MP): Market pricing is not a relational model operating often among students and teachers. Still, students do have expectations concerning course work. ESL students may not consider group work to be beneficial. One told me, “I think I can learn more from the teacher than I just talk with students.” Another said she paid attention to my comments on her paper but not her classmates. And a third complained about "not getting some lectures." In other words, they were not getting a good enough deal for the tuition they were paying and the "education" they were expecting. In combination with the other three relational models, peer reviewing, and sometimes group work, can be a tough sell to students.

Violating Models: When social relational models are violated, discomfort and sanctions can occur. In one class, a student who was initially with a group of all women students intentionally formed her own group of four computer science majors (she was a CS major) because as she said,

Like they were talking about their country, but I didn't knew about what they were talking about, so it wasn't interesting to me, or whatever I'm talking, it wasn't interesting to them, and this was the problem.

In other words, she felt excluded from the group talking about their country, a violation of the CS model and pehaps EM model. Needing to form a communal social relationship, she created one in which they all had computer science in common (instead of gender), a social bond based on similar interests.

In a different case, four students working in a group found it difficult to continue to work together. Three students mentioned their difficulty in their observations, and the fourth student asked not to be assigned with the other three for the rest of the semester. He wrote:

Actually it’s really hard for me to work with a group. We always have different ideas. This is good, but we need to synthesize these ideas and produce a work which reflects everybody’s ideas. Sometimes we need to forego our ideas even though we believe that the ideas are right. Always there are trade-offs. But I think, I gain more than I lost by working with a group, if I can learn how to accept people’s ideas. In the beginning of the class, I was poorer on group study. Probably, I didn’t know how to do it. I cannot say that I totally learned how to cooperate on the same work, but I opened the locked door in this class and I will go in through very soon.

Apparently, this student was rather forceful in promoting his ideas and perceived by group members as inappropriately exercising authority in a context requiring communal sharing or equality matching. The violation of the expected social relational model(s) was sufficiently strong that the three excluded him from their group in future interactions and he asked not to be placed in that group again.

Note that not all saw him as exerting authority inappropriately. Some students considered him to be an important knowledge resource. Comments they made included:

He had his “own ideas,” which was “very important.”

"He’s a smart person, that’s why I always come up to him if I have any question, person-to-person."

So, although the psychological foundations of social relational models are biological, the expression of social relationships is dependent upon one's perception and sociocultural history. And perception and history changes over time. Because social relational models are instinctive, the student apparently felt a need to belong (CS) with those other three classmates and worked hard at accepting others’ ideas (EM rather than AR), an effort that seemed to have been recognized by them as they did collaborate on tasks later in the semester.

These social relational models, although always operating, are expressed differently by different cultures with different combinations of relational models being more prevalent in particular contexts. For the most part, however, students tend toward Communal Sharing and Equality Matching. Students, actually all of us, engage in activity as much for the social relationships engendered as for the goal of the activity. We are by nature social beings. Thus, activities that violate these models can create discomfort and resistance, as in the case of peer reviewing essays. Thus, to faciliate learning in the classroom, it's important to frame tasks and activities so that students perceive them as an expression of an appropriate social relational model.

We read often about the teacher-centered and teacher-controlled classroom, how that teacher exerts power in the classroom. As Fiske in his social relational models theory notes, power is not the same as legitimate authority. Power is an asocial relationship while authority is social, because authority is agreed to by those involved.

Alhtough authority may be granted in most areas, it can be challenged in others. ESL students with expertise have been known to challenge teacher corrections of content. In my own class, a student once challenged the course focus on argumentation, suggesting that the course should work on all English skills, including conversation.

More interestingly, authority may operate among students in some cultures. In my classes, I have noticed that Chinese students generally defer to the eldest among them, whether male or female, and usually, in whole-class discussions, the eldest would be the one who might speak. Apparently, the eldest in a Chinese group, holds a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group.

Most teachers try to have all the students participate equally in a class, but should we when such participation goes against cultural expectations of social relationships? Is there a balance that needs to be recognized?

How are/will/can blogs change academia? Weblogs in Higher Education, Dennis Jerz, and Henry Falwell of Crooked Timber all have something to say about this. Fallwell, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

Blogging sacrifices some depth of thought -- it's difficult to state a complex thesis in the average blogpost -- but provides in return a freedom and flexibility that normal academic publishing can't match. ...

blogs can improve the circulation of ideas in a field, by highlighting new, interesting papers and giving brief descriptions of their contents. ...

Most important, the scholarly blogosphere offers academics a place where they can reconnect with the public. ...

Both group blogs and the many hundreds of individual academic blogs that have been created in the last three years are pioneering something new and exciting. They're the seeds of a collective conversation, which draws together different disciplines (sometimes through vigorous argument, sometimes through friendly interaction), which doesn't reproduce traditional academic distinctions of privilege and rank, and which connects academic debates to a broader arena of public discussion. It's not entirely surprising that academic blogs have provoked some fear and hostility; they represent a serious challenge to well-established patterns of behavior in the academy. Some academics view them as an unbecoming occupation for junior (and senior) scholars; in the words of Alex Halavais of the State University of New York at Buffalo, they seem "threatening to those who are established in academia, to financial interests, and to ... well, decorum." Not exactly dignified; a little undisciplined; carnivalesque. Sometimes signal, sometimes noise. But exactly because of this, they provide a kind of space for the exuberant debate of ideas, for connecting scholarship to the outside world, which we haven't had for a long while. We should embrace them wholeheartedly.

The notion of a "collective conversation" is compelling, offering the promise of an egalitarian conversation, of a better conversation, of a better academic exchange. Yet, as Falwell notes, only "seeds" are present. Most bloggers, especially academic bloggers, write as in a closet with others opening the door but rarely. Moreover, the opening of doors over time will likely follow a power law, with a few being read by the many. In what ways is that "collective"?

So, why blog when we can just keep a private journal of our academic musings? This collective conversation, nascent as it may be, is obviously a social activity. Referring to Fiske's social relational models (communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing), several models appear to be interacting (depending on the individual, one may be more prominent than others). One is the desire to belong to the "conversation" of academia, which is rather difficult to do as a newcomer. Established names appear more frequently than newcomers, and not all have equal opportunities to participate: For example, compare teaching loads of research institutions to those of teaching institutions. A second may be the desire to increase one's authority by decreasing the control of established bottlenecks of conversation, such as journals. In a sense, one is also marketing oneself, attempting to get a better deal in terms of recognition and status. Perhaps over time as a network of conversants is established, equality matching becomes active.

Note that Fallwell's article speaks of a collective conversation that discusses and debates ideas and knowledge, an academic idealization. Fiske's theory suggests that social relational models are driving academic blogging, an implementation of an instinctual reality. To be continued.