Socially Constructing “Master Teacher”

Mark Stoner, Ph.D.

California State University, Sacramento

Western States Communication Association Annual Meeting

Seattle, WA, February 2007


We are interested in teaching and are here this morning to celebrate two “master” teachers—Charles Braithwaite and me. Thank you. It is important that we celebrate teaching among college and university scholars because our work, at its heart, is always teaching in some form or another. Without the selfless work of Elise Dallimore (Northeastern University) and John Warren (Southern Illinois University) this award would not happen. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their commitment to colleagues they often don’t know but serve generously. Their service to our association is extremely valuable.  If I can support their future work in any way, I offer my constant help.


I thank my friends and colleagues responsible for my nomination: Becky LaVally, Juliane Mora and Lanette Pogue. They worked very hard to assemble an effective nomination file—and of course they were successful as they are in all they do!  They have become my tutors on practical action. Thank you Becky, Juliane and Lanette for your generous and persistent work in making this happen.


 I am delighted to see so many colleagues who wrote wonderfully thoughtful and informative letters of support. Your letters were extremely instructive to me. I am honored to be named a master teacher, but to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what it is or what it means.  Maybe if we talk about it a bit, each of us can construct a meaning that will guide us all toward toward being (or remaining) master teachers.


The concept “social construction of X” is used quite widely in the academic literature from the social construction of bribes (Chiu, Y., 2007), to the social construction of whiteness (Guess, 2006) and just about anything else you can think of. 


Scholars in communication studies make use of the term regularly.  (I found 160 invocations of the term in a simple search of the Communication and Mass Media Complete database.)  Sometimes we talk, at least informally, as though everything is socially constructed, but we should know better. I am not socially constructed, nor are you.  We exist as physical beings.  While we may argue the degree to which our “sense of self” or “personality” are affected by social symbolic interactions, our physical selves which maintain those other things are natural phenomena (Searle 1995).  This raises the question which, I think, we are all working on, more or less: what is the role of communication in mediating the many dimensions our lives? 


The concept of social construction has been in use for some time. Starting with the seminal work of Mead (1913) and Cooley (1922), through the work of Berger and Luckmann (1966), John Searle (1995) and Ian Hacking (1999), we have come to understand the pervasive effect of communication in shaping what we know and how we experience the world around us. (The subtitle of Berger and Luckmann’s book is, “A treatise in the sociology of knowledge.)  I fear sometimes that we may have gotten too comfortable with the idea of social construction by uncritically allowing it to operate in the background of our thinking.  So, I wish to make it, for just a moment, “problematic.”


The purpose of social construction, according to Hacking (1999), is to raise consciousness.  It is critical of the status quo, he argues, such that for things socially constructed “the character of x is not determined by the nature of things. X is not inevitable” (pp. 6-7 emphasis added).  I like Hacking’s analysis because it provides a useful starting point from which to launch a critical analysis of our discourse. So, let’s start by invoking Hacking’s principle that things socially constructed are not determined by the nature of things.


Now, I think that the notion of “teacher” is inevitable in human relations.  For example, parents necessarily are teachers of their children, for better or worse. As people move through their lives, roles change, and new information, skills, concepts, values, etc. must be learned. Consequently, people must teach other people. While “teacher” is inevitable, I argue that the notion of “master teacher” is not. Teaching is determined by the nature of things—we can’t live and work together without teachers, teaching and being taught. However, “master teacher” is an idea, a socially constructed notion that is not inevitable and serves to raise our conscious about teaching itself.


Hacking (1999) writes:


Ways of classifying human beings interact with the human beings who are classified . . . .  People think of themselves as of a kind, perhaps, or reject the classification.  All our acts are under descriptions, and the acts that are open to us depend  . . . on the descriptors available to us. (31)


I am guessing that if I asked you to describe teacher and if I asked you to describe master teacher, the lists would be indistinguishable.  That being the case, if “master teacher” is to be meaningful, we must find ways of classifying “master teacher” so that we can think of certain persons “of a kind” in ways that affect action.


If I am right that “master teacher” is not inevitable, then the notion is a social construction.  We create it and we imbue it with meaning.  Taking a second cue from Hacking, the meaning and behavioral effect of the term is dependent “on the descriptors available to us.”  I have taken the liberty of creating an inventory of descriptors drawn from my nomination letters and from Nussbaum’s 1992 essay, Effective Teacher Behaviors.  Please take two minutes to read and reflect on these descriptors.  Then take three minutes to talk with your nearest neighbor about what you think counts as descriptors of the notion of “master teacher.”  Try to negotiate a joint list. Then we’ll take the final minutes as a whole group to socially construct the meaning of the term.






Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality. New York:



Chiu, Y.  (2007). Gifts, bribes and solicitations: Print media and the social construction

            of payments to doctors in Taiwan. Social Science & Medicine, 64, 521-530.


Cooley, C. H. (1922). Human Nature and the Social Order (Rev. ed.). New York:

Charles Scribner's Sons.


Guess, T. J. (2006). The social construction of whiteness: Racism by intent, racism by

            consequence. Critical Sociology, 32, 649-673.


Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge, MA: Harvard

            University Press.


Mead, G. H. (1913). The social self. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific

Methods 10, 374- 380.


Searle, J. R. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.


If you wish to continue this project, please visit: