Power and Privilege
Power and Privilege
Some of the things I’ve been going through lately have made me think a lot about power and privilege. One of those things is teaching World History, where I occasionally flash back on my favourite Classics prof at Beachy U who, with fave Late Antiquity prof, drove it into my head just how important appearances could be to the Romans. I think of this a lot. On the one hand, this can be a base for hypocrisy: we know that, even for the Romans, there were plenty who talked a good moral and ethical line, and maintained that public appearance, but didn’t manage to follow through in private. On the other, I do believe that not wanting to look bad in front of others, of wanting others to think well of us, is not a bad thing, and can be a good motivating force. Obviously, I like it best when people walk their talk — one of my personal grievances lately is wrapped up in trusting someone who didn’t — but I think there is even something to be said for knowing that others notice if you don’t. Me, I try to do it. It helps that I’ve been told I have a reputation for integrity and fair-mindedness. It makes me not want to lose that reputation. Actually, I’ve been really cranky lately and not as discreet about my crankiness as I’d like. So I’m trying to work it out by speaking very generally.
When I worked at public institutions, there were always these ethics laws that I thought were incredibly lame. I thought that because they often got in the way and cost more money, and because I really thought that some of the rules were no-brainers. Obviously, you shouldn’t take gifts from students while they are in your classes. Duh. I learned all of those things in teacher-training and by watching my professors, especially Doktorvater and his wife, at Grad U. One of the things I especially liked was that they modelled behaviour that made it clear that there were different standards depending one one’s relationship and on the level of the student — rules were stricter when dealing with undergrads than grad students, for example.
But now that I’m meeting more and more people at SLAC and other private institutions, not to mention institutions in other countries, I’m noticing that these things are not universally understood. One of the first things I encountered was that colleagues had no problem hiring undergrads as babysitters. To me, this is just stupid — although I have lots of colleagues who see it as a grey area. After all, the students you are probably most likely to trust are your really good students, and if you have to shoot money towards a student, shouldn’t it be a student you like? Me, I think it’s only ok if you pay them, and even then, I’m not so big on it, because what if a student doesn’t feel that they can refuse a person who is still grading their work? More importantly, I really don’t want other students wondering why I play favourites, and only ask some people to work for me. I don’t want students to think that I give those students who do things for me an unfair advantage. After all, it was once an honor to help the king with his toilet, because it gave a lot of private access, right? Anyway, I’ll accept that many people feel this is a grey area, and usually all right. I won’t do it, but that’s me.
Even though that’s a grey area, there are some I think are more black and white. So, for example, what about meeting outside of class time? This is true for both contingent faculty and students, by the way. At my old union campus, if you required contingent faculty to be at a meeting, you paid them. But even if they weren’t required and paid, I know department chairs and administrators who often didn’t bother inviting contingent faculty, because they did not want them to feel that, if they didn’t attend, and others did, they would be in some way penalised. What if (as is true with a couple of my more distant colleagues) a student has a crush on a prof, and the prof asks for, or even simply accepts an offer for, housesitting/child care/pet care/errand running? To me, that’s just stupid. But again, a grey area for many people.
To me, it’s the same with students. I know that many of us would like our students to attend more extracurricular events, especially when we go to the trouble of inviting in guest speakers. To some extent, at SLAC we can substitute a class for a meeting at an alternate time, but really, we can’t require students to come at times they might have to work or be at practice. I see nothing wrong with that. Me, I encourage students to come to such things, and I often offer extra credit (very little, but enough that students will often take advantage of it) for those who attend and write a couple of paragraphs on it. But I make it very clear that this is open to all of my students in the surveys. I don’t do this for my upperclassmen. I mention that there’s an event, and that majors ought to be interested in going, but that’s about it. They usually go. And here’s the issue — are they being coerced? Am I abusing my power?
The long answer is no. There are no penalties for nonattendance. But I’m the prof. I grade them. When I was their age, and one of my professors suggested coming to a talk, I did. I never thought there was much of a choice, and I always felt I had to go, but I never felt I’d receive anything but mild disappointment from my professors. What can I say? I like the approval. I think that my students have the same understanding that I did. And they see me going to programmes that my colleagues put on, even when I’m not thrilled, and learn that to me, that is part of supporting my colleagues.
The short answer is yes, though. Whether or not my students feel coerced, I’m in a position of power, and I have to respect that dynamic.
But not everybody does. And my anecdotal experience is that the people who recognized it least as students (perhaps because their own profs didn’t model behaviour that separated the overlapping relationships between student/prof and very junior apprentice colleague and senior colleague?) seem to be least aware of these things as professors. They blur a lot of lines. They seem to think that their personal and professional connections have meant nothing, and therefore when they decide to treat their students as friends, they deny that it means anything. And to them, it may not be. But to me, it often smacks of needing constant ego-feeds. And to an extent, it denies the reality of the situation. Students depend on our patronage, they are graded by us, and frankly, we have a lot of power over them. It’s a privilege. And to deny that privilege and to assume that students are motivated by friendship or by intellectual interest is to me on the road to an abuse of power. It may not get there. But honestly, it’s not somewhere I want to go.