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Power and Privilege

21 December, 2008

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 December, 2008 2:54 pm

    And my experience has been that your own marital status and gender can play a significant role in what is acceptable and what is not even if the behavior and/or interaction shouldn’t be occurring in the first place.

  2. 22 December, 2008 4:23 pm

    Great post. I agree with you about the babysitting–that would make me very uncomfortable whether I were the student or the teacher. Recently in a comment on my blog, a graduate student told a story about a prof. from another department who sent out an e-mail looking for a grad student to pour wine for an evening function at hir house, for $100. Although she admitted that the pay was very generous, she said that the grad students resented the offer of employment essentially because it was a reminder of how poor and powerless grad students are (relatively speaking) compared to tenured faculty. So, in some ways grad students may be even more sensitive about this than undergrads, although I think that faculty feel fewer constraints in dealing with the grad students than the undergrads. (That is, there is more blurring of the lines, at least by the faculty.)

  3. 22 December, 2008 5:08 pm

    Have any of you profs who live in small towns had the realization that if you don’t tip generously at restaurants, your students, or someone else’s, will starve?Serving wine: a role for future colleagues?

  4. 22 December, 2008 5:40 pm

    Interesting about babysitting. At Former College it was absolutely normal to have good students babysit for you (paid, of course!). (“Good” here means students you get along with and think are responsible, not just ones with the highest grades.) The students I knew who did it, loved to. (Of course, most students at Former College didn’t really need the money, which changed the dynamic a little.) For that matter, the sororities regularly sponsored “Faculty Night Out”s, where they’d do basically a drop-in day care for faculty to get a free night of babysitting. I’ll say again that SLACs have a very different culture from other kinds of institutions, and a lot of lines do blur. Sometimes in a really great way, sometimes in a pretty awful way (faculty-student relationships used to be rife in such places in a bad way – maybe still are, I don’t know). But I think that one of the things students value about a SLAC experience is that they can think their relationships with professors are about friendship and intellectual interest at least as much as about power.I’m not saying that there isn’t the potential for abuse, but that people who choose a SLAC experience often do so precisely because they like what you describe as blurring of lines.(About suggesting talks/events on campus – I so don’t at all see that as remotely coercive, but then, I never went to a talk because a prof suggested it – in fact, in college I didn’t go to many talks/events at all!)Kelly in Kansas mentioned marital status and gender – I think class is a big issue here, too; the upper-middle class students that I’ve taught have generally had enough social/cultural capital in their lives that they occupied a different relationship to profs than working class students. (And in my own experience SLACs have many more upper/middle class kids than working class kids – not that that’s universal, of course.)

  5. 22 December, 2008 6:19 pm

    I babysat as a grad student, and had no problems with it, because I did need the money. To me, it really wasn’t much different from my advisor getting me a gig doing research or working in the library, I guess. I also housesat most summers for faculty. Even though I paid rent elsewhere, I didn’t have to pay utilities, and always had a much nicer place with A/C and cable for the summer. And I think NK is right about the SLAC thing. It’s something I get, but don’t get, in that it still feels wrong to me to invite just one student to coffee, for example. I generally will only do ‘social’ sorts of things after giving a general invite (unless I’m doing advising over coffee or something like that). As it happens, only one or two students will take me up on offers to go to the Big City to good research libraries, and we do develop closer relationships, but it’s still very much mentor/mentee? as much as anything else. A couple of years down the line, after graduation, I have some students who are also friends, but it takes a while. And Steve, as one of those students who waited tables, I’m *very* conscious of things like tipping. To me, there’s a difference between paying a student who is working a job and asking a student to work for you. I ask students to housesit for me pretty regularly, but I make sure they are people who won’t be taking my classes. I don’t pay much — it’s usually a trade of a free place to stay during the summer term for a student who lives out of town and doesn’t want to commute or pay rent, plus some cash. I think it ends up being an OK deal, because I’ve had repeat offers from students. But even then, I try to get all the terms worked out clearly.

  6. 23 December, 2008 12:52 pm

    The phrase “inviting just one student to coffee” gives me pause. In some faculties in Cambridge, there exist supervisors who are prone to holding supervisions in the pub. I’ve never thought that was a great idea but obviously the students (graduates, as far as I remember) thought it was an excellent plan. And I’ve relocated one-on-one supervisions to the canteen when badly in need of caffeine, and never thought twice about it (though there is a certain confrontation if one offers to buy, I find). (And indeed at Birkbeck I held all my non-seminar classes in the bar or canteen but that was for lack of other space, and nothing was consumed.)So how does that all register on the propriety radar? Was I secretly scandalising my students (one of whom was from a Prestigious American Research University) or should I not be worried?

  7. 23 December, 2008 8:46 pm

    Tenthmedieval — I think it’s perfectly appropriate to do what you mention — as long as it’s something you’d do with all of your students (or all the students in a certain class). I think the issue for me is whether a faculty member is creating an atmosphere where students might assume that some are receiving special treatment and others not. If I say, “I’m having office hours in the cafe on campus, please feel free to join me” that’s one thing. If I happen to be going to grab a coffee and ask a student or students who need to talk to me if they’d like to tag along, I think that’s fine, too — as long as I would do the same for any students. If I only choose to have coffee, and to stray from professional/mentoring conversation to the personal with only one or two students (and I’m talking undergrads, obviously), then I think that’s a problem.Speaking of which, I think that this last can lead to a blurring that some faculty take too far, and make the students their confidantes — and that’s a whole different issue. It’s flattering to the student sometimes, but I think can place an undue and unfair burden on a student.

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