Trust Me, I'm a Teacher: Some Reflections on Teacher-Student Power Relations

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Let me immediately note that I’m not intending to demonstrate universal truths with the following anecdotes. My intent is just to share a couple of particular rhetorical situations and the reflections to which they’ve led.

I was 22 years old on my first day as a college instructor, wearing a tie for the first time in years and resigned to the fact that I looked maybe 18 in the right light. I was excited as well as nervous, probably breaking a state record with how fast I covered the syllabus before asking the students if they had any questions. And right out of the gate I got this inquiry, asked dryly and pointedly:

“How does it make you feel that some of your students are the same age as you?”

I don’t remember if I had explicitly stated my age or if this student was conjecturing, but my response ran something like this (the exact quotation was, unfortunately, not recorded for posterity):

“Well, if my qualifications for teaching this class were based on my age, I’d have reason to be concerned. Since those qualifications are presumably based on me having a more thorough knowledge of writing strategies than those of you enrolled in this course, however, I don’t think our relative ages should be a factor." 

One more anecdote before I get down to business: Starting with my fourth semester as a teacher, I had the chance to adjunct at a historically black university. I loved the experience and the students, but much of my first semester there teetered on the end of disaster. I had less than 50% attendance on some days, and my students and I frequently talked straight past each other in “discussions” of course readings. On a day when I had especially low attendance, I made an off-the-cuff remark about my intention to crack down in the future to end such disorder. In response, one of my students—a regular visitor to my office hours who rarely hesitated to speak her mind—pointed out something that seems obvious in hindsight: Given America’s history of deeply troubled power relations between white individuals (myself) and black individuals (all but one of my students), perhaps harsher discipline was not what was needed. Indeed, as she noted, such talk on my part could be perceived as deeply offensive if phrased thoughtlessly, only serving to disaffect students even more.

With that revelation ever-present in my mind, my second year at that university went much differently. I found myself constantly working to diffuse and diffract the power inherent in the position of “instructor” back to my students. Of course I still worked within the institutional constraints of grades, assessed student papers, and lectured at times. But I found myself posing more questions in the margins of papers rather than making fixed statements about needed revisions. I waited longer before assuming a class discussion was stalled. This led to a lot of anxious laughter on my students’ parts, but also caused them to take more control over the content and direction of discussions. In general, I tried harder not to presume I knew where my students were coming from.

From the very inception of my teaching career, then, I’ve been faced with and intrigued by the complications inherent in the power relationship(s) between teachers and students. As I’ve dug through the articles and books surrounding composition studies and rhetorical studies, however, I’ve found a dearth of formal materials on the vagaries and variables of that relationship. To be clear, there’s plenty of great material on what we might teach in writing courses (just consider debates between expressivists, current-traditionalists, social-epistemic compositionists, and advocates of rhetorical theory). There’s also a lot of material on how to teach—how directive or nondirective a writing teacher should be, whether or not to provide models, methods of assessing student writing, etc. What I’m interested in is how we position ourselves/are positioned as teachers relative to our students.

This last subject seems only tangentially addressed in scholarly work in the fields of English studies, left primarily to education scholars or left off the page/screen altogether.[1] As two excellent recent posts on this very blog attest—I can say “excellent” since I didn’t write them—addressing college-writing classrooms’ particular power dynamics is often reserved for informal conversations between new instructors (“Using Embarrassment”) or dealt with by isolated instructors coping with specific classroom exigencies (“Learning to Let Go”).

As a result, a lot of discourse on the subject is left to common sense and guesswork. For instance, “As a young instructor, the only way to win my students respect is to be a rigorous taskmaster and swiftly undercut rebellion.” Or, alternatively, “In order to mitigate the potential fallout from the inevitable screw-ups during my first semester of teaching, I’ll be a pushover to grant students as few potential gripes as possible.” Both these positions may have practical merit in particular pedagogical situations, but remain simplistic.

There are two frameworks, one in rhetoric and one in composition, that seem potentially fruitful for thinking the student-teacher relation through more carefully. On the rhetoric side, there’s the concept of “ethos.” Many of us teach ethos every semester. I talk with students about how to analyze its use in argumentative texts and how to construct their own ethos in particular rhetorical situations. We look at politicians’ ethos, journalists’ ethos, situated ethos and invented ethos. But my thinking about my own ethos is often cursory (e.g. should I wear jeans or dress pants to teach in today?), especially after the first few weeks of the semester.

On the composition side, there’s the inherent interest in power relations present in the progeny of social-epistemic pedagogy. If we see the composition classroom as a place to encourage students to become more active and engaged democratic citizens, we may try to make visible naturalized power structures, crafting writing assignments in which students analyze and challenge authoritarian discourses, conventional political wisdom, etc. But what are we reflecting in our own teaching practices? What about the assumptions about authority present in the classroom?

In other words, though the framework for thinking through how we position ourselves as instructors in our classrooms may already be present in our pedagogy, the everyday nature of our relationship to our classrooms and our students may lead us to exempt our own subject positions from critical consideration and analysis. But what better, more readily accessible way to make the content of our pedagogy concrete than to apply it to the situational power structures present in our own classrooms?

Most of my comments above are in their nascent stages, and thus may be muddled. To end, then, a few specific questions that might emerge from these considerations:

  • What unspoken commonplaces underlie the ethos I craft for myself as a teacher (e.g. “teachers should appear professional,” “it’s better to appear too lenient rather than too strict,” etc.)?
  • Is the traditional teacher-student binary worth challenging? If so, how should/might/do I challenge it in my classes?
  • Are my comments on student papers intended to be authoritative or dialogic? How are my students reading my comments?
  • What archetypal relationships bleed over into how I understand my relationship to students (e.g. parent-child, coach-player, sage-disciple, peer-peer)?
  • What assumptions might my students have about the “proper” roles for college instructors and students, and what might be the origins of their assumptions (e.g. parents, older siblings/friends, popular culture texts, former teachers)?
  • How might students’ assumptions shift with their perceptions of individual embodied teachers (i.e. how they see the teacher as marked in terms of sex, gender, class privilege, race, age, etc.), and how should we shift/resist shifting our individual ethos in response to such perceptions?
  • Is my expertise limited to the forms and methods of “composed”/”rhetorical” discourse, or should I also be an expert on particular content(s)?
  • Can a willingness to give up one’s authority as a teacher result in a paradoxical reclamation of authority based on students’ perception of your confident humility (I’m cribbing from “Using Embarrassment” here)?

What I’ve read is of course limited, and you may know of some eminent scholar whose thoughtful work on this subject renders this post moot. If so, do share!

[1] There are some texts that address this subject—Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers is one controversial example, and there are stray articles like Marshall Gregory’s “Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Teacherly Ethos” from the seminal issue of Pedagogy. And, of course, there’s Plato’s good old-fashioned Socratic method.


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