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Apr 1, 2018

Seeing one’s own power

Power is a weird thing; when you don’t have it, you know it; once you get some, it suddenly becomes invisible. It is not something you alone have; you possess or lack power only with respect to other people. One minute you are disempowered and marginalized, and the next moment you are the powerful and may dominate others. But the psyche is not that fast; it cannot flip in and out of emotions. The psyche carries the wounds of powerlessness into other contexts, where it is out of place.

Universities are very unequal places. Professors wield significant power over their students. A strong dislike by a professor, justified or not, may cost a class, a degree, a year in someone’s life. University is a place often riddled with clashes of values. After all, good education is about changing someone’s mind. Therefore, certain exercise of pedagogical authority is not just permissible, it is often necessary. Yet this is also the danger. It is just so hard to see the boundary, where the exercise of authority for student’s sake slips into the exercise of authority for satisfaction of the professors’ own psychic needs. Education is a relational minefield. I wish I could tell that hundreds of faculty member I have known over the years walk on the mind field with equal grace. No, repeatedly I hear stories of professors getting angry at students, irate, treating some students harshly, because of disagreements, etc. Professors are only humans, and that is not always enough.

Academia has developed a special ethos to deal with the professors’ personal weakness. In general, culture is something that helps us remedy our own flaws. One of the key components of the ethos is the presumption of students’ innocence. Yes, students often carry with them all the prejudices and biases the larger world imbues them with. They may look like the perfect representatives of the world of injustice out there, which is especially difficult to handle when the professor has been a victim of that injustice. The point is – university is a different, parallel universe with its own set of rules. It is a world where students who place themselves into our care are innocent by default. They may be mistaken, but they are innocent, and as such must be protected. A student may be racist, sexist or ableist in his real life, but once he enters the university, he is treated as someone in error, not someone to judge. The very consent to be taught by us is the first step towards redemption. Treating him with moral disdain as anti-educational as it gets.

I wish protecting students from faculty was not a part of my job. Rarely and unfortunately, it is.

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