Power and Persuasion in the Classroom

A student, after sitting through one of my lectures, and then talking with me over an orientation dinner during which faculty were encouraged to engage students, asked me at the end of the evening if I was going to hit the bar scene later that night.

*sigh*

Exchanges like that are what lead to exchanges like this: “I am Professor J; let’s get started.”  No “hello;” no “how are you?;” no “this is administrative law, in room F109; make sure you’re in the right class.”  Rather, I jump right into substance on the first day, calling on students randomly, fully expecting them to have completed, and critically assessed, the first assigned reading.  When going over my syllabus and classroom policies at the end of that first class, I emphasize that I don’t excuse absences; that I don’t tolerate lateness; that the word “pass” has no meaning in my classroom.  I always wear a suit to teach.  I call on students by their last names, using “Mr.” and “Mrs.”  I am known to write challenging exams, and to be an unforgiving grader.  I threaten to ban laptops if students violate my rules regarding internet use during class.

The current teaching semester, however, is almost over, and on Thursday, I started class by expressing my love for the TV show Glee.  Always tickled to get a glimpse into the personal lives of their professors, my students immediately broke out into a round of giggling and twittering.  When one student asked me what all the excitement was about Glee, I gave her a response that ended with me dancing while I sang one bar of a song covered by the show last season.  More giggling ensued.

The contrast between the way I begin the semester, and the way in which I end it, is a reflection of the balancing act that teaching requires of me.  As I was preparing to teach my very first class two years ago, a colleague warned me that I had a profile “trifecta” that I would have to manage in the classroom: young, black, and female.  Graduate students are used to seeing authority in the classroom embodied as an older white male.  They associate power with that profile, and defer to it accordingly. When my profile shows up instead, deference is thrown out the window.  An isolated mistake is interpreted as a sign of incompetence.  Students feel emboldened to challenge my knowledge.  A bad hair day will be mentioned in my teaching evaluations.  To manage all of this, my classroom practices and policies are meant to convey power; they are meant to convey the seriousness of our classroom endeavor; they are meant to convey that I am to be taken seriously.

But I am not always a serious person.  And I don’t believe the classroom should be a site of dominance.  Learning, rather, is a collaborative experience, and part of that collaboration means that I must bring a little bit of myself into the classroom.  As in other parts of my life, in the classroom I am quick to smile, and laugh often.  I’m a bit of a ham, but teaching is, after all, a performance art.  My lectures are peppered with personal anecdotes and jokes.  My students know that I am married; that I have a young child.  Most importantly, my students know that I see the world from the perspective of a young black female, which means I am sensitive to the ways in which the law affects marginalized groups in society.  Explicitly acknowledging my racial and gender identity in the classroom sometimes makes me uneasy.  When my teaching evaluations are released to me at the end of every semester, I have my husband take a look at them first, so he can screen out any craziness.

Despite positive evaluations so far, I still fear that students will punish me for explicitly acknowledging that I am different from most of their other professors.  Black females are often punished on teaching evaluations for being—well, black and female.  Explicitly acknowledging that I have a perspective that differs from that of their other law professors on account of who I am in the world only invites them to penalize me for that difference.  And because they often have no framework for black women in positions of power, my willingness to be human with them will sometimes encourage them to perceive me as a peer.  I still remember the surprise of having that student ask me if he would see me out drinking later that night.  My immediate response was to laugh at his boldness, but my intuition told me that if I were white and male, no amount of conversation over a formal dinner would have permitted him to ask me such a question.

At the end of the day, however, I have to be me; and I have to remain faithful that in showing my students who I am, I am teaching them an important lesson.  When I’m feeling uneasy about being myself in front of my students, I am encouraged by a former colleague who wore her hijab to teach.  I once ran into her over the weekend but barely recognized her because she wasn’t wearing her scarf.  When I expressed surprise, she explained to me that although she did not always wear her scarf outside of the classroom, she always wore it inside the classroom.  “They need to persuaded,” she said, “that their law professor can be both an accomplished instructor and an observant Muslim woman; they need to see that I’m not oppressed; that I’m educated; that my religious beliefs don’t conflict with my participation in a democratic society.”  I like to think that I am persuading my students that their law professor can be both an accomplished instructor and a black female; that power does not have to look white and male; and that my willingness to engage them on a personal level is not mutually exclusive with my ability to engage them on an academic one.

6 thoughts on “Power and Persuasion in the Classroom

  1. My teaching evaluations this quarter were all over the board. They ranged from “LaToya is the best TA I’ve had so far at Stanford” to “LaToya was not warm or friendly at all and I felt uncomfortable expressing myself in the class.” While half the class gave me scores of “excellent” in all areas, at least three or four of my 16 students gave me scores of “poor” in each area. One of my mentors said that was the “black tax” and I should pay no mention of it, and in general, I didn’t. But I did notice how if I made a mistake, how quick they were to jump all over me, something I’d never seen done to a professor who is white; now perhaps this is because I’m “only” a TA, but I am a TA that is much more knowledgeable about the topic than any of them. I also didn’t shy away from expressing my “real” opinions, and correcting them when I thought they were wrong. At the end of the day, I don’t think I’ll be winning any teaching awards, esp. if they are solely based on evaluations, but that’s okay.

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    1. Interesting; I think so many things are possibly going on in your classroom, Toya. For one, you’re a female, and are supposed to be “warm and friendly;” also, if they see you as a peer, you are also supposed to be “warm and friendly.” But you’re not their peer, whether or not your skin color makes them feel otherwise . And just because you’re a woman, doesn’t mean you have to be their nurturer.

      What’s even more interesting is that you ARE warm and friendly; so what is it about your presence in the classroom that makes some of them uncomfortable? It’s no secret you’re bright, and so, no doubt, some students are intimidated by that (before college, they’ve probably spent their whole lives being the smartest one in the room!). But my guess is that race and gender are also playing into that as well; I figure a smart white male wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

      The thing is, I’d like to win a teaching award, someday. I take my job as teacher very seriously; I really love teaching. But managing all this other crap make it difficult sometimes. And even though I’ll get older, I’ll never get more male, or more white! And really, sometimes I think my age helps; they want to like me, and I think some of them find me attractive. To the extent that I dress nicely and am in shape, I am behaving as they believe a woman should. As I get older, I sense that things might change.

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  2. Love this post. I find your observations fascinating. Also, the fact that you have the kind of emotional intelligence to know how to handle it all so gracefully. I feel like when confronted with these types of situations, I always do the wrong thing. Would love to hear more about this.

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    1. Did I come off like I handled it gracefully?! LOL! Like I said, I laughed at that student. And then I repeated what he said to me–I think I mentioned the area in which he expected to see me. In response, he said, “what, you don’t know about that place? How long have you lived here?” At which point, I got serious, and said, “No, I will not see you out later; you don’t want me out drinking with you.”

      I’m not sure he really got the message, and I don’t think I checked him like I should have. I spend a lot of time rehashing these scenes in my head, and with my husband, afterwards–always wondering if I did the right thing. But I try to take comfort in the thought that I’m being genuine; that I’m being me. I told my husband about me dancing briefly in the classroom, and although we both agreed that it might be questionable (this isn’t after all, a minstrel show! ), we concluded that as long as I’m striking a balance overall, a little dancing isn’t the end of the world. Hey–sometimes, you just gotta dance.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this. While I’m not a professor, I am in a serious position of power within my agency. Among my colleagues, I’m the youngest, yet have the highest level of education. All but one of the people I supervise is older than I am. I don’t reveal my age, for fear that it might undermine the authority I command. Luckily, I look older than I am, so they just go with that.

    As a supervisor, though, I am always thinking “I wonder if they like working with me” or “I wonder if they are truly absorbing what I am teaching and learning/growing as workers”. There are times when I try to show the softer side so they feel more comfortable coming with me, but then I have to be tough to make sure things are getting done as they should. I’m learning how to balance that.

    I have established clear boundaries. No, you will not add me as a friend on Facebook. No, you will not go out to the bar with me afterwork, even if you see me doing so with other employees in the agency. No, you cannot call me on the weekends to chit chat.

    In my case, being Black and Female helps. In my field, women run things, but usually it is White women. Social Work, it seems, is the haven for the White liberal female trying to make a difference lol. As you ascend the “ladder”, it gets lighter and lighter. I’m trying to change that, one step at a time. I found out my supervisor had some issues with a previous Black female director, so I’m on my toes; my colleagues confided they believed it was race-related. So, I’m accutely aware of what I am up against.

    From day one, I established myself as someone worthy of respect. Someone you cannot take any liberties with just because of my race or sex. I keep in mind what you said, if I were White and Male, would this person have approached me as such? And then I nip it in the bud right then and there.

    This was a good post.

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