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.


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.