Bully Pulpit: Effective Teachers Face Their Power Over Students Honestly


The Law Teacher, Volume 3, number 2 (Spring 1996), p. 1-2.

About the Author

Kenneth L. Schneyer is an associate professor of law and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Legal Studies Program at Johnson & Wales University College of Business, 8 Abbott Park Place, Providence, RI 02903, (401) 598-1896, E-mail kens [at] pobox.jwu.edu

David Copperfield notwithstanding, everyone is usually the hero of her/his own story. The teacher thinks about the classroom as it is seen from the podium, and it is frequently difficult to remember what things were like from the other side of the stage. This is such a truism that it appears trivial, but the truth is that there are certain aspects of the student's perspective about which we would all prefer to avoid thinking.

It is especially difficult to remember that the student usually regards the teacher-student relationship as one involving considerable power. The teacher (from the student's point of view) has practically unlimited, arbitrary authority, and the ability to enforce it with little or no recourse for the student. Nowhere does that power seem more pronounced, or more frequently cruel, than in the so-called Socratic method, where systematic humiliation of the student is only a hair's breadth away from the formal structure and purpose of the pedagogical method. Student rebellions, attempts to undermine faculty authority, and signs of disrespect all are symptoms of the students' wish to fight back against this perceived arbitrary exercise of power.

Of course, most of us find it hard to remember this, because we are frequently imprisoned in our own heads. We are aware of the difficulty of the concepts we are trying to teach, of the frequent refusal of students to think as we would like them to, and, indeed, of the institutional power we think that students have over us. (I was astounded, in a recent Internet discussion of classroom decorum, to hear how many professors felt belittled, harassed, oppressed, or threatened by their students.) Teachers with the best of intentions and a genuine desire to communicate have reduced students to tears in the classroom, simply out of a failure to empathize with the student's perspective. We've all seen it happen, and more than a few of us (myself included) have had the misfortune to actually do it.

Some teachers pretend that the power isn't there. Professor Blinders tells himself that he is merely doing what he does, that no sensible person could feel at all manipulated, threatened, or dominated by his teaching methods. When students leave the classroom in tears, Blinders puts it down to their oversensitivity or family problems. He is the professor who is probably regarded as the most terrifying.

Some delude themselves into believing that they can somehow dissolve their power. Professor Chummy tries to be the students' friend: She encourages informality inside and outside of class, goes drinking with students after class, gives advice on personal problems, and does her best to be a pal. But when grading time comes around and Chummy has to flunk one of her pals, suddenly both teacher and student are reminded of the power within the relationship. The student is likely to think, "How could she do that to me? I thought she was my friend!"

Others know about their power but don't care. Professor Entitlement figures that she worked really hard to get where she is, that she is rightly in a position of control, and that the students' feelings don't really matter anyway. If she can do her job better by flattening a few egos and causing a few sleepless nights, then so be it. Ironically, some students may find Entitlement easier to deal with than Blinders or Chummy: at least everybody knows who is on which side.

Others enjoy the power. Professor Whip actually gets a kick out of seeing people squirm, and relishes telling stories about how he "zapped" an annoying or rude student in class. There are people like this in every profession; thankfully, they are relatively rare. Whip's students are divided into two camps: those in utter fear of him and those who come to class spoiling for a fight.

Professors Blinders, Chummy, Entitlement, and Whip are obviously caricatures. Indeed, I believe there is a little bit of all of them in each of us. But I also believe there is a responsible way for teachers to deal with their power without falling into one of the traps I have described.

I think teachers should act with constant awareness of the power dynamic. Draw the students' attention to it, and attempt to teach them about what their own reactions, and yours, mean in that context. There's no way to get rid of the power imbalance, but at least one can be honest about it and live within it. Indeed, coming clean to your students about the power in your relationship provides a fantastic "teachable moment" for a galaxy of legal topics. Consider what it would mean to talk about teacher-student power in the context of discussing undue influence or negotiation; to talk about the classroom as a "constitution" involving established roles and behaviors; to compare teachers to judges while discussing the difficult decision of whether, and when, to raise objections in court.

You also increase your credibility by this sort of truthfulness. The student who hears a teacher talk about power on the first days of class knows that this teacher is willing to be honest about difficult and embarrassing subjects.

One of the best teachers I ever knew opened the first day of Criminal Law class by talking about forms of address:

You can call me by my first name, or you can call me by my honorific. Both have pitfalls. When you go into law practice, you will probably find that you will be expected to address the senior partner by his first name; in that context, addressing me by a title seems silly. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that when this course is over, I am going to be assigning a grade, which gives me a certain power over you. If calling me by my first name would delude us into believing that that power isn't there, that we are actually closer than we are (if not closer than we'd like to be), then it might be unwise.

Most of us ended up calling him "David," and he ended up calling us by our first names as well, but I never lost my gratitude for his honesty and his clear desire to use every excuse to teach me something useful.

Teaching students about power, politics, and the possibilities of law within the context of classroom dynamics expands the reach of your pedagogy. It can also significantly reduce the threat you present to students, while simultaneously reducing the threat they present to you. Best of all, it will repeatedly remind you of who your students think you are and what you are doing.