Thursday, April 06, 2006

Power Struggles

I was surfing around the blogs yesterday, reading about power struggles between professors and students.
That's too strong a statement. Neither professors nor grad students -- neither the blogging professors nor the blogging grad students whose blogs I read were talking outright about power struggles.
That's not right either. They were talking about power struggles, but I'm hesitant to call it such, because there's a good deal of talk among BPIR (blogging professors I read) that we grad students over-estimate the amount of time professors spend thinking about us. (I have thoughts about that discussion also, but that's for another day.)
But. Power struggles.
Maybe this is the day for those thoughts.
I am perfectly happy to believe that professors do not gather in the dead of night -- or the life of day -- and plot or plan or cackle over how to manipulate grad students' lives. To make it personal, I don't think my advisor spends more than the 15 minutes before our weekly meeting thinking about me -- about the work I'm doing and the progress I'm making.
However. I do think that, in those 15 minutes, he is disappointed with me -- with my progress and lack thereof. I am concerned that he regrets taking me on as a graduate student. I believe that, during our meetings, he tries to figure out ways to motivate me -- tries to figure out ways to get me moving faster. Which is a form of benevolent manipulation.
I also know that there are advisors who do not take their students' best interests into consideration. I know that there are advisors who think there is only one way to do things, and who ruin students' prospects because of this. I know there are advisors who can create such a hostile working environment, they can drive away students who came to graduate school solely to work with these specific advisors.
Of course, I do not say that all advisors are like this. My advisor is not. Even if he is disappointed in me, even if he regrets his choice, he is willing to help me get through what needs to be done. He is not the one impeding my progress.
Power struggles. And choices. There are choices people make to even the power imbalance. I don't think all of them are good choices. Even if my personal and academic lives were different, I don't think I'd make those. I might. I have made bad choices before. But I don't think I'd make those. And if I did, I would come to regret them.
Power struggles. I don't think of myself as someone who is deliberately avoiding them. I expect I would, if I knew about them. I expect that is part of why I would not make those "bad" choices I alluded to above. But I am not involved in the power struggles here. I think that is because I am not involved in my academy's life. I relish the little time I spend with those who are involved because I can catch up on the gossip. The gossip that makes the power imbalance feel a little more even.
Because that may be one of the biggest extenders of the power imbalance: the lack of knowledge. Professors don't spend all their time thinking about graduate students. They don't spend most of their time thinking about graduate students. But they spend some of their time. We graduate students get letters from our departments telling us how much progress we've made, and whether we're on track or not. At some point, the professors had a meeting about us, discussed us, discussed our progress,
And what else did they discuss about us? Yes, meetings are boring. But face it: academics love to talk. There was more of an exchange than just "Student A has finished her masters, and Student B has finished his class work, and Student C just had a paper published." There was gossip among the professors also. What else did our advisor say about us? What did people we don't work with say about us?
Power struggles. No. Bosses never spend all their time thinking about their employees. But they spend more time than they tell us.


Blogger BrightStar said...

I do think professors spend some time talking about their students, sure. I also think some of this time is positive and works in the student's favor. For example, I am working with a doctoral student who has improved dramatically since his / her first year. Some of my colleagues remember him / her as he / she was during his / her first year. When talk of this student comes up in conversation and it's clear to me that they have an impression of the student based on older information, I make sure to update them and throw some positive P.R. out there. In this way, I am trying to address lack of knowledge my colleagues might have about my advisee.

I try very hard to be the kind of professor and teacher who sees good in all students, sees potential in all students, and so forth. The frustrating thing for me about the power struggle is that I think I never get to know truly what the student thinks about working with me. Do I get to know that the student thinks I benevolently manipulate, if I do? I would benefit from honest feedback as I learn to be a better advisor, but I don't know if I can get it!

I do think the power struggles are inevitable, yet I wonder constantly how professors could make them less painful.

8:07 PM EDT  

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