Power

Being a new professor, I find the paradox of one of my life’s goals being actually realized a bit terrifying. I think I have sought out positions and places in my life where I can have a voice and use it, but the flip side of actually being heard and listened to as an authority is frightening. I was mid-lecture last week and fumbling over how to talk about multicultural social work as a white social worker who doesn’t have all the answers, and felt there was no way for me to say what I needed without also saying many things that would be misinterpreted by students. Students who are scribbling notes of all that I’m saying in the fear that it’ll be on a test somewhere.

Of course, this is made worse by the act of teaching through a screen, where I can’t effectively gauge all my students’ reactions, I’m limited to a window of the past 4-5 people who spoke or adapting my screen to see 24 tiny squares at once, and my eyesight isn’t good enough to be able to read every expression that way. There’s something lost in the communication. There’s other blogs I’m sure that will lament on that. My guess is that in the next few decades we’ll all be inundated by studies about how we’ve all screwed our emotions up in quarantine. Maybe they’ll make up a catchy nickname for the condition and we’ll argue about its existence and eventually see it in the DSM X.

I realized that if things go well in your career, you are steadily gaining more power. There really ought to be more trainings that are just about how you should use your power. The training that I got when I was a new therapist focused a lot on ethics and competence, but the subset of all of that is that you get into a room with someone who trusts you and you try to help them. That’s an immense power. Same thing goes for being a professor – people remember the things professors say to them and I think often that power is somewhat glossed over.

I remember having a coworker tell me repeatedly that she had a high school teacher (or maybe it was a guidance counselor, either way it was someone in a role not unlike mine) tell her that she “wasn’t college material”. She proudly talked about this as a catalyst for returning to school, but clearly the fact that she still remembered it decades later shows how much it stung. While it’s obvious enough to me that you can avoid minefield comments like this by just being a decent person, I do think there’ll be comments I scarcely remember making that end stuck in someone’s psyche for years, and that is quite a lot of pressure.

I think power tends to be invisible to people who expect to have it or have always had it. When I was a kid I wasn’t aware of being white or my parents having money. Power is unawareness. Friends of mine who were not white or did not have money did not have this experience. I remember knowing that I was a girl and that knowing was in contrast to the being of boys, which was better, and easier, and preferable.

Sometimes the idea of me teaching seems like it’s a joke. Every textbook talks about working with various cultures and competence or tolerance or whatever is the best word we are using for it right now. I think of the James Baldwin quote, “A liberal: someone who thinks he knows more about your experience than you do.”

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