Political Power: Who has it in our classroom and should we acknowledge it?

This is from the introduction to my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom:

In our classrooms, we as teachers have the political power. We are the ones who decide “who gets what when.” We are the gatekeepers for information (Luehmann). That is our job and if we regulate education through passing and failing students, thus enabling or limiting their pursuit of further class work, most see it as good.

But sometimes our students, the less powerful or the powerless, feel alienated in college. They thought they would have more power as they moved out of high school and into our classrooms and to some extent they do. They are now held responsible for their grades; if they fail, it is usually considered a fair consequence of their choices. They are responsible but in our classrooms, they aren’t the arbiters of truth.

Because of this dichotomy of responsibility and powerlessness sometimes students gain the impression that no one understands their position and everyone is against them. This can be exacerbated when the class deals with controversial issues. Often the students feel like it is us versus them or them versus me.

When we ignore this, it causes damage, just like having an elephant in your living room causes damage. Even if the furniture isn’t broken, the pounds of elephant scat will ruin the carpet. The alienation of the students and our positions of power can be mitigated by literally looking at both sides of the question and bringing balance, not just to the classroom, but also to the students’ understanding of an issue.

31% of students surveyed said the instructors should NOT challenge the students’ personal beliefs
52% said they needed to be exposed to new ieas and challenged about their beliefs (Jaschik)

The first step in dealing with the elephant in the room is to acknowledge our part in its care and feeding.