The immense authority of a professor in the classroom is no secret. They hold the power to influence the way students write, the way students think and the wellbeing of an individual. A single professor’s class can turn a student’s semester from a dream to a nightmare.
At the same time, a single student’s privilege can end a professor’s career. Not all students have the same amount of power in the classroom. White students in a classroom with professors of color occupy a higher position in academic and social hierarchies. All students must understand their position in the classroom if we are to disrupt the current unjust systems that perpetuate racism within higher education.
Without questioning teacher-student relations, it might seem obvious that the professor holds the power. Part of the professor’s supremacy comes from the scarcity of courses offered. This places students in classrooms with professors they did not choose who control their academic success. Students automatically begin at a vulnerable level.
The professor is also given institutional power in implicit ways: as colleges become more commercialized, teaching becomes more important than learning. Those two words — teaching and learning — might seem to go hand in hand, but in reality, to learn as a student means more than just being taught at. How many courses revolve around lectures? How many students cram for exams because they haven’t retained what they should have learned throughout the semester? The answers to these questions indicate that our education system prioritizes the needs of the teacher over the needs of the learner.
Unveiling the more intricate nature of academic tenure reveals the complicated power structures of the classroom. Tenure supposedly secures academic freedom for teachers so that they have the liberty to say what they want and teach as they please. The idea of tenure is great in theory, but the history of the higher education system as a white owned space seeps into today’s tenure process.
Professors of color face a much more challenging path to becoming tenured. Many are overloaded with menial work so that they will not be able to complete the requirements for becoming tenured. Additionally, professors of color often move from college to college to escape oppressive work conditions. As former assistant professor of theater Michelle Gibbs wrote in her resignation letter, the fact that Professors of color are threatened by the power of their white students further discourages a classroom that involves non-traditional teaching and learning.
Gibbs’ evaluation leads me to recognize that power between
teacher and student in the classroom does not always belong to the teacher. Power then belongs to historically and socially enfranchised individuals: educated white people.
So where do students get their power? I’d begin the conversation first by acknowledging that all students will not have the respect and influence in the classroom that they deserve until professors of color do as well. In order for our classrooms to look equitable in terms of teacher-student relations, the racial hierarchy must be dismantled as well.
To interrupt our society’s racial hierarchy means disrupting the current commercialization of higher education and actively fighting the historical racism at St. Olaf. Reclaiming and reorganizing power at St. Olaf can happen if we work as a group of students dedicated to a critical evaluation of the College for the betterment of all. All of our voices should be speaking out in concert against the injustice of our social systems.
The classroom is a mask that hides the face of our society. We see progress and scholarship, but when you look behind the mask, we find the same social structures that affirm the existence of whiteness and prevent all students from claiming their education own the classroom.
Maddy Bayzaee ’23 is from Wheeling, Ill.
Her majors are social work and race and ethnic studies