Words and the Ethical Dimension of Power

Hello from my study,

Another day, more time in front of the computer. More time on the phone. More time on text messaging, and more time trying to manage the needs on both sides of this remote equation. It is sometimes comical and simultaneously touching. It is sometimes tiring and overwhelming; and sometimes it is learning to be patient, and most of all benevolent. The move to all remote learning has been a difficult transition on both sides of the equation. Fortunately, I have been doing some of it already, but that does not mean that it is an easy change, particularly in the middle of a semester. It also has me thinking about the power of the words, spoken or written, face-to-face or though announcement, email or video. Over the past month plus after classes when to totally remote, (we were preparing for a couple of weeks and actually began class a month ago today), the learning curve has been steep, and that does not matter if you are comfortable with teaching or not. One of the things I continue to learn, be reminded of, and have to learn again is that many of our students are frightened on a number of levels. They have been told their entire lives they need to go to college. They have been enculturated to believe if they do not go do college, they are not able to be successful. They are told if they do go to college and struggle there is something wrong with them. Both of these statements are expectations and as such, they are false; they are damaging as well as ludicrous. The reasons to believe college is necessary or the only way to succeed are complex, but again that belief is wrong. To put most succinctly, first, there are important, valuable and needed jobs in the world that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Most trades, which are essential to our way of life, and generally pay well, are available by going to technical colleges, and there are people who are skilled, intelligent, and more fulfilled by creating and fixing things. Second, while I am not trying to diss my Education College colleagues, there are some gaps in our current public education system which do not adequately prepare many students for the rigor of college. I see this every semester. I see it when even my upper level students believe writing is a cookie-cutter process and that all writing, regardless the discipline, the individual track, or even from class to class is the same. I have spent hours these past two weeks trying to help students understand how to implement rhetorical analysis and then write about it in their final semester papers. 

I have one particular student this semester who is intelligent and capable, but their major requires a particular style of thinking. I would also note that their field of study is rigorous and well respected. Getting their head wrapped around what it means to do a particular type of rhetorical analysis has been difficult, from both sides. After paragraphs of text messages, working with two different professors, and hours on the phone, the student made a breakthrough. The student noted on the phone, that part of time during all of this, it felt like you were both just yanking my chain and trying to make things difficult. A lot can go into interpreting that statement, but I assured them that was not the case. I noted the difference between writing and thinking styles and how both structure and basic understanding of what one was doing were necessary if the paper was going to accomplish what it should. Sometimes, we need to help the student understand that we are working with them, collaborating with them. It is not merely helping, as one of my colleagues noted this morning. This is part of what Thomas Wartenberg calls the third dimension of power, in his book The Transformation of Power. In any situation where there is a power differential, there is an ethical component because the participants are not on equal footing. When I suggest a path, is it a suggestion or a requirement? While I would like to believe it is a suggestion, the student might see it as a requirement. If that is the student’s perception, what is my responsibility in/to offering them an opportunity allowing them the possibility of exploring it as merely a suggestion? When is it truly an option for them to reject it as merely a suggestion and to go down their original path? These are difficult questions. The interrogative possibility is also more difficult to implement when there is a grade at the end of the semester. That grade has incredible power in its single letter style. Most students see as an evaluation of themselves versus their work. While many of my colleagues do not see themselves as communication scholars, and I would argue I seem to be an outlier in that area, we all are first and foremost that very thing. How well do we communicate what we expect, but more importantly, how effectively do we communicate why it is necessary or it matters? How is it applicable? Too often we believe in or submit to the argument from a position of power. What does that mean? Consider this: how many of us remember a time when we questioned something our parents told us to do? How many of you remember an answer that went something like this: Because I am the parent and I said so. End of discussion. End of argument. First, that answer does not promote discussion and that response is not an argument. Argument has a very different purpose. An argument occurs because there is a need to come to consensus. There is a difference of opinion to be sure, but when debating or considering the facts, the goal is to come to a place that people believe they have been heard and in the process of coming to a resolution, their opinion mattered. I know where this will lead some of my colleagues . . . and while I appreciate your disdain, I know that some will argue this is akin to making the student the customer. Indeed, I abhor this idea also, but there is the reality of what they are paying for an education versus what I paid in the late 70s and through the 80s. There is an entirely different idea about the necessity and requirement of college. I believe we need to be respected for the expertise, education, and continued research we bring to the class, but our students are not automotons upon whom we merely dump knowledge for them to somehow soak up. How do we find the balance? That too is a difficult and complex question. I do not think we were concerned to the same degree of whether that class we were taking was relevant or necessary. We went to college first and foremost to receive, to participate in receiving an education. Students today come to college to get a job. 

In a world of information overload, we need to be able to quantity (and horrors, justify) that what we offer has value, validity, and even a volume, if you will. A way that it fills them up or prepares them for the long haul, the remainder of their professional life. This was not always the case. When I was in college, while the cost was substantial, it was manageable and the debt incurred was not a mortgage on my life. I will say the debt incurred in seminary was significantly more burdensome. Today, the university where I teach is one of the more affordable in the state system, but the basic costs for living on campus as an instate full-time student for their four years is in the neighborhood of 100,000.00 (this includes spending money, books, and the such). That is an incredible amount for someone to take on, and if you have more than one child, there is no way the average family has that sort of disposable income. I think the average debt for an undergraduate is in the area of 40,000.00. As consequence, questioning the value of that or what we do is logical. Do I like it? Most certainly not, but it is the reality that we face in our classes daily. Are we preparing students for the world they are about to enter? Are they getting a reasonable value? I know that is a loaded and impossible question to answer simply. The point is this: I am not sure we believed there was a need to ask that question when I was a student at Dana. We simply believed the value was there . . .  and I believe we were correct. In fact, I remember while attending Luther Northwestern Seminary with the likes of Scott Grorud, Merle Brockhoff, Wilber Holz, Kip Tyler or a few others, we more than held our own in classes with students from what I referred to as the Norwegian pipeline to Lutheran ministry. Yes, those classmates who attended St. Olaf, Concordia-Moorhead, Luther, or Gustavus were proud of that Haugean piety While all of those sister ALC schools at the time were, and are, incredibly strong institutions, they were also impossibly more expensive. So the value of our Dana education was even more apparent. 

What I know with some certainty is the way higher education is managed on the other side of this pandemic will be quite different than what we have done. There are a variety of reasons for that, and I believe what this pandemic has pushed in the open is the inequity of our entire country on almost every level and aspect. That is a topic for another time, but I know that there were (and will be) significant numbers of students who are not able to work adequately from home in a remotely driven educational process. While I do not have all the facts or data, I know the continued escalation of costs for college will price many lower middle class or poverty level students out of the educational equation. As we struggle with equity in public schools, the lack of preparedness of many combined with the cost will create a strong rethinking of the value of that Bachelor’s degree. The first time I went to college (in 1977) the cost of room, board, and tuition for an instate student at Iowa State University was less than $700.00 a year (yes, you have read the amount correctly). The cost for a more open enrollment university (Bloomsburg) today is in the neighborhood of $25,000.00. That is about a 3,500% increase in 40+ years. That is not sustainable. I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education not long ago (within the last 2-3 months) that noted brick and mortar college education will be affordable for only the elite (and that is sooner than we might expect), and that the rest of the middle class or below will do distance learning or remote college. This little experiment (required though it is) has demonstrated that many students will not be able to participate adequately because of the digital divide that is so apparent between rural and urban America. Both Drs. Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe noted this in their research about technology and writing more than 20 years ago, but little has been done to manage or erase that divide. 

This gets me back to the issue of power. There are many ways to approach that, but part of the problem is simple, and this current national (global) crisis has made it  more than evident. The role, the importance of education is something integral to the fabric of our country; certainly the move toward land-grant colleges and universities that came out of the Civil War and later in the 19th century were created to provide affordable education to the American public. The federal government was a central component of creating many of the state university systems we know so well. In fact, Michigan State and Penn State are perhaps the two of the earliest land-grant institutions, both instituted in 1863. Both were initially founded in 1855 (Land-grant University). The role of the federal and state governments in establishing and helping fund our higher education system was central to the United States having one of the most respected collegiate systems in the world, and as such, the opening of education to the middle class or minorities and impoverished students changed the balance of power, flattening that curve (to use a current phrase). Today, with the cost of education being moved to the back of students or their parents, education is not as much about preparing students for the world (yet that is our job), for universities it is about numbers, retention, and higher education becoming a business. This is not something I say with any happiness. The first thing a family must determine is not whether or not their son, daughter, or offspring should go and do college; the first thing they might determine is how they will afford it. 529 accounts, investments, and other ways to prepare for the eventual costs are something that must begin before a child is perhaps even conceived. What does that say about the ethics when we continually price the common person out of receiving an education? If they manage to get matriculated, too often they must work two or three part time jobs. Too often they are not sure how they can afford their books. Too often students are on a meal plan of 10 meals a week. None of these things make college easier, and in fact, they do exactly the opposite. I believe we are at a crossroads and this pandemic might reveal both the stark realities that we must face on the other side of this last two months (and however long yet it will be). We cannot simply forget the everyday people. We cannot continue to allow those who have the majority of the wealth of the country to blatantly ignore and greedily grab more as vast numbers of the country are being devastated by what is happening. Again there is so much more to this, but it comes down to the ethical nature of power and how those ethics play out. We can say whatever we want about power, but it is how we behave ethically that really matters. As I write and remember this day, it was on this day that I lost my best friend. He endured much in his life, more than many knew. I still miss him. 

Generally I offer a song. When I was in the Marines, there were so many times I wanted to give up, but somehow managed. This Admiral’s commencement address is one of the more inspiring things I have ever listened to. I hope it reminds us there is hope beyond all of this that we are currently enduring.

Thank you for reading. Please stay safe; stay strong; finish up to the best of your ability.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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