Professors, Power and a Bathroom Sign
At first glance, the public restrooms at the Sogang University Graduate School of Theology look
just like the restrooms on any seminary campus in America. But as I approached the men’s room, I saw a paper sign taped to the wall, identifying the restroom as “for professor usage (male)”.
Now to be clear, it’s not like the non-professor bathrooms are completely “old school” and way on the other side of campus. In fact, the other bathrooms are actually just about 20 yards farther down the hall, and they are perfectly serviceable.
I asked a colleague, “Do they have professor-only bathrooms at other colleges?” He immediately gave me a funny look and said, “Of course!”
But as I think about it, the ideology behind these elite bathrooms actually aligns well with the pervasive Confucian culture in Korea. The ethos of Confucius (known in antiquity as “Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages”) bestows an unusually high honor and respect for those who educate from kindergarten to the university. Teachers make out like bandits on Korea’s National Teacher’s Day (May 15). And it’s not just bathrooms, but there are also professor parking spots, professor eating halls and professor meals at university cafeterias.
So how do you think students feel about this university culture of power and privilege given to
professors? In my limited (i.e. unempirical and completely made-up) observations, I sometimes think about how students actually benefit from such clearly defined distinctions between professor and student. When I was a theology student in Seoul in 1994-1996, I spoke up in class exactly zero times. My fellow seminarians and I accepted that a professor’s place was to lecture, assign readings and grade, whereas the students had to listen, read and study. Learning flowed in only one direction, from the powerful and respected professor to the student. I was a TA for all three years and duties included mopping the floor and preparing the office heater. There was no such thing as an end-of-year course evaluation of the professor. But none of us complained. Most of us didn’t know anything different.
Of course, this one-way, hierarchical structure has rightly been challenged in higher education in North America. We have become suspicious of such unilateral movements in favor of broader streams of learning within a classroom community. Online forums, flipped classrooms, even call-professor-by-their-first-name culture all have some aspect of divesting power from the podium. I am very supportive of these innovative movements in theological education. After all, I am part of the team that brought you last year’s Wabash blog “12 Surprises When Lecturing Less (and Teaching More).”
But alongside these pedagogical innovations, I believe that we still need to claim our power as professors. We have this power, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is granted to us by our accrediting bodies, our home institution, our students, and the constituencies that send our students.
When I enter my classroom, whether traditional or online, I am usually the expert in the room on topics like Israelite historiography. I also have broader insight than the students on the design of the class, its place in the curriculum, and the greater mission of the institution.
Being aware of this power certainly does not mean that we abuse it. But it also does not mean that we neglect it. Our vocational calling as educators compels us to acknowledge and name that power, and to own it in the classroom in ways that can best accomplish our institutional objectives. At the same time, our privileged position should cause us to continually question the scope and dimensions of our power, to interrogate it, to challenge or even reject it when necessary.
Perhaps the bathroom sign reflects a truth that those of us who teach in the Western world need to remember. Power does not have to be so incompatible with the calling of a professor. We all recognize that Confucius was a great teacher, but the “Model Teacher” was also an influential political player within the House of Lu during the Zhou Dynasty. Somehow I doubt that his teaching would have spread had he not judiciously exerted his political influence. I wonder if he had his own bathroom.
Nyasha Junior says
As an African-American woman professor, my authority is often questioned or even challenged directly. Despite my credentials, experience, and expertise, power is not granted to me as it is granted to some other faculty. If we did have a faculty bathroom, someone would question whether I had permission to use it.
Mitzi Smith says
Thank you for your post Dr. Nam. I must confess I have never had access to one of those “professor only” bathrooms my entire career– of course, I’ve only been at one seminary my entire career. I share a bathroom with my students in Detroit and whoever else is on our floor. Segregated bathrooms for some who have the are just an illusion of power. As you must know, it is more complex for some. I remember being at an Assoc of Theo Schools conference for new profs and a white male suggested that we all lay our authority and power down by allowing students to call us all by our first names. A white female stood up in the back of the room and said I will lay mine down when I get some. We all applauded– the women and minorities. Yet, for sure we still all have some power and authority over our students, especially when it comes to grades, and we ought to guard against abusing it even with students who challenge our right to be there and our competency on the basis of our gender and/ or race.
Roger Nam says
Hi Nyasha, You make a great point – the components of ascribed power is complex, and much of it is based on systemic injustices. I need to remind myself that while in Korea, I am suddenly part of the majority – culture. Unfortunately, I know that your last sentence isn’t a joke, that’s terribly sad that a tenure track professor would have to face that.
Roger Nam says
Now that’s a powerful story, Dr. Smith! I do recognize that the formation of power for faculty members is quite complex. I speak purely from my own experience. I remember as a seminary student in Seoul in the 90s, I was so amazed at the respect and honor given to professors. It is absolutely unthinkable to call professors by their first names here. By the way, I still haven’t used the “professor only” bathroom yet! It just weirds me out. With that said, I’m sitting in on a 5-hour symposium on the subject of Vatican II tomorrow (I’m at a Jesuit Institution), there will be lots of coffee, so…