Authority and Professionalism — [Republica Repost]

[United, we win] —Higher education reform

It was early 2006 when members of the Maoist party in the city had just started coming out—though it also seemed that many were simply claiming association with the party because incentives were high and risks small. I was a lecturer at the Central Department of English in Kirtipur, and I had been happily doing what I was supposed to do: teach students, help them with their research and writing, and have conversations about teaching and learning with colleagues. One day, out of the blue, two of my students started using loud voices and harsh words, accusing me of being “against students”. They had heard that I had objected to an institutional practice of increasing students’ final marks rather than maintain the grading policy. These two gentlemen had not only been highly respectful toward me, they had also been particularly friendly. So I was shocked that they would go to the extent of warning me not to go to the university, or else. Nothing bad happened, and a few months later, I left for further studies in the US.

It’s been almost a decade, but the incident still inspires me to think about a whole host of social, cultural, professional, and educational issues. First, it shook my faith in the Nepali culture of respecting teachers. We believe that cultural beliefs, values, and habits—such as that of guru devo bhava (teachers are gods)—are so strong that they fundamentally shape and define us and our thoughts and actions. But political ideologies, power dynamics, and the state of social institutions seem to override our cultural value systems. This is why we have university students and their “political” organizations engaging in violence (verbal and physical) against teachers; coercing administrators all the way up to the top of the institution into doing what they demand; and using crude power in ways that undermine the fundamentals of education, professionalism, and institutional effectiveness in higher education.

Sadly, we’ve somehow got used to the reality of “students” being political pawns, their turning the university into a political training ground and often battlefield, and their “student organizations” having little or nothing to do with the quality of education or well-rounded professional development and shared governance. Students certainly respect their teachers, but given the environment where their “representatives” have never learned to serve the academic, professional, and social goals of higher education, that respect as a cultural value and belief becomes useless.

The incident of “respectful” students letting me know that they would be “waiting” for me on my way to the university also makes me think about the potential downside of too much power being invested in teachers. Is it possible that our students react in disrespectful, unprofessional, and even violent ways because teachers have too much power, they don’t use their authority to advance knowledge, and instead use their privilege in counterproductive ways in relation to students? In other words, are teachers using their power and privilege responsibly and in productive ways? I ask not so much because I thought I had power and might have overused it while teaching in Nepal but because I see the impact of teachers’ authority here in the US. Here, I create and implement the curriculum within general frameworks of the discipline and department by creating my own course syllabi and schedules, by enforcing my own course policies and quality standards, etc. I have to be careful not to be subjective in my evaluation of students’ work/performance; I need to watch myself against being unfair to students (even relative to one another). Ironically, when I have power, I realize the importance of using it responsibly.

When I remember the respect that teachers automatically expect back home, I wonder how much my frustration with students had to do with an expectation gap. Was my expectation to be taken seriously, to be always respected, and not to be questioned part of the problem? Most of our academic institutions don’t give teachers much professional authority: for instance, teachers have little control over the design and implementation of the curriculum, assessment of students’ work, student behavior and performance, etc. The system also doesn’t provide teachers “academic freedom” and professional development opportunities—or rather the social/political situation doesn’t allow teachers to exercise their intellectual and political rights as informed citizens, and it doesn’t reward them with opportunities for growth. This means teachers are believed to have power and receive respect, but since the political and institutional conditions don’t actually give them much privilege or respect, they are like large animals trying to graze in the backyard. No surprise then that they aren’t happy with smaller creatures around them.

Obviously, students need to exercise their voice and power in higher education. But they also need an environment where they can be driven by educational objectives and professional development opportunities. If they had incentives to use their voice and power in constructive ways, the status quo (of turning academe into a political football) would be less attractive to them. In the US, for instance, student groups focus on a host of objectives, ranging from those related to the arts to social networking, community service to curbing violence on campus, sports and culture to research activities, and, of course, “shared governance” whereby students form and implement policies in tandem with university administration. The democratic process through which student government organizations in universities work can be positively shocking to someone coming from Nepal.

Am I suggesting that we too can socially and culturally develop the same kinds of professional environments and practices in our universities? Yes, I am. The idea that we “can’t compare” our “situation” with other societies is a lazy excuse. That said, we also cannot be simply critical and pessimistic or idealistic about complex and deeply entrenched social problems. If students, universities, and the society at large start creating positive incentives for university students to use their voice and power constructively, they will. If teachers and institutions create systems and practices that constructively build on the culture of respecting teachers and investing intellectual/professional authority in them, teachers would gain (rather than just expect) respect and use (rather than have) their intellectual and professional authority to benefit the students. This probably sounds paradoxical, but I think that when one doesn’t have much of something, the chance of misusing that meager amount is high; abundance tends to naturally introduce the need to manage resources productively (while it could also lead to more abuse).

The question is: how can higher education be structured so that power and privilege of both students and teachers enhance rather than undermine education? How can our students who have turned the university into a political football—and, incidentally, students of all parties are guilty of dictating what teachers should professionally do or discuss—channel their voices and energies into helping raise the standards of the university as a university? Surely, there are ways to create the environment and incentives whereby they can use their power, in tandem with that of their teachers, in the interest of their future careers as intellectuals and professionals. I believe that we just need to start believing in ourselves and start working in the right direction.

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