The topic I most dreaded teaching has become one of my favourites. And, let me say: when the books seem to be few, and mostly in an area of theology into which you rarely venture, that dread is very real. So, like all good lecturers, I avoided it for my first year of teaching.
Maybe for my second too. I can’t remember.
But eventually power and I had to see eye to eye. We had to find a way to talk to one another in the context of ecclesial leadership. And so I read Stephen Sykes and, good though it was, I wished he’d concerned himself more with the questions I was asking. I read the feminists, Carter Heyward among them, and learned a lot but felt a little frustrated. I flirted with some of the political theology stuff until I ran away to hide because I didn’t even have the frames of reference for them.
And then I found Roy Kearsley. Thank God for Roy Kearsley. In fact, a colleague from a different discipline also thanked God for him this week in my hearing. There’s a blue book on power that you should read, she said. It was the book I wish I had written. As she said it, I laughed. Or maybe I snorted. Because, blue book? Seriously?
Except that I knew exactly which blue book on power she meant.
After Kearsley came others, including sociological work by French and Raven. It is with their work that I begin my class. I open with a simple question. What is my power in this room, and what is yours? The students are hesitant at first. But my power is perhaps obvious. I am the lecturer, after all. So they begin to name this.
Yes, I am the lecturer, I agree. But what kind of power does that shorthand describe? They try some more. I have the power to educate, they say. The power which comes from my learning. And though inside I wince because the PhD feels like a qualification in understanding just how little I know, I smile. For there is power in a PhD.
Their next gambit is ‘the power which comes from being a lecturer appointed by the School’. And, yes, there is power here too. Power in position and then more power in my access, either personally or as a referee, to the people they want to be employed by, well thought of by. But then the answers slow and so my humorous side thinks it’s time to play. What about marking your assignments, I say. And some look blank but others grin. Yes, there is certainly power there too. Power, too, not only to reward but also to coerce. For if you don’t turn up to a certain percentage of my classes, your assignment is rejected without even a glance.
But what about you and the power you have in this room, I ask. I ask this only because I do actually trust this class group. For I am about to give them not just an open invitation to trash this class but also a list of ways in which they could do so. We talk about the ways in which they could coerce me into silence, through behaviours designed to intimidate or nullify. We talk about how they could self-organise en bloc to this end before ever I walked into the room.
We talk, too, of the sixth power base which Raven added five years after the original study. For informational power operates through one person providing to another information which causes them to act in a different way. And I comment how it is not difficult to see that one student might text another from across the room with information which will cause that other to behave differently in relation to what I am doing and saying.
Three or four of the boys look shifty. Then I remark that a lecturer once told his class in my hearing that he knew everything going on in the room. Who was on Facebook, who was on their e-mails, the ones who were texting back-and-forth under the table, he knew them all. And I tell the class that I had always doubted this until the classroom was my own to hold. Now I too can watch the power flow in the room, identify not only those who are engaged but also who is texting whom.
A few start to look even shiftier. Others start to laugh and call out the names of the offenders. I smile and tell them that I’m simply offering a hypothetical example relating to how information power might flow. I tell them this because I know the point has been made.
The texting does stop in the next class. They shift to e-mail instead, I think. Maybe the point was not made.
Yet in it all, my mind starts to wander. For some of these bases of power have been mine in this context for several years. And yet I have never inhabited them like I do today. But French and Raven don’t seem to have a category for this. For them, you either have expert power or you don’t. You have positional power, which they call legitimate, or you don’t.
And so I wonder. Was it that I had these power bases but had not fully appropriated them? Have I grown in power or am I simply more adept at owning it, knowing how to use it? And is there something about a deeper level of personal integration which intensifies both the personal power which is intrinsic and also the ability to wield the positional power which is extrinsic?
In the last year or so, I have come into something more of a right confidence in self and I think it operates to amplify, to intensify, the French and Raven power bases. I don’t mean that my power behaviours have changed, necessarily. The thing about studying power is that you become very aware of the tricks for looking like you have more power than you feel you do, the power behaviours which enable you to take up ‘space’ in the room that you are not sure you know how to possess.
And I have always been good at holding my space in the room, even if I couldn’t ever possess it fully.
But now, though my positional power in this context is what it was last year and though I am not conscious of my power behaviours having changed, I wear that positional power with more ease. I no longer feel quite so much of the impostor that I did. And I think the result is increased power. I not only take up the space which is mine but I possess it better too.
I see this ease, also, in those who have long operated with the same positional power as I. They have no more of this power than I do on the face of it. Yet they wear it with the offhand certainty which comes from years of living into this truth, utterly secure in its fit upon their shoulders.
And so I wonder. Is there something here about embodiment? (Cue my counsellor and psychotherapist friends, please!) Is there something about integration of being which increases the capacity for power-use? And what does all this mean for power behaviours? For to wear this power with more assurance is one thing. To use it well is quite another.
Help me here, please, if you will. For I have more questions than answers, and this post has been more exploratory than declaratory. What do you understand about the possibility of inhabiting your power fully, whether it is personal or positional? And does a full embodiment of one’s power, for those in Christ, always overflow into power behaviours which are, now to borrow from Rollo May, ‘nutritive’?
Image credit: I chose this image because it pictures for me how power is ever-flowing between subjects, each thread hard to disentangle from the next. Maybe one day I will understand it better than I do. For now, I marvel at the possibility of its firestreak beauty and variety, even as I wonder about the dark spots where power might seem to have gone underground.