Power and Talk

This week’s article was “Power and Talk” by Laurel Johnson Back. This article discusses the relationship between “power”, e.g. control, and “talk”, and the way this plays into “who is allowed to say what, to whom, when, how, and why”, and how this becomes the social construction of texts (page 39). This article is interesting because of the way it ties into how we tutor: should we as tutors dominate most of the conversation, essentially acting like miniature lecturers, or should we allow the client to dominate the session, instead remaining passive and focuses on redirecting and keeping the client on track. In class, we have discussed the value of client-led sessions. Therefore, I believe that it is important to balance power and talk between tutor and client: the tutor must wield enough power to command respect and to maintain the client’s confidence in the tutor, but not wield so much as to make the client feel like they are in a class. Chances are, the client came to a peer tutoring center for a reason, and that reason has something to do with preferring student to student interaction over the imbalance of power that comes with a student to teacher interaction.

The article talks extensively about power as it relates to dominance, and uses the examples of different types of “teacher dominance” (page 42). The article brings up interesting points on how teachers hold the floor through talk, such as using words like “and” because they indicate that more speech is coming. They also note that it is because of the imbalance of power between teacher and student that allows this to be effective: because of the level of respect between student and teacher, the students will not use the pause that comes after words like “and” or “well” to interject their own thoughts. It is interesting that the article enumerates such processes, because they are frequently subconscious actions on behalf of the instructors.

The article also discusses “conferences” as a “web of ideas, beliefs, and values,” and as a “community shaped by its language and the knowledge it holds to be the truth” (page 47). This concept is somewhat confusing to me because it seems so nuanced and subjective. Granted, I do not think this is supposed to be a simple concept, because things that are described as “webs” rarely are. Then, the author goes on to discuss how the more effective power is, the more likely it is that that power is cognitive rather that physical. The examples here are the use of both “you know” and “I mean” as part of a teacher’s vocabulary, because they mark shared knowledge (or the lack thereof) and therefore they create less of a space for a student to disagree, because it makes it difficult for a student to first have to counter that no, they do not know, and then to push back against whatever it was that they supposedly knew. I think that as students we should be aware of these indicator phrases and should be more willing to push back because we have to be aware of the rhetoric that surrounds us and should not be accepting opinions as facts, even if they are disguised by such phrases as “you know”.

This reading, like many of the others, uses examples in the form of sample conversations between tutors and clients. I find these less useful than the explanations of the concepts themselves because I understand what the concepts are saying in and of themselves. The conversations here seem less plausible and less than ideal, like the idea of Don the TA conversationally telling a student, Lyn, that sometimes when reading papers, they are so bad that he has to throw them down because he cannot handle their frequent lapses in grammar in syntax. This leaves Lyn wondering if Don means her papers (page 51). This is an egregious example of the teacher or tutor who is in a position of power just being rude, and I would like to believe that in such examples most students would push back against such treatment— if not to Don’s face, than by talking to his supervisor or the professor instead of just believing that what he has to say is true. I do not think that students are so quick to accept rude treatment just because the person issuing it is in a position of power over them. Maybe this is a recent change as students are becoming more aware of themselves and their worth as individuals, but nonetheless my point stands.

The reading also talks about Gender and its impact on conferencing. This concept is interesting to me because I recently attending a sitting of the Massachusetts Supreme Court where they heard a case in which the plaintiff argued that a juror had been wrongly denied seating on a jury due to comments she had made about whether or not she could put her biases aside and make a decision based solely on the facts. She said “I think so”, which the judge did not think was compelling enough, and she was thereby dismissed. The plaintiffs argued that because of the differences in the way men and women speak, that this woman’s “I think so” was akin to a man’s “yes”. The author here discusses various ways in which women are more passive and less assertive in their talk— and are especially more wary of being wrong and therefore will are less likely to venture a guess than their male counterparts (pages 62-63).

Females are also more likely to use discourse markers (page 64). This is because women generally punctuate their speech with words to make it softer. I used to frequently find myself saying things like “Um, I think that” or “Um, maybe that is because”, which does the opposite of markers such as “as you know”: it creates room to disagree with me by making what I am saying softer and less assertive. For the past year or so, I have been putting in my best effort to grow into myself as a woman and be confident and, more importantly, unapologetic in my speech and in my opinions.

The author also has interesting commentary on women not speaking and not participating has something to do with whether or not they feel that they can gain something from speaking. My initial thought was to push back against this because as anyone who knows me would tell you, I am opinionated and outspoken— but then I realized that that’s just it. I am outspoken because I am opinionated, and because I am opinionated I have something to gain from stating my opinion, be it participation credit in a class, name recognition, or just general promulgation and hopefully eventual acceptance of my opinion. I think that this female reservation of speaking is actually beneficial in tutoring practices because if we are refraining from talking until we have something useful to say, we are not leading students astray.

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