Empowering and inspiring one another

Sheila Northrop, Instructional Design, Tacoma Community College

Sheila Northrop, Instructional Design, Tacoma Community College

At the bottom of my email signature is a quote from the great American novelist Toni Morrison. It reads “Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”  Her whole statement was this:

I tell my students, "When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” (McCarthy, 2016, para.

I used to think that the quote was there to inspire others. I have come to realize that the quote is there to remind me about what my “real job” is. I work in Academic Affairs currently as an instructional designer, and I teach online on the side and have since before COVID. My real job is to empower other people. Over the last several years I have felt varying degrees of power and powerlessness that fluctuated depending on both my personal and professional circumstances particularly as they were influenced by COVID. In turn that meant I have spent a lot of time thinking about what power I have and how I can empower others, especially after two years of uncertainty that left a lot of people feeling powerless.

Power as a topic is something I think more of us need to explore as many of us return full-time to campus with lots of mixed emotions about what remote learning has been and what it can be. As people who work in, with, around, and through educational technology it is fair to say that most of us sit in the middle of a giant Venn diagram of students, faculty, administrators, and other stake holders. This in-between position may make us feel like there is not much we can do to move our institution toward sound remote educational practices. One step we can take is to look at power structures. So, the first question I have for us is what power do we have?

There are lots of ways to look at this question. Individual power and collective power are the two ideas that come to mind when I reflect on that question. For the moment, let us stick to individual power. What power do you individually hold? Before we try to answer this question, it is worth understanding more about power.

There are diverse types of power. In my Introduction to Communication Studies course my students learn about five main types of power. The first is what is known as “legitimate power.”  According to Communication in the Real World, legitimate power is power that comes from an official position or title. Some of us have titles or positions that give us this power; it is usually tied to positions in executive leadership. A second type of power is “expert power.” Most of us have this type of power even if it is limited in scope. People come to us to get our “expert opinion” on a topic because we have degrees, knowledge, and experience in that area. A third type of power is “referent power.” Referent power does not come from position or expertise, but from likeability. If a person comes across as likeable, they can influence how people feel about ideas or concepts and what they are willing to do about them. There is also “information power.” With this type of power someone may not know how to do a thing, but they can find someone who does know or tell they can tell you where to go to find the information you need. Finally, there is “reward and coercive power,” this kind can be closely tied to “legitimate power” and the positions associated with that power, but it is not exclusive to it. Reward and coercive power means someone has the power to either reward you or coerce you into doing something. Grades, for example, are a powerful way to wield reward or coercive power. With grades an instructor can positively or negatively incentivize their students.

The question again is what kind of power do you have? After two years, of what for many institutions was ad hoc remote education, what power do you have to change or influence what your institution or department does going forward in future planning or present implementation? Identify the power you hold and how your institution is benefiting from it. How can those that you influence benefit more from your influence?

That question serves up the latter part of my reflections. How can I empower others? There needs to be another question in there first. Who can I empower? And then how can I empower them? Many of us work in some capacity with everyone on campus, but the kind of empowerment we can do may vary with the circumstances and the people. One of my main goals is to empower students. When I teach it is easier for me to directly empower them in their own lives through the skills, I teach them. When I do not teach my ability to empower students becomes less direct. At that point I look for ways as an instructional designer that I can empower faculty and staff so they can empower students. I am also always looking for ways to influence those who may hold more “legitimate power” than I do. What information can I provide that will help them make sound decisions about remote learning on our campuses?

As we move forward into the next academic year and the ones beyond it, I would invite you individually, and us collectively to identify the ways we are using our power to empower and inspire others.

References: Communication in the real world. (2022). Leadership and small group communication. University of Minnesota. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/part/chapter-14-leadership-roles-and-problem-solving-in-groups/

McCarthy, J. (2016, February 18). Happy Birthday Toni Morrison – 11 of her quotes to celebrate. Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/10-toni-morrison-quotes-to-celebrate-her-birthda-2/#:%7E:text=I%20tell%20my%20students%2C%20%22When,grab%2Dbag%20candy%20game.%E2%80%9D

 

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