ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
Teaching Toolbox

Use, don't abuse, your professorial power.

by Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

Illustration by Bruce MacPhersonBetween sweating out tenure decisions, begging for grant money, and searching endlessly for a decent parking space on campus, professors often feel they have little power. Compared with students, however, they have enormous power, which can be wielded in both positive and negative ways.

Foremost is the power of the grade, followed closely by decision-making power over many aspects of a student's life--from deciding how to treat late work absences, to aiding future opportunities based on letters of recommendation.

Engineering professors are vastly more knowledgeable than their students. This gap is another form of power, and one that can be intimidating to students. The position of professor also commands a measure of respect, which influences both staff and students. And a charismatic professor has even more power because of the combination of his or her position and personality.

Misuses of power range from the egregious to the subtle. Expecting students to babysit without pay, playing favorites with grades, or sexually harassing students are obviously unethical. They are also rare. More subtle abuse includes ridicule, overly harsh criticism, and unfairly omitting students' names from research papers or patent applications. Another no-no is expecting graduate students to do technical work for you when it is not part of their thesis or TA duties.

Being unprepared to teach is another less obvious form of abuse. Inadequate planning (for example, telling students "the test is in two days," which does not give them a chance to control their time), punishing students for asking questions, refusing to admit mistakes, and interpersonal disregard are further examples.

But the power you have as a professor can also be used in positive ways. Here are some
ways to ensure that you are a benevolent "ruler":

Use your power carefully. Students closely watch the actions of professors, which magnifies the effects of a professor's behavior--particularly arrogance, grumpiness, bad moods, or incivility. The corrective is to treat others with humanity and charity, and to always be polite and listen to students--even when you must turn down their requests. With fair and equitable treatment, even a failing student may accept the responsibility for failure, and believe the professor was a good teacher.
Try sharing some power. Let students in your courses make some of the educational decisions. Push undergraduates to take responsibility for their own academic paths. Require graduate students, particularly doctoral candidates, to direct some of their own research.

Leverage your power to help others. Use your access to other professors, department chairs, practicing engineers, and industry human relations personnel when a student needs help. A call from you may be all that is needed to cut through the red tape. You can also help students find internships or postdoctoral positions, and write letters of recommendation.

Fight bias and prejudice. Speak up against inappropriate "jokes." Don't allow students to harass others under the guise that it is all in good fun. Speak out in favor of widening the pool of candidates for professorial or other positions to include women and other underrepresented groups. Setting the bar higher for hiring or promoting people from certain groups is an abuse of power.

In the end, the key is to keep in mind how much power you have, especially in relation to your students. Used wisely, that power can help you to help others. And who knows--you may even figure out how to get that parking spot.

For more teaching tips, visit the Teaching Engineering page at

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