• Conor McLaughlin

Assumptions about Authority and Teaching

When I was asked to write about the ways in which I use Group Relations in my work, I knew right away what I needed to write about, and yet I also felt so afraid to sit down to write it. I kept knowing, ever more clearly, that this was a sign of the value of doing this piece of my own work. I also knew I was avoiding it. Because the work is oftentimes very scary.

I was teaching a class this past semester on multicultural competence. The class felt as though it got off to a difficult start, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, because it is a contentious topic and these are conversations which most people enter with some degree of anxiety. I worked to acknowledge and meet that, and yet week after week the class seemed to slip further and further out of my grasp. I continued to feel as though I could not keep the container, that I wasn’t able to hold the space for the work to be done.


I reached out to a close friend, one who does GR work and who has had a similar experience, and they gave me some very important advice on how to start rebuilding: “you have to start by building up the trust in your authority.” I entered the space with what I thought was a high level of trust built up with the students and a demonstrated commitment to The Work, and trying to use that as a jumping off point into the work of this class, I can see now, was hubris. Hubris that comes from my position of authority, hubris that emerges from my identities as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man with a terminal degree, and hubris emerging from the assumption that the relationships I had built with the students in one environment would translate to a new one. A new one that came with new dynamics of authority, new roles, new sets of boundaries, new tasks, and sitting in a different place within the larger system. These assumptions kept me from seeing how shaky my foundation actually was or how many cracks were already in the walls of our holding environment.


I don’t write this as if to say it was all my fault or to evoke pity. I know I have one role among many to play in the direction things took and a role to play in reshaping it after it ended up as it did. As a figure of formal authority in the room, there are tasks that need to be taken up by me, without which the rest of the work can’t happen. I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult to manage the time, the physical space, the various other resources necessary for developing the capacity for multicultural competence. It took a long time, and a necessary consultation, for me to realize that I had not yet done pieces of the work needed to have authority appropriately conferred to me. The absence of this work in turn made it astoundingly difficult to provide the expected services of teaching this class: grading assignments, creating engaging lectures and class activities,and providing effective consultation to students on their work.


As I reflect on the experience and write out my thoughts, I also look forward to the ways in which this work will continue to be a part of my future. Navigating the role of formal authority brings with it new forms of resource management, new learning on how to meet and frustrate expectations, and new challenges of learning along with while being a responsible conduit for the learning of a new crop of professionals. Holding my social identities and their places are spectra of systems of power and oppression shapes all of these expectations, projections, interpretations, and the learning being done. Typing these things out brings back some of the anxiety I mentioned at the start, while also bringing further clarity to the necessity of the work as I begin preparing to teach this class again next semester.


This is how I would like to begin.


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