Now, if I may invite you into my mind-heart space, and trust you to hold the tender knowing with me in this reflective commentary. In reading an early chapter on Educating the Action Research Scholar-Practitioner, I was intrigued with the theme of connection and disconnection in student-chair relating, not excluding the interactions with committee members. I experienced that push-pull dynamic of wanting to be closer (or perhaps noticed), yet knowingly maintained a deferential stance with my chair, Martin, and the committee members in my work with them. I modeled myself as a disciple of the Confucian traditions in which teachers are revered, but I also expected that my humble ways would not be misinterpreted as weakness, or ceding of intellectual control over my work.
I recall from the emotional heat of working through scholarly advice of each committee member (and there will be many for those of you who undertake doctoral studies), my mind was resistant and my heart full of doubts. What I am admitting is that the push and pull begins within one self, the many selves that show up as we become fully engaged in our beings: the hearts, minds, and souls. That’s why Cartesian doesn’t work, and Confucianism can’t do better!
When interacting with others, we desire parity and mutuality. Parity in recognizing that we are equal as peoples despite our differing intellects, skills, and life circumstances. Mutuality in that we can give and take in the spirit of the common good (good for both of us), and do so without bringing harm to each other. As my chair expressed, “In the beginning, the faculty-student relationship is not one of full mutuality, nor should it be, but the goal is to move the relationship from [relating as] master and apprentice to [interacting as] colleagues.” (by Martin).
Although Martin was pointing to academic protocols, what's coming to mind is—how the different expectations about mutuality and the different expressions of mutuality—can introduce tension into the relationship between the student and the chair and other committee members. In my student role with willing acceptance of a subjugated voice, I deferred many decisions to the chair’s recommendation. In this act of Confucian deference, I believed then, that it is the chair’s obligation to execute on behalf of the student’s interest—my best interest as a student. This isn’t always possible. Power dynamics are present within any group of people, and no less so for a committee of dissertation readers.
My proposed work gained support early on from a well-known action research scholar and earned the notice of the provost at my school. The proposal was shared with other faculty members to promote the role of action research in engaging with administrators and educators in the process of improving higher education teaching and learning. My committee was comprised of an expert methodologist, the provost, an affiliate faculty with track record in HRD impacts, and chaired by an organizational leadership scholar-practitioner grounded in Gestalt methods. This was a formidable committee with positional power, and at times their differing educational agenda (due to their professional roles) created a situation of competing demands for me.
I feared that the evolving narrative of my work (depending on the committee member’s interest) began to supersede its original intent. I had envisioned this work to be a learning rather than performative (demonstrating results) space. A practice space for me to observe the reflective work of others and to engage in self-reflection and reflection with others as part of my learning. At the start of the study, I did not set out to transform knowledge or enact social change through the research. Nevertheless, action research has a magnetic pull toward social responsibility, and is riddled with power dominance in the field of practice, as well as within the academic setting.
In retrospect, my work served as a theatre of action for the imbalance of power among the committee members and the chair that played out unbeknownst to me during the dissertation process. This is potentially a rationalist view: notice the use of unknowing to overshadow my pain and blur my emotions. Do I dare myself to go deeper in this reflective commentary? I must—if I believe in the work of relating with others, and making our intentions known to one another so that we can interact on shared terms of parity and mutuality. I wholeheartedly do.
This work was also the stage on which I wrestled with the stronghold of tiger mom syndrome: from the childhood phobia of never being good enough to a self-imposed subservience rooted in a sense of filial duty to those who hold authority. I choose to acknowledge this awareness—in the presence of you—that the imbalance of power was also within me.
My experience of student-chair relating is that both must be aware of their relative influence on each other, and to acknowledge the power imbalance in explicit terms with one another. To provide a counterweight to the faculty view that, “roles are fundamentally the expectations others have of us … [and that] each role has power associated with it and boundaries to be managed” (by Martin), I assert on behalf of students that this applies to both the chair and the committee members.
There are doctoral students who seek more than credentialing through a body of knowledge, they seek self-knowing. Meeting up with my perfectionist self through this reflection, I begin to understand that I can get in my own way. What I am left with is, ‘how messy can power-with get?’ This is a difficult relational terrain to navigate.
I pause here and ask what would you share of your experiences in the mutuality of relationships? How do we offer ourselves to others without expecting the same? How do we accept what others give us and not ask for more? How do we receive in full faith that what is available to us is the best for all considered?