Notes on: Uitto, M.  (2011) 'Humiliation, unfairness and laughter: students recall power relations with teachers'.  Pedagogy, Culture and Society 19 (2): 273-90

Dave Harris

[A Finnish study based on a self-recruited group.  Memory is obviously a factor.  Negative memories arise as the major problem for teacher education]

Negative memories arose quite often.  Teachers had 'humiliated or favoured or laughed at their students'(273).  Some remembered teachers who were caring and admirable, and these are often stressed, but a negative memories need to be addressed, especially if they lead to problems as in Britzman and Pitt (1996).  We do not know enough about how relationships become negative.  Of course, memories are always reconstructions.

Conventional research on school memories have noticed the importance of power, and this shows up in negative ones as well.  Some students recalled an unfair use of power,  arbitrary treatment, 'humiliating and forcing them, physically assaulting them, punishing them unfairly, showing favour and discouraging them'(274).  The institutional culture of the school seems to have shaped these power relations, although not always uniformly.  We know that emotions are significant as in Boler and Zembylas, and that they are complex.

What do students remember about their teachers?  A magazine published a request for material involving remembering teachers.  141 letters and emails were received, from 116 women and 25 men with different backgrounds and experiences: nearly half were over 60 years of age.  After contact, some people produced more information.  The study was based on narrative research, understanding the process of story telling.  Memory is also good at recalling what it felt like, 'sensibility', and emotional descriptions appeared.  Although writers took their memories to be 'significant and true'(275), although of course they are reconstructions, 'a dialogue between past, present, and future' (276).  Writers of course wish to portray themselves in a particular way.  Stories always contain cultural elements and contexts.

Writers often recalled how they experience their teachers and how they were dealt with.  Negative emotions were common, but stances towards order and discipline were also recalled.  Some teachers were 'inspiring and appreciative' and had had an influence.  The dominance of negative memories, mentioned by 79 writers, produced ethical problems.  Expressions used included '"sad", "painful", "bad", "traumatic" , "terrible", or "negatively colored" (276).  Respondents talked about abusive treatment, insults and wounds, as some refer to teachers as sadists and monsters.  In some cases, negativity emerged only in 'style and tone'.

The negative memories were read as an entire story, and 'shared, content themes and plots' (277) were sought.  This led to a focus on power relations, and the importance of emotions as well as making sense of memories.  Some complexity emerged, uncovered by close analysis of one story [which is then described in some detail]. 

First encounter and setting is described, set in the 1950s when teachers were considered to be authorities and required discipline and order.  Educational opportunities have just been widened.  A particular teacher was focused upon, probably a man, although this was not confirmed.  The students had to learn to be a proper pupil.  They were told about rules and practices on their first day, and they wanted to conform.  However, this student soon got into trouble for a late attendance [her skis had broken], and the teacher mocked her skis.  She told her father who repaired them [rather than buying new] .  Not only the laughter, but the very teacher gaze had been upsetting, linking with material about the controlling eye of the teacher.  The objection seems to be a moral one turning on what should be appropriate for a teacher: teachers were expected to be exemplary.  The student clearly had to control her emotions, as in Zembylas and others, and there might have been an additional gender issue.

The student was able to resist, wondering how she would complain, and defiantly using her old skis —rebelling in the students' own words.  Other students were also able to speak back or defend fellow students, question teachers actions 'but only in their minds' (280), as a kind of silent rebelling.  The words the teacher uses are not significant in this case, but other students could recall them 'word for word'.  Sometimes this had a considerable impact: one student was rebuked as being ugly and big in a gymnastics lesson, and this seems to have put her off permanently.

Bodies were also objects of power.  Students were forced to eat their food, forced to write with their right hand, and 'take off their pants for a medical examination' (281).  Corporal punishment was forbidden, but there were some physical assaults, squeezing their shoulders painfully, for example.  Physical and mental violence sometimes followed failure.  Some students said they had been singled out, and this caused a moral objection because teachers 'are expected to be fair and just'.  Favourtism appeared as 'unequal evaluation of students work' (282), only reading out favourite students work, using different principles for punishment.  One student objected that his teacher had been unusually distant and cold and had ignored him in the corridor.

There were separate and isolated instances, but also 'repeated and continued' ones.  Some students were particularly strict and threatened shame for failure; some particularly produced tension to scare the pupils and make them nervous.  Humiliation was common, 'part of every history lesson' for one student.  Interrogation produced 'nervousness, tension and fear'.  Students tries to explain this sometimes in terms of personal characteristics, including taking pleasure in using power.  Most tried to avoid being shamed or labelled as ignorant 'by studying hard' (283) and being diligent, exercising power over themselves. 

The particular student was especially hurt by being accused of copying.  She cried and told her mother.  Her father happened to be chair of the school board, but felt that this disqualified him from saying anything.  She worked hard at being a dutiful pupil, but realised that this could also be evidence that she had been cheating, so indicating that the teacher always has power.  Her father's position meant he did not support her in this case, but other parents defended their children, and some teachers favoured students whose parents were on the school board.

Other students were hurt, but did not tell anyone, even when bullied or subjected to arbitrary power.  This links with studies that show that teachers are prepared to use arbitrary power if it helps them control students.  However, this did have an impact on learning.  Teachers were also criticized if they are 'lacked enthusiasm, used teaching methods that made a subject uninteresting or out of date, or, directly discouraged students'(285).  Some were punished for misunderstanding, or for an offence even if they had not committed it.  Some punishments were seen as 'overly excessive compared with the reasons for punishment': one was punished for asking a classmate for help; she was humiliated by being made to sit on a seperate raised desk, but she felt she should just have been taught a bit better.  There is a reminder of Foucault with this technique of isolation and surveillance.  Power was often exercised in public—work was held up for other students to see as failure, students were called 'nasty nicknames' (286), and appearance or skills were mocked.  It was worse if other students also laughed.

This particular student was often in tears, and suffered several incidents.  She was supported by her parents and siblings, though.  She ended her story by commenting on the '"vast authority of teachers"', and suggested that would inevitably lead to misuse.  She recognized that it could have influenced her subsequent life, but looked back at an adult and saw it more positively.

Some writers recalled students rebelling or questioning their teachers, but most showed a certain complexity, of opposition managed by self control. [compare with Willis's famous study of British working class males]  Many writers looked back on these episodes and tried to make sense of them by suggesting reasons for the action or by 'considering the memories from a moral perspective'(287).  In general, pedagogic relations are how the teachers teach students about power.  Power can be positive and beneficial, but it can demoralise students 'even unintentionally'.  It is always possible 'for teacher power to be oppressive'.  The experience of students should be better understood, and how they interpret situations.  Telling people about experiences 'can be liberating'.  This is why student memories should be addressed in teacher education, working on power relations and the emotions involved in them.  This is important especially because teachers have often been influenced by their own school experiences.  We might use writing, memory, drama and drawings.  Negative or problematic memories might be a particular focus.  We might want to use Britzman and Pitt on Freudian transference to understand how to proceed [and on the importance of disclosure].  Teachers should develop more sensitivity 'the experiences and emotions of students' (288).

Negative experiences do seem 'to have formed lasting memories in the students', and negative emotions 'often seem to have remained unresolved'.  Negative memories about teachers 'are repeatedly recalled and retold' [and the influence of mass media must be important].  We should reflect on them.

Notes show that sometimes students were able to resist by giving teachers mocking nicknames, or by smoking in prohibited areas.

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