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Op Eds

Zooming in on Power Dynamics

By Justin Y.C. Wong
Justin Y.C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Philosophy and Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House.

Logging onto Zoom and attending classes could not be any more different from the typical classroom setting, even when discounting the obvious changes in scenery. With classes held virtually, professors are placed into a much more passive position and are fighting an uphill battle against distractions — the entire internet, in fact — for their students’ attention. Even the physical positions of professors have drastically changed. Instead of looking up at my professor, who normally stands behind her lectern on a podium, from a few rows behind, we now occupy the same 5-centimeter by 3-centimeter real estate on my laptop screen and, if I were to desire (which I do not), I could even speak over the professor and expel her from the enlarged speaker square. To some extent, I am literally and figuratively leveled onto the same platform as my professors and teaching fellows.

At the same time, Zoom University also redefines class participation. Breakout rooms may be fun for the first bit, but the fun kind of subsides when you end up looking at turned off cameras and muted mics. And to speak up in section, I now have to press the “Raise Hand” button, wait for my tiny blue icon to be noticed, and then unmute my mic before speaking up.

By definition, transition periods are jarring, and it took some time before all of us, students and professors alike, could adapt. In the midst of this normalization, it is productive— both for sociological insight and as a pedagogical tool — to reflect on the power dynamics and norms that we had taken for granted.

Who speaks up normally? Who gets called on normally? Who does the calling? Do professors interact and engage with what students are most interested by? Should they do so? What roles do teaching fellows play in the classroom and in section?

These questions are sometimes on the mind of students and teachers, but they are also immediately relevant to our daily interactions in clubs and other social settings. As we move all interactions to Zoom, questions about power dynamics are thrust upon us. We may suddenly acknowledge that power was disproportionately accorded to someone in a meeting merely because they used to sit close to the center, because they were more comfortable within a certain environment, or just because of how they look, dress or act.

Discounting the clearly inappropriate cases, these influences are not always undue. Those who sit close to the center may do so because of the inherent structure or needs of an organization or a meeting, and someone may better fit into a role of power because they have more experience working in an environment. However, the shock of adapting to the new and different still forces us to scrutinize underlying assumptions about the accepted structures and working environments. Are we prioritizing a certain group of people? Or do our structures, in effect, result in the unjust prioritization of a certain group of people? Rarely do we have the chance to so utterly shatter the status quo, and we should seize the opportunity to understand whether our old systems are in fact the best way of operating.

Outside of Zoom, the coronavirus also challenges existing power dynamics in our daily interactions. As the pandemic sweeps across the world and cities and countries are under lockdown, the dynamics within our societies are vastly inverted. Quarantined at home, we suddenly find ourselves reliant on the supermarket workers, cleaners, and many normally neglected workers for essential goods and services. In fact, our reliance has always existed. But not until this pandemic has this reliance been clearly exposed to challenge assumptions about economic structures and inequalities.

Needless to say, many of the changes that we are adapting to will be reverted as the pandemic eventually subsides — we may, hopefully, look forward to the possible return back on campus and seeing our friends and classmates. And it is imperative that some of them — the emergency powers delegated to government officials, for example — must not stay. But even so, this period of adaptation allows us to actively reflect on what is normally hidden. Assumptions about power dynamics are rarely seen in the open; we should take a good look at them when they are.

Justin Y.C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Philosophy and Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House.

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