Who Has the Power?

Susan Orr, Assistant Professor of Political Science, The College at Brockport
Diane Watkins, Social Studies Teacher, Rochester City School District
Susan says…

For my faculty fellows project I worked in partnership with Diane Watkins from Edison Tech, a Rochester City High School. Our teaching strategy was “arts integration,” and our most immediate goal was to develop our students’ ability to think critically – most specifically about the concept of power. The art-form we chose was photography, primarily due to is accessibility to all students – even those who feel “artistically challenged” or intimidated by the prospect of creating art in a different medium.

One catalyst for our project was the exchange visits we made to each other’s classrooms. Discussing our visit’s after the fact we found that we shared many challenges with respect to motivating students and providing engaging course content – however, one thing that differed substantially was the environment in which we worked. I found the security and overt “rules” present in the high school setting a little stifling, and felt they presented significant challenges to Diane that I did not encounter at the college level. I felt this would be especially so with respect to teaching creative or critical thinking. My reaction brought to mind the work of a professional photographer Richard Ross whose series “Architecture of Authority” depicts power at work in the built environment such as prisons, court rooms, border fences and even elementary schools.

Coupling the idea of power and photography – we decided to ask our students to take, or find, pictures that visualized power to them in various guises. Diane asked her students to take three pictures of power over time – after they had been introduced to new course content related to the topic. I asked my students to use political sociologist Stephen Luke’s theory of power – wherein he argues power has “three dimensions” – and take or find a picture to illustrate each one. Luke’s dimensions of power are: decision-making power, agenda setting power, and power to shape preferences and beliefs. The students posted their pictures to a project Facebook page along with a narrative description explain how they believed the image capture power.

We planned for the students to make “exchange” visits to each other’s campuses as Diane and I had, but in the end the logistics only worked out for the high school students to come and visit The College at Brockport. This was great fun. The students took a campus tour, sampled Brockport’s “best in SUNY” food for lunch and then I presented them with the lecture on Luke’s theory of power that I give to the college students. Surprisingly, after their ample lunch, they all stayed awake for the lecture and asked interesting questions!

Diane says…

High school students in the RCSD are labelled with many terms that identify their challenges. I believe that it is equally important to find ways to empower them. In this research project, Brockport Professor Susan Orr and I decided to allow students to select picture images and attempt to use them to unpack different dimensions and sources of power.

The project hinged on three different pivotal points: a pre-picture, a PowerPoint and lesson using Foundations of Democracy, and lastly a visit to the SUNY Brockport. Students were to select three images that represented power for each pivot point and analyze why that picture represented power.

Over time, students became pretty savvy about teasing out the multiple sources of power but interestingly, through the duration of the project, none of them evolved far enough to speak of either themselves or their families as powerful.  Read our Picturing Power action research report and find out who they believe holds the power.

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