My Feminist Perspective of Authority – Part 2 by Elise M. Edwards

My understanding of authority differs from that of the academy in that I have defined for myself a sense of ultimate purpose that those in power in the institution do not have authority to deny. It also differs because I believe my authority is conditioned in particular ways. Yet I think that ultimately my conception of authority fits the paradigm of mentorship that the academy establishes, even though I may be more guarded about my work and my choice of mentors. My “her-story” gives me the courage to proceed, even as I protect myself and my work.

In a previous post, I discussed insights on power and authority from a student’s perspective that I shared at a workshop on Living Texts: Celebrating Feminist Perspective and Theo/alogy, Authority, and the Sacred in the Academy. The workshop was a gathering where women scholars in religion discussed the challenges and promises of our voices in the academy. The dialogue was so inspiring to me that I decided tocontinue it here. Today, I reflect on these two questions:

  • Does my understanding of authority differ from that of the academy?
  • How do you situate my “her-story” in light of a largely patriarchal perception of authority in the academy?

Previously, I asserted that there is a critical distinction between power and authority. Authority is a personal characteristic based on a relationship of trust between me and a text, a person, or their work. Power, on the other hand, is operative with or without trust. Therefore, the people who have authority in my academic work are those whose supportive words provide direction and assistance, and whose criticism I take seriously.

My understanding of authority differs from that of the academy in that I have defined for myself a sense of ultimate purpose that those in power in the institution do not have authority to deny. Similarly, it also differs because I believe my authority is conditioned in particular ways. I am accountable to God and practicing communities of Christians in addition to my university. Yet I think that ultimately my conception of authority fits the paradigm of mentorship that the academy establishes. My authorities are my committee members, scholars I have met at conferences and peers who have done good work in classes or workshops I attended with them.

However, I may be more guarded about my work and more selective of those I give power to shape it than my peers. I chose my mentors based on their work, their interest in in me, and their ability to communicate effectively with me and inspire my best work. I did not choose based on reputation/influence, seniority, gender, or race—characteristics that factor into dominant conceptions of authority.

I think that the largely patriarchal perception of authority in the academy favors those who have held power for the longest amount of time. And while I do think there is deference that is due to those who have done great work and sustained their work over a long period of time, I do not think it gives them authority over me if their work is largely irrelevant to mine. I was encouraged to work with senior scholars whose influence could help my career when I go on the job market. I did not follow this advice because I chose to work with people who I have established a relationship with. Yet, I did so with concerns about others’ perceptions, considering that my dissertation committee was comprised of junior faculty (at the time). It was my “her-story” that gave me the courage to proceed anyway.

My training as an architect has helped me to claim my own authority. In architecture school, I learned to define my creative ideas, explain them to professors and students, address their critiques and defend the ultimate product of my work by literally pinning it to the wall for others to view. This process taught me that my education requires active participation and I have the authority to speak my (informed) ideas just because I am there. Later in architectural practice, I was taught that I do not “get” to propose solutions. It is my job to contribute. Similarly, my authority to speak in the classroom is based on my concept of what graduate work is about – I am there to identify my contribution to the field of religion. I am not always confident in my own authority, but I have been encouraged by professors; female and male professors have contacted me after class to talk about my contributions. I also received encouragement from committee members after my exams to conduct myself as a peer, not a student.

The themes of artistry and calling are so foundational to my sense of purpose within the academy and therefore how I negotiate authority. My sense of authority comes from conviction that I am called to teach and write, and my self-definition as an artist/architect provides some resistance to dominant models in the academy, primarily by placing the need to protect my creative capacities above the need to respect powerful people who could destroy it. I do – and may always – see myself as at least a partial outsider in the academy, in religion, and in theology. But that gives me courage to operate by different norms.

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter,google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Academy, Art, college, Community, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, General, God-talk, Herstory, Power relations, Women's Agency

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