In educational development, evaluation, research coaching, and consulting, we face the challenge of describing the work we do, even though it seems deceptively simple while we are in the midst of bringing our knowledge and skills in order for others to achieve their dreams and mitigate concerns.
For years, I have wrestled with what do we call our work, and in a time of local and national discussion about our work, it is, for me, a time of deep reflection on how we position the work we do.
- Position: Do we see ourselves as offering from a place of expertise, position ourselves as equals and partners, or helping like a helper (guiding and carrying a load) for others to achieve?
- Goal: Are we focused on transformative change to their ways of being and doing, or simply helping them make another year and easing their troubles?
Throughout our work, we may advertise and prescribe one focus or position, or we might tailor our communication and cycle through the three positions and two foci throughout a professional relationship with the client, instructor, student, or researcher.
The final question is perhaps the most challenging: 3. Power: Who really gets to choose? Do we? or even more messily, do those we seek to work on, work with, and work for get to choose?
What concerns me about descriptions that speak of equal partners, is the third question, who is that decides that we are equal.
In our work, I can call declare that a researcher, colleague, faculty member, instructor, community leader, organization leader… is my equal, but only they can declare that I’m their equal. If I declare that we are equals, I am assuming a superior right and status from which to make this declaration.
To use an analogy: In the German language and culture, one must be granted permission to address someone with “Du”, the informal and personal version of “you”, for to do so is to declare that someone is my equal. I can only offer that someone else is my equal, and only they can declare that I’m their equal. To unilaterally declare (i.e. addressing someone with “du”) presumes that the person so declaring is unarguably the person of higher status (e.g., boss, grandfather).
Similar to the wise consideration required as we walk the tightrope of celebrating our work without claiming the work of others, we to need to be respectful when we declare our position and focus. Unilaterally labelling ourselves as another’s equal raises the concern that in doing so we are assuming a superior status, particularly when communicating to new contacts and starting work together. And when we label ourselves part of transformative change, we risk excluding those with ameliorative concerns or being seen as pushing for change faster or broader than what is being sought.
It is a struggle, no doubt about it, in trying to figure out where we are in the paradigms when we are flexible and each person we work with pulls us to where their perspective is. There is a risk that in providing what they want, they may lose out on what they need. The question becomes who chooses the focus and our position! I believe we can no more abdicate that choice than we can dictate it, and that makes things most challenging each time we describe what we do or sort out our role.
For all those in research, teams, educational development, university life, community organizations, consulting, and evaluating, I look forward to hearing the words you choose, the adaptive balances you strike!