Document Type



Doctor of Education (EdD)


Adult Education and Human Resource Development

First Advisor's Name

Tonette S. Rocco

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Thomas G. Reio, Jr.

Third Advisor's Name

Benjamin Baez

Fourth Advisor's Name

Hilary Landorf


graduate students, higher education, adult education, instructor power, college students, alienation

Date of Defense



Higher education is a distribution center of knowledge and economic, social, and cultural power (Cervero & Wilson, 2001). A critical approach to understanding a higher education classroom begins with recognizing the instructor’s position of power and authority (Tisdell, Hanley, & Taylor, 2000). The power instructors wield exists mostly unquestioned, allowing for teaching practices that reproduce the existing societal patterns of inequity in the classroom (Brookfield, 2000).

The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological study was to explore students’ experiences with the power of their instructors in a higher education classroom. A hermeneutic phenomenological study intertwines the interpretations of both the participants and the researcher about a lived experience to uncover layers of meaning because the meanings of lived experiences are usually not readily apparent (van Manen, 1990). Fifteen participants were selected using criterion, convenience, and snowball sampling. The primary data gathering method were semi-structured interviews guided by an interview protocol (Creswell, 2003). Data were interpreted using thematic reflection (van Manen, 1990).

Three themes emerged from data interpretation: (a) structuring of instructor-student relationships, (b) connecting power to instructor personality, and (c) learning to navigate the terrains of higher education. How interpersonal relationships were structured in a higher education classroom shaped how students perceived power in that higher education classroom. Positive relationships were described using the metaphor of family and a perceived ethic of caring and nurturing by the instructor. As participants were consistently exposed to exercises of instructor power in a higher education classroom, they attributed those exercises of power to particular instructor traits rather than systemic exercises of power. As participants progressed from undergraduate to graduate studies, they perceived the benefits of expertise in content or knowledge development as secondary to expertise in successfully navigating the social, cultural, political, and interpersonal terrains of higher education. Ultimately, participants expressed that higher education is not about what you know; it is about learning how to play the game. Implications for teaching in higher education and considerations for future research conclude the study.





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