Confronting “Confrontation”: Musings on Connotation, Communication and Cheating

A few months ago, Republican Representative Daniel Fisher introduced a bill to the Oklahoma state legislature, HB 1380, that would revoke all funding for advanced placement United States history classes and put in their place a curriculum of the legislature’s choosing. This bill has been discussed in the media – at TUSH and elsewhere – and while there are several pedagogical and political issues, I have been consistently struck by its use of “exceptionalism.” One of the major justifications for HB 1380 is that the AP curriculum denigrates patriotism and paints a bleak picture of US history while failing to sufficiently address what makes the narrative “exceptional.” Exceptional: as in outstanding, excellent, without peer. But at what point did that connotation trump simply meaning something outside the norm, a literal exception to the proverbial rule?

This post is in some respects an expression of issues I have been thinking about since last summer but came to a head this week. The other day I had to confront a student who fabricated a paper. This person was an exception in a class that has on the whole been mature, honest and hard-working, but nonetheless, it was fifteen minutes of conflict that has left me thinking more about communication than cheating. Confrontation is another one of those words that, like exceptionalism, has multiple connotations yet one always seems to dominate the lexicon. Confrontation (a hostile meeting) and confrontational (argumentative or aggressive behaviors) do not really take into account the alternate meaning of confront, which is to handle, face, manage or deal with a challenging or difficult situation. In yet still another strange twist of the ever-shifty English language, to be non-confrontational denotes a diplomatic or calm demeanor. But it seems to me that far from being oppositional actions, confronting a problem head-on is in fact the most diplomatic thing you can do. You then avoid an argument or aggressive exchanges because this preempts the inevitable problem that can fester over time if an issue is not addressed.

There is a lot of references in our social media-saturated world about the importance of personal and professional life balance. This occupation is pretty porous by nature: it is a balance between knowing your values and priorities while also being open-minded enough to learn new ideas and evolve. It is also a balance between actual space: how many graduate students have written their dissertations sprawled out at the table in a tiny apartment right next to their shower? Confronting this student was an instance where the personal and professional were highly porous for me for me, as it isn’t a coincidence that my dissertation is on copyright history and I have a blunt stance on plagiarism. People tend to not be exclusively one thing or the other: I try to be both direct and diplomatic – understanding, supportive and empathetic up until the crossing of the Rubicon. In this instance, it was copying half of a paper of the Internet and then attempting to evade the consequences for nearly a week and a half.

As a teacher and a student I have observed three negative behaviors in the classroom that have always felt utterly unproductive: judgment, jealousy and entitlement. At CUNY, the vast majority of students are some of the most unentitled, open-minded people I have ever met. But there are always exceptions. Some negative feelings can be channeled in positive ways – arguments are inevitable and can be healthy in certain situations – and not all conflict is bad if it can lead to a progressive outcome. I will happily discuss, debate or even hotly argue about a grade or comment with a student because I think it’s a valuable experience for both of us. But the universe doesn’t owe you an A on your term paper: it does not matter if you think it was better than someone else’s in the class or certainly if you resorted to cheating to get it.

I like to talk and I like to listen. I do not relish screeching arguments or futile drama (especially when dealing with college freshmen) but I also think that we have allowed difficult conversations to become so stigmatized as “confrontational” that some will avoid them in extremes. Verbal and written communication are interwoven enterprises. Even if a student sees a problem brewing with their assignments, even if they see a solution to the same problem, they will refuse to confront it. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the fact that just because discussion comes a little easier to me, other people are not wired that way and find it challenging. This is on me as a teacher as well, to ensure that the classroom environment is comfortable and supportive. I am not excusing my cheating student’s behavior, far from it, and I think that I am on the whole a very warm and approachable instructor. But if they had accepted my offer to help, it wouldn’t have spiraled into an unavoidable F. And while it is easy to chalk that up to laziness, I think it speaks to a bigger problem.

Women in particular face the difficulties of these multiple connotations of confrontation. When we stand up for ourselves, hold our ground and demand to be taken seriously, there are a slew of offensive, gendered epithets waiting for us. Thus, I am even more empathetic to the challenges and vulnerabilities that young, female students face on a daily basis when it comes to speaking up about feeling overwhelmed or unsure about their work. Of course, some subjects sting me just like they would sting anyone else but I am willing to talk about them if they are acknowledged by the other party as challenging: you don’t need to have “off-limits” topics if they are approached and handled in a respectful and reasonable manner. It’s the refusal to point out the “elephant in the room,” “call a spade a spade” etc., that is problematic. It’s not always what you say but how you say it. If something is wrong and you’re struggling, then you owe it to yourself and to me as a teacher to come to me before it gets that bad. You owe it to yourself to confront the issue.

This comes back to balance: if you respect your own efforts, it becomes far easier to be respectful of others. When someone behaves in a way they are not proud of, I have observed two results. They immediately acknowledge the mistake and attempt to rectify it or they withdraw, either into defensive posturing or dismissive denial. In the latter of these stances, the student sees themself, somehow, as the wronged party while the instructor is the subject of resentment at best and outright nastiness at worst. Here is the thing though: people handle difficult situations differently over time. The way I might approach a challenging topic at the start of the semester might be different by the time finals roll around. That’s the point of education – to learn, develop and gradually become the best version of yourself – and I’d zenly argue, the broader point of “it all.” The odds are that my students are in a similar position. But how on earth is either one of us going to know how to handle difficult situations, whether it’s a personal issue, a language struggle, or comprehending the subject matter, if we do not communicate about it?

I have been thinking about this mostly in relation to my predominantly eighteen-year-old students, but in all fairness to them, I also see it, almost as if in a funhouse mirror, in older personal and professional relationships. This incentivizes confronting these behaviors early on because while most people grow-up, a few do not neccesarily grow. To reiterate, I am not advocating chucking all professional boundaries out the window. It is precisely because our personal/professional lives are so blurry in graduate school that establishing appropriate dynamics are key and we need to teach our students to be responsible for their own adult behaviors. But while the immediate issue here is one of cheating, I think this speaks to a broader lack of emphasis on communication in higher education. I am open to (and would appreciate) any thoughts on how to confront such a general problem: perhaps, while I think my cheating policy is appropriately firm, I need to look into ways in which the consequences force a dialogue?

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