Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
How do apologies affect the apologizee?
Comic photograph of army officers cleaning their friend's teeth
Thanks to Sune Auken, Carolyn Miller, and a very bad dental hygienist, I’ve continued thinking about apologies.
I’ll start with the more trivial story. It will take me a little longer than my usual post.
Last week I went to my regular 3-month teeth cleaning (a 3-month cleaning schedule is the reward for having some deep pockets, and not the good kind). My regular dental hygienist had dislocated her thumb and was having thumb surgery the next day, so I had a substitute, a hygienist brought in part-time to cover those appointments.
This is going to get a bit graphic, so those with weak stomachs might look away.
This hygienist had an unusual style—she cleaned my teeth without any rinsing or suctioning or spitting. When she finally stopped polishing, I left my mouth gaping, waiting for her to finally suction out all the gritty polish sitting on my tongue and in my mouth. Nothin’. I finally had to swallow all the nasty gunk so I could speak, and choked out “I was waiting for you to rinse and suction!” “Huh,” she shrugged.
That continued through the scraping and the flossing. yuck
And then the final rinse. She sprayed and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. And sprayed. No suction, just spraying. I was gurgling with all the water collected in my throat. Finally, I had to move her hand away from my mouth and swallow, hard. “I was drowning!” I gasped. “Huh,” she said. Then she brought in the suction. “Do your teeth feel rinsed now?” she asked. Yep, yep, they do. Let me outta this chair.
image of I'm Outta Here memecrunch.com
If you’ve been looking away, you can rejoin the story now, because now comes the part relevant to apologies.
That evening, I received an email from the business asking me to rate them. OK, I decided. I wasn’t going to say anything, but they want to know. So I sent a private email instead of a public rating. I described my gagging experience with the hygienist and suggested she wasn’t doing their business any favors. The next day, I received a response from the “Front Office” and a woman I’ll call “Arlene.” Since her message ended with one of those business confidential statements, I’ll have to paraphrase and won't be able to capture her tone.
Arlene said she apologized sincerely, though "we" were surprised that I had a bad experience with a hygienist so experienced in their office. She explained that, in the future, my “options” were to see a different hygienist in their office or see my regular dentist (rather than these specialists).
I was ticked off. Trying to figure out why—after all, she did sincerely apologize, never said the word "but," and vowed not to repeat it—I saw in the original apology a clear message that I was somehow perceiving an offense that could not possibly have occurred (they were surprised; the hygienist had over 25 years experience with them) AND that if I didn’t like it I could go elsewhere. The message to me? I was wrong, and now I had done something wrong.
I replied to the email with a few more details (which I thought showed clearly that there had been a real problem), protested that I was not especially particular about hygienists and had used many different ones successfully over the years with them, and said that I could indeed go back to seeing only my dentist and not their practice if that was preferable. Like I said, I was a little ticked off. But now I also felt on the defensive, that I had to convince them there really had been something that deserved an apology. I wasn't to blame.
I’m sorry to say that Arlene replied with a brief, cheery email, pleased that I hadn’t had any other bad experiences with them and hoping that my original hygienist won’t injure herself again so that I never ever have to see anyone else ever. Oh, and a smiley face.
Now I don’t want to be too hard on this poor front office representative trying to make me happy. But I do want to notice my emotional reaction to that apology. There’s more to an apology than just hitting the key elements (and Harriet Lerner will have much more to say about apologies in her full book). Most of all, I want to notice the very real impact that apologies can have not just on the apologizer—Lochte losing endorsement deals—but also on the apologizee.
Like a bad teeth cleaning, receiving a bad apology can make you feel worse than when you started.
Perhaps it has something to do with belittlement. A bad apology belittles the apologizee, the person getting the apology.
Carolyn Miller, in the Comments to my last Monday post, shared a link to a great youtube video posted August 23 by ArgueLab on Public Apologies.
In it rhetorician Jay Heinrichs points to the same three recent apologizers—Lochte, Clinton, and Trump—and suggests that the reason public figures have so much trouble apologizing is that “an apology is an act of self-belittlement.” And that’s hard for public figures. So he offers four tips for good apologies: own up to it, focus on your own emotions, describe your mistake as an exception to the rule of your usual behavior, and fix the mistake.
The rhetorical strategies agree nicely with the ones I listed from psychologist Lerner. After all, emotions and empathy are a big part of both rhetoric and psychology, and they’re a big part of apologies.
But any apology "is an act of self-belittlement," not just the apology of public figures. And when the apologizer can't perform the act the apology genre requires, they can pass the emotion on to the person they're apologizing to. Since I can't accept the emotion of having made a mistake, there must be something wrong with you.
The apology I received from Arlene left me feeling belittled. Rather than her accepting self-belittlement for the business through her apology, even privately, she belittled my experience, and me. Aristotle said, according to ArgueLab’s video, that “the main cause of anger is belittlement.” I felt belittled, so I felt angry. As I said, ticked off.
The main cause of anger is belittlement"
Public figures and businesses aren’t the only ones who have trouble with the self-belittlement of an apology. Parents, too, can struggle with apologizing to children. Sune Auken pointed out in a series of painfully clear tweets that apologies from parents often belittle children
The child receives an apology, and yet feels blamed. So many apologies, as Sune explains, give the apologizer power and let the apologizer abuse the apologizee.
“I’m sorry, but you made me do that”
“I’m sorry, but if you weren’t so sensitive”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way”
Our feelings can be hurt before an apology and again by an apology.
To really see an apology at work, we need to see the one receiving it as well as the one giving it. That’s true of all genres.
And we need to see the emotions at play in an apology, whether regret or belittlement. That’s true of all genres, too.
Genres have emotional impact on people who receive them.
Genres do things to people as well as for people
image of Succhiotto by Simona Z flickr
Did I make too much of Arlene’s less-than-skillful apology? Feel free to tell me in the comments. What other genres do you notice that have strong emotional impact? What other genres hide their impact in supposed good intent?
"I’m sorry. So sorry. Please accept my apology. But love is blind. And I was too blind to see”
Apologies have been in the news a lot these past few days. So today a rapid scan of some apology stories—from politicians to more politicians, and a few Olympic swimmers thrown into the pool just for fun.
What apologies do is clearer than many genres--the very act of apologizing makes the apology happen. (For the scholars among my readers, yes, the apology is a speech act, too.) And they happen in some pretty typical ways in pretty common situations--"I'm sorry for doing that. I won't do it again." They're also a genre with a pretty clear standard for good and bad. Good apologies make you feel better. Bad apologies just tick you off--or maybe that's just me.
I was fortunate last week to hear psychologist Harriet Lerner practice her sold-out TEDx talk on making good apologies. In Lerner's talk and a column in Psychology Today "You Call THAT an Apology," she explains what makes a good apology:
Apologies can be serious business, and I can imagine an entire book on the genre. Oh wait, Harriet Lerner is coming out with one, at least from the perspective of a clinical psychologist, though not perhaps seeing the world through genre-colored glasses.
Without yet developing my own treatise on the apology genre, I noticed a few recent events involving apologies, both good and bad.
One is Donald Trump on Friday, August 19, expressing his "regret" for some things he has said, according to the New York Times:
Trump explains that “in the heat of debate” “you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not I regret it.” He goes on, “And I do regret it. Particularly where it may have caused personal pain”
Is that an apology from Donald Trump? Several news headlines called it that. I don't know whether Lerner would accept "I regret it" as the same as "I'm sorry." Surely Brenda Lee sings it better, though she fails the apology test by excusing herself with "But love is blind." Trump does not add any "but"s, so he hits one of the key elements (unless describing the heat of debate offers an excuse).
I'm pretty sure he fails the specificity test--admitting that some wrong words "may" have caused personal pain (what did he say? who was hurt?). And he may not be committed to not repeating the offense since he follows his statement of regret with a complaint that too much is being made of "these issues" and a promise to "always tell you the truth."
Another caution by Lerner in a Huffington Post column might be relevant here:
People can apologize for what they do. They cannot apologize for who they are.”
The other side in the US presidential campaign certainly has had her own issues with apologies, if not one as recent. The demand for Hillary Clinton to apologize for using her personal email account for State Department work was loud and insistent. Among other responses, on September 8, 2015, she posted this apology to her Facebook account
This apology has the benefit of a direct Brenda Lee "I'm sorry" and being specific about what she is taking responsibility for. And in this one she offers no "but" excuses, though the "key facts" may come off as excusing the action. She goes on to vow transparency, so that appears to be a commitment not to repeat the offense. Seems like a good apology, even if it didn't end the discussion by making everyone feel better.
Hillary Clinton wasn't the only one in the family to have had issues with apologies. August 17 was the anniversary of a 1998 address by President Bill Clinton. Rather than apologizing for the Monica Lewinsky affair, President Clinton in that address avoided saying I'm sorry and attacked his prosecutors. Not until September, weeks later, did President Clinton confess "I sinned" and admit that he needed to offer an apology with “genuine repentance, a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented.”
His apology then seemed to fit the criteria of a good apology--genuine, specific, committed to change (we can always hope). But many complained that the repentance should have come sooner. Perhaps in her full-length treatment Lerner will include a requirement that apologies be timely, hitting the kairotic moment. As Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic might say, "It's too late to apologize."
One more current event involving apologies. Ryan Lochte and three other US Olympic swimmers in Rio de Janeiro were involved in an incident at a gas station that was either an armed robbery (according to Lochte's initial account) or a "negotiation" for damages done after the swimmers vandalized the gas station. Security footage seems to show something other than an armed robbery, and the negotiations for apologies abound.
People make mistakes. The good people acknowledge those mistakes at the time and apologize. That's what apologies do. They let life go on.
I'd be happy to hear your own tales of good and bad apologies, either in the news or in your life. Please feel free to comment below.
And just in case I have offended, in this or any previous post, let me just offer a bad apology:
I'm sorry, so sorry, for anything I might have done. I promise not to do it again (if I can figure out what I did).
What does a syllabus do? And for (or to) whom?
Search syllabus on Twitter and you'll likely find #thelemonadesyllabus, a checklist of readings by African-American women, or #Ferguson Syllabus, #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus, #OrlandoSyllabus--all crowd-sourced reading lists for self-education on important topics.
The syllabuses handed out in classrooms on the first day also contain reading lists (in fact, lists of lecture topics were the first academic syllabuses), but those classroom syllabuses contain so much more--office hours, course descriptions, learning objectives, assignments, grade breakdowns, attendance policies and late paper policies and participation policies and plagiarism policies and cell phone policies and more policies.
Because of their situation--written by a teacher, read by students, in a classroom within an academic institution. And that makes all the difference.
In last week’s post, I sketched the surface of how syllabuses reflect and reveal some assumptions about who matters and who gets to say what matters. I focused mostly on the roles of the teacher and student within the class.
But the story is a lot more complicated than that. Who else writes and reads syllabuses, and why? And how does that show up in the documents? Big questions, all, so I’ll just share a few situations that show some complexities. Those of us who teach probably know this, but I wonder whether we pay enough attention.
Who gets to say what’s included in a syllabus? Not the students, as I pointed out last week, but also not just the teacher.
Syllabuses can become enmeshed in fights between faculty and administrators. Recently, one faculty member was suspended (and then retired) because he didn’t include adequate learning outcomes on his syllabus. His chair and later his dean said that the accrediting agency required learning outcomes to be on every syllabus, something that agency denied in the Inside Higher Ed article about it. The professor argued that the faculty code, not administrators’ requests, determines what goes in his syllabus.
That professor’s resistance made the news, but part-time faculty and adjunct instructors frequently have the content of their syllabuses dictated to them. Shelley Manis, in a comment on this blog, points out that many adjuncts couldn’t construct an alternative syllabus like the one I showed last week. Instead, they have to follow their program’s mandate.
In my own first years as a Graduate Teaching Assistant—and my first years as an administrator of a writing program—GTAs followed a “common syllabus,” one designed by a professor in Rhetoric and Composition for all teachers new to the program to follow. That dictated syllabus met with some resistance and some relief (I was relieved, as a brand new teacher; a bit resistant, as a brand new administrator). Either way, it worked to bring all teachers into line with a program and its values, goals, and methods. But these teachers are in less powerful positions than the professor. They didn't file lawsuits objecting to administrators dictating their syllabus content. (Please tell me, readers, if you know of cases.)
Even full-time professors often forget to notice how much of a syllabus comes from the institution’s or program’s expectations. The Faculty Rules at my own institution specify that
Information about the basis for evaluating students' performance and about the requirements that students must fulfill shall be made available to students, in print or electronic format by the 10th class day of the semester”
Does that regulation dictate what appears in my syllabus? Sure sounds like it, even without naming the genre. In fact, my department’s written expectations for faculty specify even the genre--that this information (and more) must be distributed in a syllabus.
So the teacher may dictate much to the student in a syllabus, but the institution dictates to the teacher as well.
Does dictating the syllabus content dictate what the syllabus does?
Not necessarily, not completely, and maybe not at all. The content is only a trace, a signal of what the syllabus does.
Like all genres (says the genre preacher), the syllabus is about more than what it contains. The syllabus is about what it does. And a syllabus (like most genres, says the genre preacher) does many things at once.
image Austin Kleon But wait, there's more! flickr
The syllabus does something else that is huge.
When I was the writing program administrator at my school, I heard complaints from students when they thought teachers didn’t follow the policies laid out in their syllabuses, especially grade complaints. The upper-level administrators who reviewed those cases consistently looked to the syllabus as what teachers were bound to follow. And I consistently advised teachers that, if they went against what they’d written on a syllabus, they were risking a grade complaint.
Does the syllabus make a contractual agreement? Looking at the content of syllabuses can't answer that question because it's a question about what syllabuses do, not what they say.
The wording at my own institution says yes and no. The university regulations carefully specify that it does not constitute a contract; the department rules says that it does.
In a recent column on “The Syllabus as a Contract,” Amber Comer describes the professor “forced to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury” in the syllabus, and she offers advice to teachers about how to protect against “clever” students who find loopholes in that syllabus contract. Not roles I want for myself or my great students.
But that image of "clever" students looking for loopholes suggests that students read the syllabus, and read it carefully. Some writers claim that, if the syllabus is a contract, it might be more like those Terms we click Agree to whenever a new software version installs—one few people read. Kali Slaymaker on College Raptor says that many students “disregard” the syllabus, and Kevin Gannon in a recent Chronicle column "The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester" (filled with good advice, including not to focus the first class day on the syllabus) advises teachers who give quizzes to give a quiz on the syllabus within the first week to ensure that students read it.
In my experience, students do read the syllabus in class that first day, even if many do go straight for the grading requirements. The syllabus does make a difference in how it shapes students toward the instructor’s and institution’s values and expectations. That's a big part of what a syllabus does.
But the syllabus also makes a difference in how it shapes instructors toward the institution’s values and expectations. That's also what a syllabus does. And I wonder if we clever teachers are reading our syllabuses carefully, looking not for loopholes but for the ways our institutional settings are shaping what we do in our classrooms. Students aren’t the only ones being shaped unawares. Teachers, too, should pay attention.
Next week I'll look for a lighter topic with less preaching. It is still summer, after all.
image by Ron Mader flickr
What does the syllabus say about us?
So it’s getting to be that time of the summer for those of us who teach in post-secondary schools. Classes will start within weeks, and syllabuses must be prepared. To delay my own prepping a little longer, allow me to do a bit of commenting on the syllabus--that first-day-of-classes document that teachers hand to students with course requirements and information about the semester.
I find the syllabus especially revealing for how genres reflect and shape their contexts. I use it as an example on the first day of classes when I’m teaching anything genre-based, from first-year writing classes to graduate seminars.
Take a look at my standard syllabus first page. I’m sure I learned this formatting and organization from my supervisors and other teachers when I was a newbie. Notice what comes first.
After the course title comes the instructor’s information—name, contact info, office hours. As my first-year students point out, that makes sense since they do need to know how to contact me. Genres do develop as they do for some good reasons. But notice the absence of students’ contact information. They need to contact each other, too, and I need to contact them. Of course, I can’t publish all their info for other students without their permission. But there’s not even a space on the syllabus for students to write in others’ names, much less their email addresses. Who are the classmates they’re going to spend a semester with? The syllabus makes no room for such information. All that matters is the instructor.
Such a simple thing, what’s included and what’s not in a genre. But such a powerful statement about what—or who—matters.
If what mattered most was the information most important to students, what might come next after the instructor’s contact info? I’d guess course requirements and grades—what students will need to do to get the grade they want. Seems perfectly reasonable to want to know such important information, and that’s information you can’t get anywhere other than the syllabus. But it doesn’t come next on most syllabuses I’ve seen. Grading and requirements are usually buried in the middle of the document. Instead, what often comes next is the course description, course outcomes, or learning objectives, depending on the institution. That big picture of what the course is about and will help students accomplish. That’s certainly important information, and many teachers, I imagine, will believe like me that it’s good to start the course off with the big picture of what we’re about and what we’re here for.
But as teachers are reading the course description, I imagine we’ve all seen students flipping to page two or three, searching for that info on requirements and grades. It’s not that they’re not interested in the big picture and what the course will do for them. Maybe it’s just that they already understood that. That’s why they enrolled in the course. They may even have read the course description online. But they haven’t been able to see anything about the details of the course requirements. Still, we make them search for that information, buried in the middle. What we think matters most comes first—who we are and what our course is about. The syllabus is not designed first of all to meet students’ needs, or surely that basic requirements and grade information would come first, so they can get that covered and be ready to hear about our lofty goals.
Such a simple thing, what comes first in a genre. But such a powerful statement about whose priorities matter.
image Delete by West Ham Trackside flickr
Again, there are some good reasons for starting with the course description and goals. We want to encourage students to pay attention to what they’re learning. Research tells us that it helps them learn to have the big picture first, setting a frame for everything they learn afterward. But notice that teachers are the ones who get to say what they should pay attention to.
Notice, too, that the genre can’t make them do what we want. Some students will still flip pages to find the grading info first. We can’t make them value lofty goals over pragmatic grades, but we can make it harder for them. And by putting those lofty goals first, we’re making a statement about what they should do and be.
After that first page, many syllabuses will be full of detailed instructions about what students should do to be “good” students—turn papers in on time, not arrive late to class, not use cell phones during class, be respectful of other students’ comments, maybe even use MLA headings and 1” margins. We want them to gain those lofty objectives, but they should also be obedient. So we use lots of commands (do this, don’t do that; be this, don’t be that) and very few requests or questions. The instructor is in charge, after all.
Such a simple thing, choosing the sentence type and tone in a genre. But such a powerful statement about the role of the writer and the reader.
Oh, there’s so much more to notice about the syllabus and how it reinforces the academic institution’s values. It puts not just the students but also the instructor into particular roles that are hard to resist. But I try to keep these blog posts under 750 words, and I’m already well over.
So I’ll just end by showing you a sample of a syllabus I’ve created to try to break some of those generic expectations. This one is from an undergraduate course introducing students to these rhetorical conceptions of genre, so the syllabus was very meta- about our course topic. You'll notice I still put the big course goals first, but at least I label them as "My Goals" and I leave room for their goals. And I start with the students' names (removed here, for students' privacy). We also negotiated the grade breakdown after that first class, but I'm still dictating a lot and still in charge.
If the world can stay sane for a week, I’ll return to comment more on this syllabus, and other classroom genres, next week.
What do you notice about syllabuses and the ways they shape teachers and students or reflect their institutions? Do your syllabuses differ in significant ways? I'd be glad to have more examples and material to work with as I continue to think through the syllabus, one of my favorite examples.