Acknowledgment without Apology

In my different jobs and duties at McMaster this year, I’ve been working closely with a number of people required to take various leadership roles in the classroom, from TAs to seminar leaders and student presenters. I’ve listened to myself repeat the same advice to a number of different people in regards to a number of different situations. In a workshop for new TAs, an anxious colleague asked what they might do if faced with an unbreakable wall of silence, or a consistently quiet tutorial week in and week out. In a session on teaching writing, an experienced TA asked how he might teach students how to write well when he didn’t know how he had learned to write well. How do you teach others what you feel you know so little about? And, in a session on creating safe and open discussion environments, one participant explained that he wanted to know not only how to prevent exclusions and offensive behaviour, but also what to do once a bigoted comment was made, or a homophobic slur was said.

To each question, I confidently replied: “Acknowledge it.”

Acknowledgment’s Charms

Acknowledgment is neither band-aid nor magical incantation. It does not heal wounds or ward off evil spirits. But there is a certain magic to simple acknowledgment: it can bring a touch of warmth and comfort to a room cursed with cold silence, and can transform ignorant comments and hurtful language into those mythic creatures called “teaching moments,” which flit about the fairy world of teachers’ hopes and dreams only to make intermittent but inevitably mischievous appearances in our classrooms.

But it wasn’t until last week–almost a full month after I had so confidently counseled acknowledgment as the path to teacherly enlightenment–that I really thought about the magic behind its use.

I was working with a grad student who was worried that her English pronunciation would confuse her peers during a seminar she was required to lead. Her solution was to use powerpoint to give the rest of the class visual cues that would signpost key ideas and transitions. I suggested that she might also acknowledge that English was her second language, and that she was concerned she might not be as clear as she wanted to be. I made this suggestion in the hopes that her candor might have two positive effects. First, it might make her feel more at ease, because she wouldn’t feel as thought she had anything to hide or cover up. Second, it might encourage her peers to ask questions, just as they would if they didn’t understand a presenter whose first language was English. If she didn’t acknowledge her concerns, her peers might be hesitant to ask for clarification, for fear that they would be drawing attention to a sensitive issue, or a weakness.

And, really, how could speaking two or more languages possibly be construed as a weakness?

So without much thought, I added: “Also, just something to think about: you don’t have to apologize for it, either.”

Oh no; Alice has grown small.

Apology and Confession

Unnecessary apologies work their own sort of magic: they have the power to make you disappear, or, at the very least, cause you to diminish rapidly in stature in the eyes of others. But refusing to apologize for something not worthy of apology is more than just sleight-of-hand in the game we play in interpersonal relations. If we acknowledge something only to apologize for it, we risk undoing the powerful work of acknowledgment itself. Acknowledgment demands recognition. Apology, on the other hand, pleads forgiveness.

The act of apologizing can be very similar to that of confessing. I’m thinking here of Wendy Brown’s reading of Foucault on the subject of confession. She explains:

“Confessional revelations are … constructed as liberation from repression or secrecy, and truth-telling about our desires or experiences is construed as deliverance from the power that silences and represses them…. What Foucault terms ‘the internal ruse of confession’ is reducible to this reversal of power and freedom: ‘Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom.’ In believing truth-telling about our experiences to be our liberation, Foucault suggests, we forget that this truth has been established as the secret to our souls not by us but by those who would discipline us through that truth.” (42)

Such is the trickery of confession–its “internal ruse”–that we feel rebellious, free, completely liberated from discipline and control just as we affirm our own need to transgress the limits placed on us. In apologizing for our transgressions we re-affirm the logic that defines certain behaviours and certain ways of thinking as transgressive. In confessing to a deeply held secret or taboo truth, we give credence to the way of thinking that named it secret or taboo in the first place.

Learning to acknowledge challenges in the classroom without apologizing for them is important not because saying sorry might make you appear weak or somehow lessen your authority in the eyes of judgemental or unforgiving students, but because apologizing for the challenges we face in teaching and learning suggests that learning should be easy. By definition, learning is not easy. It might be fun, challenging and exciting, but it is not easy.

So, to that grad student anxious about how her peers might receive her and her pronunciation, I advised: acknowledge it, but do not feel like you must apologize for it.

Funny, though, that her reaction made me both smile and question my advice immediately after giving it. One moment she was calm and attentive; the next, she was a flurry of movement: her hands flew to her face, her shoulders shot to her ears, and with a bit of a laugh, she said, “But that’s what we do in my country!” I think a lot of Canadians can empathize with her. We practice a culture of apology. I think women, especially, are trained as apologists. But, in apologizing for ourselves, do we risk re-inscribing the lines that fence us in?


Work Cited

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury. Princeton UP, 1995. Print.