Responding Like a Human Being:
Self-betrayal in the Writing Classroom
On an afternoon in late October, I walked into my classroom to find three sheepish- looking freshmen. All of them had missed their scheduled conferences with me earlier that day, and all three simultaneously began to offer excuses and pleas to reschedule. I told them I was sorry, but I could not set new appointments. At first glance, my choice may appear appropriate for several reasons: they collectively wasted forty-five minutes of my busy schedule, new appointments would mean another forty-five minute shuffle of that schedule, and the loss of their conferences would hold them accountable and encourage them to be more responsible in the future. While the choice might seem appropriate, it does not take into account the nature of the interaction nor its results. My reaction was determined by an act of what is called self-betrayal, and it undermined the very goals I had worked for as an instructor. In a mode of self-betrayal, teachers can weaken the relationships they work to establish with students and generate additional anxiety for both parties. Understanding and eliminating self-betrayal in the writing classroom will lessen instructor stress and improve teacher-student interactions, ultimately leading to greater success in teaching writing.
Self-betrayal is the catchword of a theory of human behavior that emerged over twenty- five years ago. This theory centers on the moral responsibility of individuals and was first developed by Dr. C. Terry Warner and a small group of colleagues at Brigham Young University (Robertson 14). The theory’s implications have been applied to the field of social sciences in connection with family conflict and, in recent years, to the business world by the Arbinger Institute (Warner and Olson 493; Arbinger x). While this theory has not been thoroughly discussed in direct connection with the college classroom, its application to academic interactions prove just as influential. This paper will discuss the components of self-betrayal, apply them to my three freshmen and to two other situations common to the composition instructor, and then briefly clarify possible and vital alternatives.
The basic premise of this theory of moral responsibility rests on the idea that every individual is an agent, capable of choosing to live in one of two possible states: the genuine or the self-betrayed (Warner and Olson 493). In the former, individuals view people around them as human beings, sense others’ needs, and respond to them genuinely. In the latter, the quality of interactions changes because others are treated as objects—things to be managed—instead of the human beings that they are (Arbinger 35). The possibility of living in either state is ever-present. Therefore, choices we make determine which state we live in at any given moment. How do we come to reside in the second, less-desirable, state?
The concept of self-betrayal can be seen as it is played out in the scene with my three forgetful freshmen. In the moment that I encountered the students, a thought confronted me:
I should reschedule their conferences. I had read their drafts and knew that these particular students needed some personal attention and discussion regarding their papers. They could use the comments I had for them to improve their writing. This thought urged me to reschedule, regardless of the personal inconvenience. They obviously felt penitent. They obviously had a desire for feedback. But I wanted to set a precedent, to be seen as consistent, and to teach them accountability. I disregarded my instinctive urge, which Warner and Olson would call a moral imperative, and, in that moment, betrayed myself (494).
Moral imperatives—urges or desires to respond to others—may come to an individual in any situation (Robertson 235). The term moral imperative does not signify a standard or universal set of moral values, nor should it be assumed that every situation is moral in nature. Rather, the term is meant to describe “specific and daily promptings that come to us” (Warner and Olson 498). These daily promptings encourage responsiveness to other people as their needs are perceived. Robertson, who worked with Warner in the early 1980s, explains that a moral imperative “is not necessarily related to what someone else would consider moral. It refers only to the highly personalized moral commitment made by the subject in his response to the circumstances” (235). In other words, moral imperatives are inherently personal. For instance, choosing to reschedule a conference is not fundamentally moral or immoral, genuine or counterfeit, except to the teacher who sees that as a need at a particular time (Warner and Olson 495). The same moral imperative to reschedule would not necessarily come to every teacher, possibly not even to myself in every situation.
What happens when we ignore moral imperatives? We betray ourselves. We act against impulses we believe to be right and begin to live a lie in order to compensate for the discrepancy in our behavior (Warner 2). This lie encourages negative behaviors in others and leads us to attempt to justify our own behaviors. In a state of self-betrayal, we are deceived about ourselves and about everyone around us (Arbinger 15). The situation with the three freshmen offers some implications. After resisting the imperative to reschedule, I immediately shifted my attitude as a teacher. Rather than seeing my students as individuals, I saw them as one always sees others from the self-betrayed world: “the main cause of the trouble,” or “nuisances or problems” (Arbinger 14, 32). After betraying myself, I found it nearly impossible to view them as anything other than irresponsible frustrations.
Perhaps some instructors would agree with my reaction to the three freshmen—the students were irresponsible, and, of course, I should stay firm in my decision not to reschedule. Students need to respect the time their teachers set aside for them. Those instructors are quite right. In some situations, the best choice would entail students missing out on points or feedback. But here is the key: that choice would only prove correct as long as it remained consistent with a moral imperative. Either choice—rescheduling or not—could be genuine. Moral imperatives should influence behavior but are not necessarily behavioral in nature (Arbinger 45). Acting according to them does not inevitably mean that we must engage in actions that are only gentle, soft, or supposedly kind. In fact, sometimes the best option involves behavior that seems rigid or unforgiving. The difference lies in the way we see the people to whom we respond (Olson). A teacher may correct a student or remain firm on a deadline while still seeing the student as a person, not as a problem. In the instance of the three freshmen, the actual behaviors involved in the interaction caused no problem; the attitude of frustration behind them did.
Allow me to clarify that my frustration was not disingenuous. An individual living in a state of self-betrayal not only will claim but will believe that his or her feelings are genuine, which they are (Warner and Olson 498). The authentic frustration in my case was not necessarily problematic; the students’ misuse of time earlier that afternoon and lack of planning had left me aggravated for a reason. But the accusatory nature of the frustration only emerged in a moment of self-betrayal—in the moment when the urge to do right was resisted. In a sense, I caused the very frustration that I wanted to eliminate. For this reason, my “anger [was] genuine in that it [was] felt, but inauthentic in that it [was] not cause[d] by anything that [was] happening” to me or anything that someone else had brought upon me, although I may have denied that at the time (Warner and Olson 495). Since the resentment caused by a moment of self-betrayal was ultimately inauthentic, its existence needed to be accounted for somehow.
Self-betrayal is often easiest to detect when justifications begin to surface. Self-betrayed justification generally latches onto a supposed injury and values it as the most important explanation of the problem (Warner 8). In this particular instance, my justification focused on the loss and lack of time, as if time were the argument. However logical my reasons seemed, the explanations still felt hollow: “Self-justification . . . is a sign that, by the individual’s own values, something is not right” (Warner and Olson 498). Others’ faults can even be wielded as justifications for a self-betrayed cause. My students, regardless of how much I cared about them all semester, appeared irresponsible, inconsiderate, and disorganized. While that may have even been the case, my own self-betrayal allowed me to see them as much more irresponsible than they had actually been (Arbinger 73). Sometimes, a teacher who tells a student they cannot reschedule or will not accept a late paper may sincerely want a student to understand consequences, but a genuine teacher in this instance would not be defensive in any way. Teachers of this kind do not need to prove themselves because “their justification is not put in question by what they are doing” (Warner and Olson 496).
Justification brought on by self-betrayal may actually produce responses in others contrary to the intended effects. The blamed person senses that they are being blamed and resented:
Given a little time, we can always tell when we’re being coped with, manipulated, or outsmarted . . . We can always feel the blame concealed beneath veneers of niceness. And we typically resent it. It won’t matter if the other person tries . . . using any other skill learned in order to be more effective. What we’ll know and respond to is how that person is regarding us. (Arbinger 27)
Because of this, an individual who feels blamed generally reacts negatively to the blamer. They are even likely to enter their own phase of self-betrayal. For instance, I regarded my students as irresponsible creatures to be disciplined. Rather than understand my situation, they must have seen a nonresponsive and arbitrarily unyielding teacher; in turn, they may have easily betrayed themselves in that moment by seeing me as less of a person and more of a dictator. This type of self-betrayed response in the students could prompt an equal amount of blame and resentment in them as it had caused in me, leading them to resist the feedback I actually wanted them to have. I perpetuated the very actions that I found so frustrating in the first place (Arbinger 95). Warner calls this type of mutual exchange of self-betrayal collusion. Collusion creates a reciprocation of self-betrayal in a relationship and may perpetuate such a cycle for extended periods of time unless someone in the relationship changes (Warner 5).
I still felt uncomfortable at the end of class, so I decided to make the change. I rescheduled conferences but, unfortunately, not in a genuine way. I retained resentment over lost time, and my students’ pickiness over new conference schedules only served as confirmation of their disregard for my time, as opposed to an acknowledgment of their busy lives. I wanted to resolve the feeling of conflict but was still caught in frustration that I myself had invented. I did follow my initial moral imperative, but I did not escape the self-betrayed state I had entered. In rescheduling, I wanted my students to feel better about the kind of teacher I was. Teachers who are more concerned with being liked might actually ignore the moral imperatives that would help them become genuinely better teachers. The kindnesses or leniencies they show their students will be geared more to win affection than to care for their students. They will be more concerned with their students’ opinion of them and not their students themselves, as I was in that moment (Arbinger 43; Dominowski 150). Rather than facilitate change, the collusion between the three students and me produced exactly what I unconsciously expected of them.
The first student failed to arrive at our second appointment, giving me what I saw as self-satisfying proof that I never should have rescheduled at all—proof that they all were just as irresponsible as I had imagined. I was once again the victim, the injured one whose time had been disregarded. This cycle of collusion, of resenting my students’ supposed waste of my time and their subsequent resistance to my resentment, could have continued back and forth between us until the end of the semester. Fortunately, one of the students arrived on time. When she showed up, I was surprised. I expected my time would be wasted yet again. She explained that she was running late because she had been called by friends. Then, she said something that unarmed me. She explained that she told them to call her later: “I told them I just couldn’t let my teacher down.” That single statement revealed to me in an instant what I had deluded myself into believing about this little group of so-called irresponsibles. My prepared lecture on organization and respect evaporated, and I saw a student in front of me—a new freshman, lost, vulnerable, wanting so much to succeed. In our fifteen-minute conference, we communicated and interacted as human beings. She left feeling empowered to write her paper, and I left feeling empowered to see my students as fallible but valuable individuals.
Self-betrayal in English 150
Self-betrayal translates easily to freshman composition because the course is filled with possibilities for just such human interactions. Writing classes are generally smaller than other classes to provide instructors the time needed to evaluate student writing. This affords a teacher an opportunity to know students’ names and provide personal feedback. This personal interaction is more than a mere site for information transmission from the knowledgeable to the unlearned. A recent publication on authenticity in the classroom makes the observation that “a human educator differs from alternative sources of information (books, websites, news media) in offering more than content. . . . Furthermore, the learner can interact with the human educator, and therein is a relationship” (Frego 42). Instructors of English 150 cannot only acknowledge the existence of this relationship but also foster it genuinely to more effectively lead their inexperienced writers through the writing process at every point of interaction, primarily in the classroom and in personal conferences.
The classroom is the most obvious and time-intensive place in which teachers and students interact, making it the most likely location for self-betrayal to occur. English 150 instructors have small classes and are eager to know their students personally. This eagerness and genuine interest can wear off in a few weeks after some students make odd or obnoxious comments in class, do not fully invest themselves in the material, or appear apathetic to classroom activities the instructor spent time preparing. This frustration can be a normal part of the classroom experience, but it gains the added element of self-betrayal when instructors wield that frustration to blame students or talk down to them. The literature on teaching methods and class management has sometimes attempted to factor out the teacher’s own personality and focus purely on method. While correct practices for a writing classroom might be discussed and even agreed upon—the need for class participation, in-class writing exercises, or peer review—their execution should depend on an instructor’s flexibility to consistently act on moral imperatives dictated by the needs of the class throughout the semester.
As moral imperatives are not universal values, they should not be applied as universal behaviors (Arbinger 43). As teachers, for example, we cannot say that our moral imperatives compel us to smile at our students in every situation. If we are genuinely concerned about those students, a smile might not be the best way to show that concern in certain instances. Moral imperatives are not necessarily absolute in application, but as they change to fit different situations, they will unquestionably be the genuine way to act as each circumstance arises. While past circumstances may inform future actions, they should not always dictate them. In the classroom, “teachers cannot determine with certainty how students will respond to the various parts of a lesson plan,” or to any other aspect of the teacher-student interaction (Tiberius 74). Therefore, moral imperatives should be acted upon as they arise.
For that reason, specific classroom actions are not delineated here. Each graduate instructor—by nature of passing through the undergraduate experience, by being accepted to the MA program, and most especially, by being a responsive human being—already has the capacity to detect students’ needs and respond to them. And each instructor can and should respond in his or her own way to the moral imperatives received in a given classroom situation. For example, as I worried about some of the more reserved students in my classroom last semester, I tried an approach suggested by another instructor. The suggestion was a good one, and the instructor who gave it was even better. However, I did not feel confident that my personality would lend itself to the tactic or that it would prove a solution for these particular students. I tried it once with my class, but it felt contrived, and the students seemed disoriented by the discontinuity between my usual genuine response and the device I tried to superimpose over it. While this sort of exploration and interchange between colleagues is valuable—and in the case of first-year instructors, sometimes indispensable—implementation of a certain classroom practice should always be measured against one’s own moral imperatives. Peter Elbow argues that “better teaching behavior comes primarily from exploring one’s own teaching,” a practice that will offer up “very different teaching behaviors for the same person at different times. All these behaviors will indeed be ‘right,’ I would say, so long as they rest upon a symmetrical premise: an equal affirmation of the student’ s experience” (743). In other words, we are always right when we genuinely respond to students’ unique needs.
The graduate instructor of English 150 is afforded the opportunity to become more intimately aware of the students’ experiences at periodic conferences during the semester. Barbara Fassler, who has written on the importance of the conference in relation to student writing, acknowledges that the conference is not merely an interview about the strengths and flaws of a student paper: “The nature of the personal conference opens up other possibilities as well, and these should be exploited . . . the teacher should seize the opportunity to respond to the student” (188). She compares the freshman writer to a child who makes scratches on a paper with crayon and then brings the picture, triumphant, to an adult for praise. The adult asks the child to explain the picture and when told it is a tree admires it as a representation of the child’s effort and learning, not as a definitive representation of a tree (Fassler 188). While English students cannot afford to have teachers who merely coo over their work and tape it to the refrigerator, they can absolutely benefit from teachers who respond to them first as human beings who bring scratches on paper and then turn to the scratches themselves for evaluation. Graduate instructors are already intent on the success of their students; an extra conference minute spent to identify and respond to specific needs ensures greater likelihood of that success.
Registration in English 150 does not only constitute a sign-up for a successful experience; it also involves an investment of money and time in the university. Graduate instructors represent one of many ties that the student has to the campus, and a genuine personal response can make a difference for freshmen, who often voice feelings of anonymity in a new environment. Research has found that “students who are positively connected with their teachers are more likely to feel involved in their educational experience, to be committed to the institution, to have passing grades, and to persist to graduation” (Tiberius 69). Genuine response to students’ needs provides such a connection.
The instructor who connects positively with students in personal conferences does not do so by becoming their best friend. The teacher-student relationship is inherently unbalanced, both in terms of authority and experience (Dominowski 150). Attempts to counteract that fact may lead to instability, and Warner’s theory of moral responsibility should not level the teacher- student relationship. Escaping self-betrayal does not weaken our authority; instead, it frees us to pursue our roles as teachers more effectively. The surest way to remain secure in this role is to respond to the moral imperatives within the professional bounds of a teacher.
We might insist that as writing instructors, we should invest our interest in students’ writing and not necessarily in their lives. We are not counselors. Warner would argue and I would echo that “it is as people rather than as experts and manipulators of lives that we help others,” both in the writing classroom and out of it (Warner and Olson 501). Teachers are people, as are their students. While their genuine responses to students require teachers to be more invested in students’ lives, such responses will produce the desired effect of improving writing performance overall. Students will feel that they have an actual authentic audience to write to. They will be more at ease to ask meaningful questions. And they will participate in a very real rhetorical situation in which their communication is not only read but also answered in a personalized way.
Problems may arise in attempting to use supposed authenticity with the sole intent to improve student work. As already discussed, students might resist if they are treated as things to be managed or molded. If genuine concern is substituted with other agendas, self-betrayal may quickly take hold (Arbinger 43). When students listen to a teacher’s genuine response, however, they are more apt to take feedback, to participate in class, and to be aware of their instructor’s limitations, rather than see those limitations as arbitrary (Dominowski 81). Being such a connected teacher does not and should not translate to a sacrifice in academic standards; instead, it should contribute to a genuine exchange of ideas and responses within a very present rhetorical situation.
The Self-betrayal Solution
Self-betraying behaviors may be found not only in the classroom or in student conferences, but along every point of contact an instructor has with a student: marginal comments on student work, e-mail communication, or even the instructor’s attitudes toward the student when discussing classroom behavior with other instructors. If self-betrayal is so pernicious and so pervasive, how can we ever hope to escape it? The answer is simpler than one might think. Self-betrayal does not involve a series of steps or stages (Warner and Olson 496); rather, it entails a single act of resisting a moral imperative (Robertson 237). In the same way, escaping self-betrayal consists of one act. At the moment that we desire to be genuine, we can be. As soon as we look at students, abandon our resentments, and wish to see them for who they truly are, we do (Warner 15). One can become genuinely responsive to others only by genuinely responding to them, free of justifications and perceived victimizations. We escape by doing for others what we feel we should do (Arbinger 145).
Responding genuinely to moral imperatives in the classroom should not entail an overwhelming rush to address every need a student might have. We should not write their papers for them. We should not check up on their homework for other classes, nor overextend ourselves and the boundaries of our responsibility in any other ridiculous way. When students registered for English 150, they did not sign up for an extra parent, and comparable action would not necessarily strengthen the teacher-student relationship (McBride 4). Instead, we should worry about our responsibilities provided in the scope of our obligation (Arbinger 146-147).
Those responsibilities are numerous and varied, but ultimately and simply, we can provide genuine responses, influenced by individual student needs, in every interaction: during class, in conferences, and through every form of written feedback. Responses can and should communicate not only our concern for our students but also our expectation for them to do what is right and perform to a level worthy of their potential (Warner 19). By following moral imperatives in such communications, teachers can strengthen relationships with their students as well as stimulate further thought, learning, and inquiry. Students are willing to learn from teachers they trust—not teachers they trust to be nice or undemanding, but teachers they trust to help and teach them as needs dictate. “When they trust the teacher to be wholly an ally, students are more willing to take risks, connect the self to the material, and experiment. Here is the source not just of learning but also of genuine development or growth” (Elbow 329).
While an understanding and elimination of self-betrayal in the classroom will lead to better student performance, the greatest benefit may be to the teacher. After recognizing and abandoning self-betrayal, the nature of emotions changes. Frustrations still arise, setbacks still occur, the struggles in the classroom still remain in place; however, the way we view these struggles can change. Students do take our time. They are even heedless, inconsiderate, and demanding on occasion. But if we see them through a genuine and more compassionate lens, we will not be plagued by their problems in the same ways that we often are. We do not need to rage and fret about which student did what. To blame students for our own lack of boundaries and authenticity is not only unfair but also detrimental to the learning process and anxiety-inducing for the teacher. Self-betrayal is just that: self-betrayal. We live with the added stress and anger and blame. Understanding and implementing this issue may indeed encourage our students to perform; but, most importantly, it will also help us identify the nature of our own frustrations and liberate teacher-student interactions in semesters to come.
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