Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Cutting Some Slack

Even my most libertarian friends, with their dreams of desert freeholds or serene isolation from the rest of us, have to own up, sooner or later, that we live in a community.  That unless you are Ted Kaczynski, making bombs and manifestos in an isolated cabin, you'll have to deal with people in a way that is civil and constructive, even if it isn't always friendly.

This is where slack-cutting is of value.  The quality that lets slide the irritating quirks of others, usually with phrases like "Oh, that's just [him/her]" or "I have to work with [him/her] later, so I'll let it go".
Public hostility is different.  Recently I was rudely and aggressively insulted in front of a large crowd.  I had respected the offender, and in some ways I still do—in ways that will be enough to work with her if I am called upon to do so.  After her tantrum I can no longer like her, but I've cut slack to a practical ground, where any contact I have with her can be useful, though I am reasonably sure it can no longer be pleasant.

Fiction writing—or at least some of the characterization that a fiction writer does—can begin in cutting slack.  You let things slide because you're interested in seeing where they head, because you realize they may make good copy up the road.  But it's good as well for people who do other things.

I tend to pace in the classroom.  It's because I can't stand still when the ideas are good.  I can see that it might unsettle someone: twice in twenty-five years of teaching, people have complained, but for the most part my students put up with it, out of their own kindness and graciousness and, I certainly hope, a returned respect for me and for my forgiveness of late papers, class-cutting, and improvised apologies and excuses for the aforementioned.  I also hope they get excited by the ideas as well, and realize we all have different ways of making that known.

Still, when I saw a student evaluation that expressed real discomfort with my pacing—that went on about it for a paragraph or so—I took stock of my habit.  This was mid-semester, on a large internet site, so it gave me time to correct my behavior to less discomfort a student who was apparently very upset about it.  I tried to check the pacing—a practice I found a little distracting myself, since I had to call myself out on a number of occasions—but I figured the class was about the students instead of about me, so I could adjust as much as I could.  And the student mentioned that it had gotten better…in the four subsequent evaluations where she registered complaints that it had happened to begin with.

Yes, I said 'she', because it wasn't hard to figure out who it was.  She dropped pure factual information into the paragraph—the course she was taking from me, and that she was taking yet another simultaneously—so I knew instantly.  Don't ever think you're that opaque on anonymous evaluations.  She graduated before three of the five complaining paragraphs were published, but in her aftermath she left me thinking:

First time, maybe the second time, the problem was about me.  By the fifth time, it's about you, my dear.

Which speaks to cutting slack.  One thing we can learn is how to do it.  Because the things about someone else are sometimes about you.  I've learned it too often in my own life, made too many mistakes, indulged too many bad quirks and habits, to not hope for slack from those of you I have offended.  Which doesn't mean that your own little performances won't show up in something I write someday.  

 Because that's the way I roll.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo to you for being the professional in the work relationship at the top of this post. I face similar personalities in my organization. Working alongside detractors challenges me to outperform and outclass those who would try to drag me down. However, as when reading this, these incidents always leave me SMH at our slump toward selfish incivility.