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Many of us have been culturally trained to see argument as rude or at least uncomfortable.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve wondered to myself in the midst of a conversation, “Wait, are we talking as friends or colleagues right now?
” My responses to a given situation might be different, depending on which mode I’m responding from.
I’m much more concerned about another reaction to conflict that can be nearly as toxic — perhaps even more toxic.
That reaction is one of simple avoidance: all too common even among some of us who hold leadership positions and are explicitly charged with addressing or resolving a variety of types of professional conflicts.
These individuals seem, cantankerously and perversely, to relish the disputes that they manufacture.
Our culture has developed many entertaining and colorful phrases to describe such people, and so I don’t need to concern myself with those folks here.But we might also do damage — to ourselves and our careers, our colleagues, students, and institutions — by avoiding conflicts at all costs and thereby allowing important issues to go unresolved, to fester and continue their harm.We are all familiar with the trope of the notoriously cranky colleague who courts conflict — personal and professional — at every opportunity.As someone who studies rhetoric, I am inclined to see argument as the means to resolve conflicts, and as something to be sought out, rather than avoided.I am inclined to see disagreement and argument, when carried out in good faith, as productive endeavors.I want to acknowledge that avoidance might be exactly the correct way to respond to some varieties of conflict, but is hardly an appropriate (non)response to all of the situations within which conflict arises.Passive reactions to active problems can also be quite harmful.At times, it may be their obligation to resolve a variety of types of conflicts.But it may equally be their responsibility to initiate (within appropriate and productive frameworks) arguments, debates, even conflicts, in order to resolve issues and move the business of the students, the faculty, departments, and the institution forward.When we fail to address a curricular problem, we allow the problem to persist.When we neglect to revise important policies out of fear of the potential rancor of debate, our policies grow outdated and counterproductive. Boundaries between friends and colleagues are often fuzzy.