The meaning of a singular word can be very powerful. Take for example when I worked in banking. Our leaders would call us each day and we, as managers, would have to “commit” to a certain number of items sold that day—like checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, and so on. Seriously.
I really struggled with this approach because I have always tried to be the type of person who does what he says he will do. The word “commitment” can be defined as “a promise to do or give something.” To me, I can commit to do things which I can control—like washing my hands after using the bathroom. But how could I honestly promise to open a checking account for someone I had yet to meet? I couldn’t. What I could do is promise to talk to everyone about checking account options and invite them to open an account. But could I force them to do it? No. Pressure them? Yes.
At the end of the day, we would have to report on how we did. If I said we didn’t open the amount of checking accounts I “committed” to in the morning, my boss would then phrase it as, “But you committed to opening more! Why didn’t you?”
See where this is headed? It became an ethical issue—all because of a singular word.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with another word. This one? “Assignment.”
As a college English teacher, I have a goal each semester: To give meaningful assignments which help the students learn and discover. I am not a fan of “busy work.” Because I’m the teacher, I have the authority to give assignments which the students need to fulfill to earn credit for the class.
Some students complain about the work load. My response? “You signed up for this class, and these assignments are part of the class.”
However, just because I have a position of authority does not give me the right to assign whatever I want. I can’t assign students to wash my car, or bring me lunch each day. In the end, each student has the right to choose which assignments to do. The tough part for a student is standing up and saying, “I’m not doing that assignment because I didn’t agree to do that. Just because you are the teacher, and have authority, doesn’t mean you have the right to make any assignments you want.”
To be fair to teachers, many of them have good intentions, but overreach with their authority. I understand that. We’re all human. We make mistakes. Sometimes we can really want to do something good, and still make mistakes.
For example, my students are required to write four major papers over the course of the semester. The hardest of the papers (in my opinion) is the argumentative paper because it requires at least three credible sources and needs to be at least three pages long.
I could, instead, give them the assignment to write a 30 page paper with at least 50 credible sources. After all, more is better, right? But that wouldn’t be effective to freshmen taking their first college English class.
My issue with the word “assignment” comes from one of its definitions: “a specified task or amount of work assigned or undertaken as if assigned by authority.”
In other aspects of my life, I’ve been receiving more “assignments” from those in a position of authority. While I have no doubt that their intentions are good, the challenge comes from the fact that the nature of the context in which these assignments are given can be somewhat at odds with free will.
Let me use a metaphor: I agree to work for a company where I am allowed to work from home. I agree to perform certain tasks within a certain time, yet I have the freedom of completing these tasks when and where I choose.
Now, let’s say someone in authority somewhere up the chain of command decides something specific needs to be done at a certain time and at a certain place. Because they have authority, they give me an “assignment” to do it as they want it done.
Perhaps the work is something I would be doing anyway, and most likely willingly, because I agreed to work for that company—with the understanding the job let me choose. If that choice is taken away, then part of the fundamental aspect of the job has changed.
Maybe it is human nature, or maybe it is just me, but being forced to do something, even if that something is good, isn’t nearly as rewarding as deciding as an individual to perform an action on their own because it is the right thing to do.
I’m sure in a few years I’ll find another word with which I’ll take an issue. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard of being a writer and an English teacher.