Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 21 Aug 2001 08:14:08 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: By Chance

A wonderful and "chancey" good morning. I was walking this pre-dawn morning in what seemed like nature's soup de jour. The warm, heavy humidity that has left a salty, sticky residue all over my body, however, couldn't dampen my spirits. I read in Sunday's NY Times someone calling these August days the coda of summer. Not for me. These days are a resounding, thunderous overture. It's the beginning of the academic year. Yesterday was the first day of the semester. The campus was alive youthful and anticipating activity. I was alive, ready to sing the song and dance the step.

I am even more alive today because today Susan and I climax with a romantic dinner our week-long celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary. I've been sending her seven roses each day for the last five days, a different color on each day. She has been leaving deliciously romantic cards for me to find all over the house. And, we've been acting like teenagers on our first date. Yummy! Double yummy!

No big party. No special gift. Just a very humble realization of that the ultimate backing of life is chance: mysterious, unexpected, uncontrolled throw of the dice.

I think of how those threads of chance, in the strangest places in the strangest ways at the strangest times, have woven themselves in my fabric to reweave the pattern of my life. It was chance that I was born the second son into a very European oriented first generation American family; it was chance that she broke our engagement; it was chance that Birdsal Viault at Adelphi College took me under his wing during the semester I was screwing up my pre-med program; it was chance that I wound up at Chapel Hill instead of Duke to get my Ph.D.; it was what proved to be magnificant chance that at UNC Susan and I met on a blind date neither one of us wanted or expected; it was chance that an unexpected position opened up at Valdosta State College at the very moment that it did; it was extraordinary chance that we unexpectedly adopted my youngest son, Robby; it was chance that we had a passing conversation with someone who knew someone that led us to Hyde School to save Robby's future; it was chance that at Hyde I had my unexpected, unplanned, and uncontrolled epiphany.

Chance challenged, tested, teased, frightened, lured. It threw the novel in my face; it broke routine; it altered states; it altered directions; it changed habits; it opened new worlds; it invaded comfort zones; it carried me into the unknown. It just seemed that every time I was about to punctuate my life with a comforting exclamation point or a period, chance threw in a fearful, adventurous question mark. Every time I thought I had the answer, here came a question. Every time I thought I was on the straight and narrow road, here comes a fork. Every time I was getting accustomed to the old, here comes chance with the new. Every time I was about to ease into a life of ease, chance screamed a very uncomfortable and jolting "Boo" in my ear.

As I am sharing this, I have to admit that there is a slight quiver of fear, a deep breathe or two, and my eyes are getting a bit glassy as I think of a "what if" here and there. If I said no to just one thing chance threw at me, my whole life as it is would have never been woven. That's both scary and exciting.

It just seems from this point of view that little if anything wasn't left to chance, that nothing occurred that didn't occur by chance. Chance, or what I take for chance, has been the means by which my life is becoming realized. It just seems that I don't have as much control over my life as I would like to believe, and I just have to ride it to wherever it's taking me. No guarantee; no prediction; no laid out plan. Just faith!

And chance plays no less a role in my teaching as it does in my life. Why not, teaching is a part of rather than apart from my life.

Yesterday, I walked into class to have a chance meeting with forty-three people. I say extraordinary because I don't think is anyone such as an ordinary mortal. I always feel uncomfortable when anyone talks of ordinary students because I've never met an ordinary student. Each one has his or own unique potential; each one has what James Joyce called that "radiance." He or she merely has to search it out, recognize it, develop it, and run with it. I say a chance meeting because I absolutely had no idea who was going to be in the classroom at that time. And, I have no control over who the over 120 people are going to be in my three classes today. We are all strangers to each other.

Now there is a idea most academics don't relish: chance. It has the flavor of the uncontrollable, the unpredictable, the serendipitous, the mysterious. It's is the antithesis of "classroom management."

"You can't leave things to chance. There'd be chaos," a colleague proclaimed to me yesterday as I tested this idea on her.

"Do you have a choice?" I asked. "Every time we walk into a classroom we take our chances with chance meetings. We don't know who any of the students really are; we don't interview, cull out, hand-pick. We don't know what is going on with them or inside them. We don't know what is going to happen. We just have to accept the lot of them whoever each one is as our lot if we want to accomplish a lot."

Rejecting what I said, talking like a factory manager operating a production line, she went on to say that without control, things wouldn't get done efficiently, the material wouldn't be covered. "There'd be lots of wasted time," she argued.

"But, somewhere out there other people over whom you have no control are recruiting and admitting. Others whom you don't know are advising and scheduling. And, you walk into a class with a whole new set of chance events. It's fiction to think you're not or that you really have a handle on it." I countered.

Words like streamline, faster, efficient, guarantee, increased productivity peppered her conversation. "They have to be told....," she kept on saying. And, no, she is not in the School of Business.

"Well, dictate isn't exactly conversational. Choice and responsibility," I replied, "aren't the Siamese twins of control and inflexibility. There's a lot of manipulation and even coercion in control, and not enough persuasion."

"But, if you can't control matters how can you control outcomes?"

"You can't! That's the point. We don't know how to 'let go' and cut the academic umbilical cord." You know I think all this uneasiness with chance is that we don't know how to assess it. We don't know how to organize it. We don't know how to institutionalize it.

Our conversation ended with her uttering a friendly, "Oh, Louis."

Later yesterday morning, another colleague answered my question. "Most of our colleagues scream, 'We want freedom in the classroom--to control the students!" He went on to say that so many of our colleagues violate the golden rule since they do unto the students what they resent the administration does unto them: control and dictate. This like-minded colleague and I, however, don't think control delivers on several accounts.

Doggone he hit the nail on the head. We can control the assigned textbook, but can't control whether students read the assignments; we can control attendance policies, but we can't control whether the students attend class; we can control the make-up and giving of tests and exams, but we can't control whether students study or know how to study for those exams; we can set up discussion sessions, but we cannot control whether students will engage. Heck, we cannot even control which students are in our classes; we cannot control whether outside forces sneak into to influence what goes on inside the classroom.

Nevertheless, I think our major pattern of classroom behavior is to manage it and control it because control sounds good, successful and safe; it offers a sense of hope and maybe some guarantees of success. Now I admit that control, especially efficient control, gets things done and gets material covered in less time. Makes sense. Does it? Really? I think control offers false hopes and worthless warantees, and that is the source of a lot of our frustrations. We are confronted with the truth that we cannot control the uncontrolable, that which is not of us and beyond us.

I'm not sure control is an accurate map of the classroom. Control controls; it doesn't free up. Control dulls; it doesn't fire up. Control nails down; it doesn't build up. Control inhibits; it doesn't free. Control saps out life; it doesn't infuse life. Control darkens; it doesn't illuminate. Control paralyzes; it doesn't energize. Control doesn't allow students from ever coming into contact with their unique potential. Control is a "downer;" it's not an "upper." Control is not a partner of initiative, creativity, imagination, freedom, choice, responsibility, adaptability, adventure. Control creates stagnating, inauthenticity. It walks hand-in-hand with routine, safety, convention, familiarity, boundaries, the fixed. Students learn to stop listening to their gut; they only listen to others to learn what to do, how they ought to behave, and what they ought to believe. They become robotic, puppets, products. We hear the fearful gurgling symptoms of that paralysis everyday: "What do you want?" If students learn to only listen to what others say, they will be nailed down.

Students can't be creative, they cannot grow and transform, unless they are taught to leave behind the fixed, all the rules, the protecting warmth of the womb. They won't be able to understand that they each have within them what James Joyce calls a "radiance." They won't learn how to look for it, recognize it, bring it forth, and go with it. A vital teacher vitalizes those around him or her. The classroom without spirit is a wasteland. You don't improve things by imposing new rules, by changing the rules, by introducing new methods, or by adopting new technologies. You improve teaching by being alive, by bringing life into the classroom, by inviting the students to live, and being alive yourself.

I mean if control was the answer, we would have had the answer by now and made a heck of a difference. Instead, we find that trying to control students in a classroom is like herding cats! Trying to force students to do everything our way, to give what we want, has proven to be a recipe for misery, disillusionment, disappointment, and frustration.

It's not a question of controlling things better or faster or whatever, it's a question of questioning the whole assumption of control and management. Instead of struggling to be good at "classroom management." maybe we ought to lay back and become good at taking chances, taking advantage of chances, and take a chance on chance.

The problem is not to blame or ask or explain, not to fight or reject or curse, but to take things as they come, to handle that chance, life, hands you, to be "semper paratus." My doing is not to curse being placed unexpectedly at the fork in the road, but to seize the opportunity to make the choice and grow as a result. That is when my teaching is a combination of both my doing and that of the students.

I have come to discover that my solution starts when I take it all as it come as if that's the way I wanted it. To accept it rather than fight it. I don't focus on pitches chance can throw at me. I learn how to use a bat. Then, I get a shot had hitting the curves balls chance throws at me. I have discovered that as I find a place in myself from which I bring that ability to swing the bat, I'll be able to live with it, affirm it, and maybe even enjoy and benefit from it. To paraphrase Nietzsche, I have to take the chance to "love my fate."

I know, it's chancey.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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