Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 8/15/2002 5:19 AM
Random Thought: The Exotic Classroom

Well, it's the beginning of the semester. I am teaching four first year history classes of the same numbered course as I have chosen to do every semester for the last three years. Yesterday, the inevitable question arose, "Louis, don't you get bored teaching the same thing over and over again?" At the core that question is a fundamental issue that I answered a different way this time. I gave him my copy of Botton's THE ART OF TRAVEL.

I asked her to read the book because Botton, makes another point that is regrettably too often analogous to how too many of us enter the classroom. If too many of us don't know how to vacation properly, aren't receptive to newness, it is because too many of us act as if we were at home. And at home, what we see and hear, we reduce it to the ordinary and old hat. We act with settled expectations, with assuring familiarity, and with securing safety. We are convinced that we have uncovered all there is to uncover of interest. By virtue of having been there for a long time and have been doing the same things for so long we have become practiced at what I call indifferente and disinterested "unnoticing." So many of us wrongly assume--armed stereotyping images--that people and things remain unchanged, things and faces become passe, invisible, unstimulating, uninteresting, unprovoking, unexciting, unfilling, and even at times empty. We get into the ruttish habit of being set in our ways. We become passive. We become bored. We get mesmerized. We stop looking and seeing. We stop hearing and listening. We stop talking. We stop being curious. The desire wans. And, as the desire weakens, so does the drive to understand. We consider the classroom and students a boring and unfulfilling "ho-hum." And both the classroom and students obey and duly fall into with our expectations. And we fall into a slumbering "I can do this in my sleep." The bottom line is that knowingly or unknowingly we lose the real desire to be there. We seek our excitement and fulfillment elsewhere in the archive, in the lab, in our writing rather than in our teaching. For in many ways, what disappoints or angers or depresses us in the classroom is the obverse of what drives us in the research archive and lab.

None of us scholars would dare to enter an archive or experiment in a lab or go out into the field with a certainty that everything is known, everything has been measured, and there is nothing to discover. And yet, so many of us to that very thing when we enter a classroom. We proclaim with a paralyzing and deafening and blinding certainty that we know "students are" as if we know each of them like the proverbial back of our hand. We ignore the immense and wondrous and challenging diversity of humanity in that classroom and impose a bland uniformity. We have to take care, for such certitude makes us less mindful and respectful of the truth that our life and that of each student is a glorious and sacred and unique--and exotic--being.

So many of us, then, are an educational paradox. We are purveyors of change, of growth, and of development. We call it learning or educating. And yet, so many of us ourselves are not willing to learn, to change, to grow, to develop. So many of us are not teachable, for "knowing it all" or "having made it," we don't see the need to learn. Until a tad over a decade ago, I could be counted among them.

We can't do go unchanged however hard we try or convince ourselves we can. And, that fruitless effort is a major source of our discomfort. The subject, the class, each student, and each of us are all exquisite contradictions. Each of us today is the same person we were yesterday, and yet we are different from who we were before and who we will become tomorrow. Each of us is changing every moment, and yet in some mysterious way we remain the person each of us had always been. Each of us is an ever-changing variety on a constant theme. The trick to focus on, appreciate, respect, honor, give balanced meaning to both the constant and the change.

The classroom, then, is also a beautiful paradox. It may be titled and numbered the same semester after semester. The subject may be ostensibly the same. But, if nothing else, the people who populate it each semester, each week, each day, each moment--we and they--are not the same. It that Heraclitus you never step into the same river twice thing while the name of the river never changes. Each student is an individualized ever-changing constant. Each is moving through life learning, growing, experiencing, becoming, changing. Quite often, if we see, that occurs before our eyes. There is a conjoining of the fixed and the flexible, the familiar and the unknown, the firm and the adapting, the changing and unchanging. In the classroom you are at anchor while you are lifting your anchor to sail, your sails are rolled while you are setting your sails. To recognize this natural reality, it is not a matter of weakening, diluting, or dumbing down. It is not something that heralds impending academic doom. It is, in fact, unnatural to remain in stasis while everything and everyone is in a state of change. For what it's worth, I discovered that I could change my ways without losing my way. In fact, I discovered my way. I could embrace change without changing my fundamental values. In fact, I discovered my values and ways of strengthening my values. I discovered that to change, as some of my colleagues suggest, is not a sign of weakness. To the contrary, I created a solid foundation for my existence, my purpose, my fulfillment.

There is a value in those things which do not and should not change. There is also a value in those things which can be changed. And, there is still another value in those things and people who do change. They all have a place, a value, a meaning, and a fulfillment. The trick is to offer up the serenity prayer and have it answered by working hard to answer it ourselves. Then comes the hard part: living it.

So, I think a lot of us have to shake ourselves, force ourselves out of what is too often a walking trance notice things and people we either have forgotten how to or have never done before. Why? For me in the last decade the answer has becoming very more simple. To paraphrase Botton, if the meaning of exotic comes from the simple idea of novelty and change, then the classroom is so fraught with newness each day that it is one of the most exotic and exciting and stimulating and fulfilling places on earth that I know.

         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,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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