Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 11/8/2003 8:00 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part IX

I've been talking with a lot, and I mean a lot, of professors off-list from around the country as a result of their responses to my latest "On Teaching" Random Thought series. Most feel trapped in a limbo, stuck between two worlds. At times they have what W.E.B.Dubois called "a two-ness": living in the two worlds of researching/publishing scholarship and teaching, not quite completely belonging to either or allowed to belong to either. I know how they feel, I, too, have felt that way--and, at times, still do. I have scholarly roots with a national scholarly reputation and a scholarly resume a mile long. In that world of the scholar is where I was trained. Now I am solely living as a teacher and have something of a reputation and a resume a mile long. In this world I have trained myself. I can't forsake the former. I wouldn't want to, although I now only engage in it by reading voraciously to "keep abreast" or occasionaly to consult. "They" tell me--well, no one has told me to my face--that it is a conflict between "content" and "process," that in the latter world where I now reside that is too much process and not enough content. To be honest, no one has told me what "too much" and "not enough" mean. Let me give you an example why I reject that.

I once wrote, and it bears constant repeating I wish studnets realized that history is not as it is too often portaryed: a dull collection of meaningless facts about dead people, a series of flatten names and dates whose significance is only in memorization for a test, a collection of maps and charts and diagrams and statistics. I would hope they would begin to understand that history it is about real, flesh and blood, complicated and mysterious and unique individuals who itched, urinated, scratched, laughed, ate, made love, cried, dreamed, hated fought, killed, saved, loved, and hurt; who--known or unknown--by their mere presence made a difference however supposedly slight or monumental; who had strengths and weakness; who were violent and peaceful, who dreamed and feared, who dared and cowered, who risked and played it safe, who achieved and failed, who fell and stayed down, who fell and got up to strove, who were criminal and law-abiding, who were resolute and indecisive, who led and who followed, all of whom were unique individuals. That is a demanding demand, to bring the material to life, to give the students a living experience, to provide meaning and relevance, in almost every subject. That is the why of field studies, service, internships, shadowing, mock trials, exchanges. etc.

So, I seized an opportunity that I slowly realized that I had been missing for years. I devised a new project this semester. Some might call it a "stealth lecture." It is really a form of replay of the old TV show, "You Are There." I call it "The News Conference." The students were required to read the chapters in the text book on the late 1940s and 1950s. They'd read about the beginning of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlife, Joe McCarthy, "white flight," the Korean War, Levittown, Rock and Roll, Eisenhower, Sputnik, etc. Each student had to imagine him/herself as a reporter. His or her editor had given each community two assignments. The first was to write 450 wor print column on what life was really like in the late 1940s and 1950s beyond the textbook scholarly analysis. The second was to broadcast a 90 second feature piece on the same subject over either TV or radio. The students researched the period described in two assigned chapters and prepared questions to ask someone about anything who actually lived in that era. No one could ask a question already asked. No one could ask a second question until everyone has asked a question. The person they intereviewed was me. I was born in 1940 and graduated high school in 1958. American Graffiti was a partial biography. I told them nothing that they didn't ask about and everything they asked about. It was a challenge, but I had to be vulnerable and authentic. But, what they asked. I told them about radio and listening to Fibber McGree and Molly secretly after going to bed, and of our one-inch TV screen my grandfather bought in 1947 and placed a twelve inch magnifying stand in front it and how everyone in the neighboor watched the Friday night fights from Kew Gardens. I told them about how the world stopped on Tuesday night to watch Uncle Miltie, of Captain Midnight, Tom Corbit-Space Cadet, Tales of Tomorrow, Howdy Doody (I was once in the Peanut Galley and squeezed Clarabell's horn), Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, What In The World, Omnibus, Playhouse 90. I told how we teenagers double-dated and went to drive-in movies--but never saw the movie--and how we went to Richard's, the local drive-in restaurant, or to While Castle. Yes, Virginia, there was a pre-McDonalds world. "I once heard 'the Beats.' Greenwich Village was our hangout on Saturdays when we were teens. We all thought they were boring and sucked....drank watered down rum and cokes for fifty cents....there was The Couch, the Purple Onion, the Pink Pussy Cat....we could drive with a learners permit at fifteen and that's when we started one was serious about drinking and driving in those days....I explained how I came to elementary school with pockets stuffed with stacks of rubber-banded baseball cards, showed them how I flipped baseball cards, and how I clipped cards that are now worth thousands with wooden clothespins to my bicycle to make it sound like a motorcycle. I told them I how I was once brutalized by the police in the days before lawyering up and Miranda and was rescured by my Uncle Benny who was Assistant District Attorney of Brooklyn. I told them of seeing a torpedoed tanker burning on the horizon and how in 1944 the Shore Patrol confiscated the film in my Brownie box camera because the aircraft carriers, battleships, and other vessels docked in Brooklyn Navy Yard was in the background. To this day I remeber that sailor's admonishing words: "Loose lips sinks ships." We talked about starting each class day with a prayer and about being given off afternoons from elementary school to attend religious school. And, I described how I was caught by a teacher on a sand lot playing baseball instead of being in Hebrew school, dragged back to the principal, threatened that my family might be mistaken for godless Communists if I didn't go to Hebrew school, and then paddled on my bare butt with five hard wacks. I described the Civil Defense sirens, atomic attack drills of diving under the desks or leaning against the hallway walls. I explained how one day we came to school and were told we had to learn a new pledge of allegiance. They laughed as I listed ten westerns, two Movietones, three serials, and fifty cartoons I'd see a Saturday in the Delancy theater for a dime. They were mesmerized as I described riding the bus bumpers at the tender age of six or seven, stealing piece of ice off the ice trucks that were delivering ice for our "ice-boxes," riding home-made skatesboards over the cobble stones by holding on to car bumpers in heavy traffic, of having the good fortune to being able to leave the City during the hot, polio plagued summer and live at my aunt's "kochalain" bungalow colony in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills (they came to the office to see the cow skull hanging on the wall that I had discovered during a hike in the hills in 1947), of how I made a stick ball bats out of a broomstick and of being a two man-hole hitter, of jumping the alleys as we kids played on the roofs of the tenements of Eastside New York, of waiting each Thursday at the newstand on Ludlow for the delivery of the new comics of Captain Marvel, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, Scrooge McDuck, Archie, Men at War, G.I. Joe, Superman, Batman, Flash, Captain American, etc, etc, etc. "We kids were warned that Rock and Roll was a communist plot....I remember when Elvis came on the Ed Sullivan show....I knew Mr. Levitt....we had prejudices in 'technicolor'....didn't know any Joe McCarthy....we ducked our hair with goops of Pomade....had a stockpile of canned food on shelves in a basement room and gallons of ice cream in the gave up classes in slow dancing....could only slow dance at school dances....who paid attention to the news....only news we had as kids was the Movietones in the theaters but we went our popcorn when they came on....teachers cuffed us around if....never smoked and always felt left sex? Let me tell you about necking....hated sanding and varnishing the station wagon each summer....we called each other names like....we stood out in the backyard and saw that little light going over head at night and we were scared shitless....wore coat and tie on dates....never wore dungarees to school....we called it a 'poon car'....girls always wore dresses and skirts to school and one prank I pulled in high school....loved Woolworth's....those girdles....Jahn's had the best ice cream....piped the World Series into the classrooms....played those charlotte rouses and chocolate egg the Hardy Boys, Landmark history books, Classic Commic Books....T.V. trays and T.V. the mumps, chicken pocks, and measels in one summer....78 records....had my knuckles rapped with a wooden ruler....most of us didn't go to college....only looked at the pictures in LIFE, LOOK, COLLIERS, and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC that were lying around the house....we were very high middle class until my father went first true love was....we called them 'Rocks'....ever hear of a 'mangle'....our junior high and high classes and teams were integrated....

On and on it went for two days: questions, answers, laughter, descriptions, smiles, disbelief, snickering, amazement, attentiveness, involvement, engagement. I thought of events and pulled up names that I hadn't thought about in over fifty years!

You should have read their columns and watched how they aired their feature pieces.

"Content" v. "process?" "Information transmission" v. "character building?" "Teacher-centered v. student centered?" "Teaching v. learning?" I think not. There is no "versus" in any method, technique, assignment, project I have devised, whether it is the daily "words for the day," the beginning-of-semester community building "Getting To Know Ya" and "Rules of the Road" exercises, or the discussion of "Tidbits" or the "Dr. Seuss," "Hollywood," "Salvador Dali," "Rodin," "Scavenger Hunt," "Bruce Springsteen," "Broadway," "Story Board," "News Conference," and the summarizing "N.Y. Times" projects.

It never is for me a conflict of "versus;" it is never for me a confrontation of "either/or;" it is never for a war of this or that. "The lines are clearly drawn and defined," as one professor said, only because a lot of us draw them and draw them that way. I don't accept such a cut and dry, black and white depiction. I prefer, as Steven Sample might say, "thinking gray." For me it is a conscious journey to search for, discover, articluate my "why," and then consciously and deliberately let that purpose guide me. For me, it is only an on-going struggle and a never-ending experimenting to find and keep the "and" in my "why." After a decade of reading, studying, discussing, exchanging, listening, experimenting, and learning about learning, I just generally no longer find that "why" and "and" solely and generally effective in traditional professorial lecture, student note-taking, professorial testing giving, student test taking, professorial grade giving, student grade getting format. Did that, for a long time, for almost three decades, and honestly never felt it all that rewarding or fulfilling--or instilling a life-long love of learning in most students. But, that is me. I never ask anyone, nor should I, to copy what I do. They can't; they are not me. I do ask them, as anyone should ask of me, to hear me out with a true openness, for while they cannot copy me they can think about and reflect what I and what I do represent as a vision. To put it another way, Buckminster Fuller once said, if you want to change how somebody thinks, give up. You cannot change how any person thinks. You can give them a tool the use of which will lead them to think about thinking differently. That is what happened to me. I became a different tool; I began to use different tools. I began to think, feel and do differently. Nevertheless, there are times I feel as if that attitude isn't reciprocated. Others, on and off my campus, for a wide variety of reasons, exert a spoken and unspoken, subtle and not so subtle peer pressure preferring, wantint, almost demanding I--and others around them--be what they want us to be, be comfortable with what they want us to be comforable, do what they want us to do, say what they want us to say--which is usually what they are, with what they are comfortable, what they do, and what they say.

So, I understand when others feel like a morph (any Trekkie would understand) between the two worlds that are often at odds with each other, requiring completely different skills and perspectives, imposing totally different demands, demanding different focuses, having fundamentally different goals, having the eyes on different prizes.

I cannot speak for those with whom I'm speaking. The only thing I can do is to struggle to make the best of it, resist the pressure to impose and be imposed upon, find ways to merge the two worlds into one, and be true to myself and be authentic to each student.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier