Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Tue 9/27/2005 3:42 AM
Random Thought: More On Leviticus, Maimonides, & Teaching

Some of you have asked me more than a question or two. Does going over the material for a test enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does handing out questions some of which students are told are going to be on the test enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does dropping a test from the grade book because too many failed it enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does dropping the lowest test score before arriving at a term grade enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does giving extra credit for attending programs or deducting points for attendance, tardiness, or incivility enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does curving the grades enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Does teaching to the test enable students not to be responsible for their own learning? Do these things and others like them hurt students to become dependent rather than independent? Can these things really teach them how to fish or merely how to catch a fish like a trained seal? In other words, though you say you're teaching the students how to fish, in the end are they truly fishermen?

My immediate response is that I don't know since that all this curving, dropping, adding and deducting points, and so on certainly skews the value of grades as indicators of learning. But that begs the questions. So, my first answer is that most of us academics were not trained for the classroom and are stumbling and groping around without admitting to our unpreparedness and amateurness; that many of us still ape our pontificating professors and how we were taught as students because it's the easiest and quickest way to prepare for a class, and are satisfied with that; that many of us are on-site, on-going, self-taught students of "teaching" and "learning;" that many of us don't' really want any part of being in the classroom, seeing the classroom as the teaching chafe mixed in with the scholarship wheat; that many of us want to be known as scholars and professors, and not as teachers.

A second answer, related to the first answer, is that there is teaching and learning and there is teaching and learning. That is, the answer is as subtle and complicated as is the giving and serving and wisdom that is teaching. Nothing is cut and dry. It's not easy to know who are "the good guys" and the "bad guys," if those labels are applicable in the first place. There all kinds of definitions for and understandings about "teacher," "student," "teaching," "learning," and various ways to map meaningful routes. It's a Gordian knot of intentions, attitudes, actions, purposes, visions, and practices that need a mountain of explanation and description and elaboration.

A third answer is that the boundaries between teacher and student varies and is constantly on the move because the playing field is never level and the players are never the same. The human heart and mind is vast and varied. Teaching and learning is a people enterprise and therefore no more pure than the imperfect and frail human beings who are engaged in it. We all, academic and student alike, are different people, enter the classroom by different routes, with different means, with different motives, with different measures of strengths and weaknesses, with different potentials, through different doors, carrying different kinds and weights of debilitating and distracting loads.

A fourth possible answer is that there's a vast chasm between moral purity and practical exigency. Everyone wants concrete outcomes. Everyone wants demonstrable accountability so they can they show themselves and others how much bang they're getting for their buck. Self interest subtly supersedes a sense of what needs doing and what should be done. Altruism vies with self-security. For-reputation contends with not-for-reputation. Uniqueness vies with conventional opinion.

A fifth answer is the equally vast gap between intention and action. That is, most academics, like most people, are overly optimistic about themselves, thinking they're more caring, more empathetic, more kindly than others. They don't have a good sense of themselves in this realm, as in most areas, and over-estimate their virtues.

Nevertheless, in any answer I am nervous about buzz words, code words, jargon, and labels. I don't want to talk about student-centeredness, pedagogy, technology, methodology, or accountability. Instead, I want to talk about involvement, remembering that you can't measure the value of time, of effort, of love, of faith, of encouragement, of the simplest gesture that can alter the course of somebody's life.

From my experiences as a student, a talkoholic professor, a researchoholic professor, and now as a teacher, I've come to learn that there is a certain asymmetry in the classroom. We academics, with all of our resumes and degrees and titles and proclaimed independence, like students, listen closely to conventional opinion and ask "what do you want?" We can be stopped in our tracks, if not destroyed, by one word or action from ourselves, colleagues, or administrative superiors, but it takes constantly written reams of support and encouragement to help us find our better selves. Likewise, we can destroy a student with one word or one look or one action, but we constantly need compassionate paragraphs and constant empathetic gazes and dogged generous efforts to build them up, step by step, to encourage them to find their better selves.

From my own personal and professional experience, I don't know of one academic who does not want to do good and to feel righteous, who is not motivated in some way to make something a little different, a little better. In hypothetical situations all academics believe they will follow their intentions and be guided by their hearts. When the chips are down, however, when tenure or promotion or appointment or livelihood is on the line, they realize what it will take to chart a course for their North Star. Some, too few, who are close to my heart, pick up the gauntlet fearlessly, willingly and whole-heartedly; some pick it up begrudgingly and hesitantly and fearfully; some take it up when it's "safe," and some take it up sometimes with attached strings. At the same time, some, too many, let it lie on the ground. They feel teaching poses no soul searching requirement or see no choice to be made. They say they are not Mother Teresas. They don't feel part of being in any community or see the need to do so. They don't care to establish relationships or become involved with students. Yet, they see the students within themselves, that is, who they once were. Students, they say, have the opportunity to become something from nothing, just as they did. They must assume totally responsibility for their own learning, just as they did. These academics aren't unfair or even unkind. They're just irritated by what they consider unintellectual, inappropriate touchy-feelyness, pandering, catering to, giving a hand-out to, and spoon feeding that interferes with the natural order of academic things. They feel such approaches merely encourage students to keep to their errant ways and avoid confronting them with a challenge to engage in a more constructive behavior. If students don't take advantage of what is before them, if they don't toe the line, if they don't possess midnight oil and elbow grease and a grindstone, unlike these academics supposedly had in their student days, they must be incompetent and/or unprepared for the task or lazy, certainly unworthy of consideration. In short, they believe fervently that such irresponsible students don't belong within the hallowed, ivied, ivory walls of academia and it would be a service to all to cull them out. They will not go out of their way to reach out to students whom they feel are undeserving; they will put up a wall of anonymity between themselves and such students with proclamations of "I don't' have the time" or "I don't see the need to bother," for while they may have to be in the classroom with all students by necessity, they can narrow the choice of with whom they will interact. If a student, however, who has proven him/herself "deserving," reaches out to them, approaches them, "begs" for assistance they are there to hand our academic alms, but even then not always willingly, and not always in a way that makes the student feel wanted and uplifted. It is one thing to give a lecture, hold court and grant an audience with a student but be engaged only with yourself and/or your scholarship; it is another thing to be willing to occasionally disengage yourself from your scholarship and be engaged selectively with one of the "proven" students; it is still another thing to be engaged with each and every supposedly "undeserving" students as well as the "deserving." Why the distinctions? Because engagement follows a passion, and passion has a burning vision and purpose and meaning, and burning vision and purpose and meaning demand the attention, time, and effort.

At the same time, though four centuries apart, both Galileo and Carl Rogers agree that we cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover that which is within them. No one can force a professor to be sincerely empathetic to all students; no one can mandate anyone not think of teaching as a sacrifice of valuable time and effort that can best be utilized elsewhere; a sense of service cannot be ordered; kindness and goodness cannot be willed upon anyone; generosity cannot be legislated; to faith in, belief in, and hope for each and every students cannot be commanded. Yet, though these virtues are not genetically embedded in any one of us, they can be planted, nurtured, and instilled. They cannot be instilled, however, by force or manipulation or promise or reward or enticement or penalty or inducement or order or threat. There is evidence all around us as proof of that. However, they can be informed, supported, encouraged with deliberation, gentleness, patience, persistence by the instiller and acts of instilling. Sometimes this instilling goes by the name inspiration and motivation and edification. It can be done by pressing ourselves, by slowly opening our eyes, by slowly being aware, by very carefully looking at ourselves and others before we judge and jump to conclusions, by increasingly questioning our mindsets, by more honest self-reflection and examination, by increasingly looking for the possibility of everyday miracles occurring, by seeing the endless possibilities that lie within us, by seeing the choices we have in our response to what life throws at us in the classroom, by seeing that we can improve ourselves to become better persons. It can be instilled by pressing students, by slowly helping students to open their eyes, making them aware, by very carefully helping them look at themselves and others before they judge and jump to conclusions, by assisting them to see the endless possibilities that lie within them, by helping them see the choices they have in response to what life throws at them.

Of course a lot of academics think all this is touchy-feely nonsense not to be taken seriously--unless, of course, they happen to be the ones who are on the receiving end.

Maybe that is what teaching is really all about: refusing to accept complacency, rejecting completeness, denying perfection, ignoring conventional wisdom, carrying our reflections and awarenesses into challenging and uncomfortable and inconvenient realms, shaking ourselves up, seeing the need to change, seeing our world and the world around us changing, struggling to convince ourselves and others that we, academic and student alike, can and must improve ourselves, that we all have it within us to be better at day's end then we were at day's dawning, better at the end of the term than we were on the first day of class, better at graduation than when we all first met that first day of the first year, better when our lives come to an end than when we all were born. That's what teaching "wisely" is all about, and I find it has a better chance of avoiding "compassion fatigue" or "pedagogy weariness," that is, what is called "burn out."

None of this should be an after thought, a post script, expressed only in end of term student evaluations, annual faculty evaluations, annual institutional reports, or graduation speeches. It should be who we are, our intimate agenda that's woven into every fiber of our being, hardwired into our soul, placed close to our hearts, be an intrinsic part of every second of every feeling and thought and action of teaching. It should be what each of us consciously and conscientiously does, models if you will, without reluctance, without arrogance, without self-righteousness, without sacrifice, almost anonymously, each day. Then, we would understand what Thomas Edison meant when he said, "If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves."

         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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