Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Sat 12/9/2006 4:28 AM
Random Thought: End Of The Semester

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. It's 22 degrees!! Only mad dogs and I go out in the freezing dawn. This time of the year always leaves me cold both outside and inside. It's at this time of the year I feel like the Grinch that stole both Christmas and education. It's that time of the year I feel like a bah, hum-bugging professorial Scrooge. It's that time of the year there is no peace and joy at Valdosta State University. It's that time of the year I nearly convince myself that I am a masochist. It's the end of the semester. It's the very uneducational get-the-final-grade-in time. No mindless computer generated, add-'em-up, bell curve, give extra points, take off a point here and there, drop the worse grade, multiply or divide-by-whatever final grades for me. No, instead my eyes are bloodshot; my brain is numb; my butt aches; my body is stiff. My teeth are worn from gnashing. I am sleep deprived. During these past five days, I have been tossing and turning and wrestling. I have been reading and rereading over 800 final week student journal entries, 175 student self-evaluations, 350 community member evaluations, 175 class evaluations. I have been going back to read a host of community project evaluations. I have scoured my daily notations. And, that doesn't even count reading a bunch of the literally thousands of journal entries students wrote during the semester. My angelic Susan has been hearing me mutter, maybe "snarling" is a better word, less than angelic words as I struggle with the need to come up some mythical "objectively arrived at" final grade--as if that grade has any real and lasting meaning of deep, sticky, and lasting learning--as if I had just descended from the summit of Sinai after having a schnapps with the Almighty, proving my own divine calculating infallibility.

Like Christmas and Chanukah whose true meaning are often diluted and demeaned in a commercialized fervor of giving and getting gifts, the true meaning of an education is often demeaned in a credentialing fervor of giving final exams and getting final grades. It's disgraceful when Santa and his bag of toys, when dredels and latkes and eights of days of gifts play a more prominent role than the teachings of these holidays, just as tests and grades play a more prominent role than the "educare" of an education. Like the true gifts of these two December holidays, education's gift should be a spirit, a way of feeling and thinking and living and being. An education should be more than getting a better grade and a higher GPA. It should be more than being better informed, better trained vocationally, and getting a better job. It should instill uplifting and inspiring transcendent values to care for yourself, to care for others, and to live better lives.

Yet, this educational spirit, like the spirit of Christmas and Chanukah, ignoring the prophetic admonitions in Micah 6:1-8, is hijacked in a misguided spiritless zeal for worshipping the rituals. So, I can understand why so many students find so much of their time in the classroom depressing, boring, offensive, demoralizing, cold, disengaging, unfriendly, dehumanizing, demeaning, stressful, threatening, often frightening and traumatic, and above all, disrespectful experiences. More often than most of us want to admit, on the student side, the whole educational process creates more fearful, "what do you want" dependence than "think for yourself," courageous independence. It manifests itself more in anger, resignation, surrender, and resentment rather than in a responsible, disciplined, imaginative, thoughtful, "playful," creative, innovative, reflective, imaginative, and resilient way. So many of us don't give students the space to be the kids--or, as I call them, "adults in training"--most are; we don't give them room to make mistakes; we don't allow them their human fallibilities; we don't take into account their outside-the-classroom lives. At the same time, I can understand why many academics--having been there myself until fifteen years ago--generally pedagogically untrained, uninformed, and inexperienced no matter how long they've been in the classroom or how long their scholarly resume, keep their emotional, and often even their intellectual, distance. But, when the intent of that man-made, professional chasm is taken by students as uncaring or disrespectful or fearful or controlling, it's a form of educational malpractice.

At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students in class what they want to see more of in all their classes and specifically in "my" class. I always find their list interesting since it's always nearly the same: respect, caring, kindness, patience, honesty, understanding, consideration, sympathy, enjoyment, and fairness. They are more concerned with who we academics are and how we behave towards them rather than what we know. To live and model those words always becomes the end for me to reach each day from the first day of the semester to the last. I'll put it another way. I'm going to add something new to both my mid-term and end-of-semester student evaluations. I will have each student, as part of his or her evaluation of me, choose five words to describe me. For me, these five words will be the ultimate evaluation. It will be a challenge for me to see if I have reached the end I had in mind at the beginning of each semester, if I have any blind spots, and if I, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessep in A FEW GOOD MEN, can "handle the truth."

It's easy to discount or dismiss student observations or complaints. It's hard accepting criticism, especially if you don't truly value their judgment. It is even harder being an effective self-critic. But, if we want to make things better for both each student and ourselves, if we want to become the teachers and persons we each are capable of becoming, we have to fight our inclination to defensively circle the wagons or raise the drawbridge and man the battlements. Our "job" only becomes a lifework of service to others when we realize our purpose is to serve others; that the purpose of us academics in the classroom is not limited to transmitting information or to honing "critical thinking skills" or to preparing a student for a place in the workplace. Maybe equally, if not more, important, our purpose is to educate, to tend to and care for the overall well-being of each student in a way that helps each help her/himself become both a better informed and a better person.

Want to give students a lasting gift? Give them the gift of your time and attention. Give them the gift your, not just of our mind. We don't have to be educational grinches or Scrooges. We don't have to be "weeder-outers." We don't have to engage in spurious and fearful "negative reinforcement." Above my computer is taped a famous quote from Dickens to remind me that though my body may be sixty-six years old and my hair graying and my wrinkles deepening, my spirit can remain young and vibrant; and though my time on earth is limited, the result of what I do with that time can be limitless: "Father Time often lays his hand lightly upon those who have used him well; making them old men and women inexorably enough, but leaving their hearts and spirits young and in full vigor. With such people the gray head is but the impression of the old fellow's hand in giving them his blessing, and every wrinkle but a notch in the quiet calendar of a well-spent life."

Do we have that kind of graying hair? Do we have such wrinkles? Teachers who do their job best are those who capture the spirit of edcuation; who help each student feel better about her/himself, believe in her/himself, and see who she or he is capable of becoming; who uplift each student's spirits and expectations, who call forth each student's potential talent and ability to be inquisitive and independent and ethical by simple acts of human decency -- a smile, a kind word, a compassionate expression, a empathetic tone, an encouraging touch -- that says, "I notice you; I believe in you; I have high hopes for you; I have faith in you. I care. So should you."

Like peace on earth and joy to the world, true peace on campus and sincere joy to academia from the feelings of living a worthy life in the company of students we respect and love, and in the service of something bigger than ourselves

As Susan and I are about to depart Valdosta with a suitcase of Chanukah gifts for a joyous time of grand-children spoiling on the West Coast, we'd like to wish each and every one of you joy and happiness during this holiday season, as well as best wishes for the coming new year.

         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" -    \____

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