Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sun, 24 Oct 1993

This has been a heck of a week or so. As I have been roaming the darkened streets during these last ten days, I have been reflecting on the exciting happenings that have occurred in my classes. To be honest, I just haven't been in the mood to sit down and write. Maybe a low-level reaction to a flu shot had something to do with it. Maybe it was being emotionally drained from working closely with a particularly large number of students on their personal issues: listening to them; sharing my personal experiences with them; and though I never offer advice, getting some of them to see the need to talk with a professional. Then, again, maybe it was a subtle fear of not being able to "keep it up," of losing my spontaneity and feeling the demon of contrivance breathing over my shoulder as I sit at the computer.

Then, this morning, I received a "sign." I had been thinking about an e-mail message from a professor about research v. teaching. He said something to the effect that his mind was sinking because the students were bringing him down to their low level of active knowledge and he could not find much excitement in teaching them. Ostensibly, the professor was talking about research v. teaching. In reality, his message reflected his demeaning attitude towards students, the second class status he gave to real teaching, and how he felt the demands of being attentive to the needs of students encroached on what he considered more prestigious research and publication activities. I have to admit that my immediate action was to write a blistering response. But, I heard a voice inside saying, "Louis, take it easy. Stop and think. Don't be so arrogant, so self-righteous. Don't be so dishonest."

It would have been a dishonest response because I had been there once, saying that I had to research to "keep my mind alive." In fact, it wasn't my mind with which I had been concerned so much as it was my ego and desire for recognition. The responses to my efforts to introduce innovative programs, to experiment with costumed presentations in my classes, to develop inter-disciplinary courses had been ignored as "non-professional."

There is so little reputation in teaching, so little impact on promotion and tenure, so little influence on salary. And to be really honest, as I approach retirement here at the university and my scholarly reputation has waned because I have given up research and publication in order to concentrate on my classes, I ask who would want to hire a teacher rather than a reputed ever-publishing scholar. It's scary.

Anyway, I remember saying to myself and my "better students," in those days, as this professor wrote, "research is making me a better teacher." Heck, it may have made me a better lecturer, a better transmitter of subject information, but not necessarily a better teacher. It wasn't helping me adequately and properly address the needs of the students. Perhaps worse, during all those years when I concentrated on research at the expense of my classes, it may even have made me more distant from those students who needed me the most, more arrogant and disdaining towards them. So, I was thinking about all this today when, after I finished my walk and went to get my newspaper, I found a short letter stuck in the box. I'd like to share it with you. That letter was the sign:

Damn you, Dr. Schmier! I came into your class thinking I was going to get what I get in all my other classes, the usual lecture, fact, memorize for the test, quickly forget the stuff kind of class ruled by what my friends said was a hard, unreasonable son-of-a-bitch who didn't care anything about the students. I was ready to be bored, and I was ready to be angry and I was ready to play the game and I was ready to waste my money. I wasn't ready for you. I wasn't ready for the way the class ran. And I sure as hell wasn't ready for me. I came into the class to memorize historical facts, and you give us lessons on life! You and your damn triads. I've learned more in this class than in all my other classes combined. But, you've forced us to learn how to cooperate with each other, to be more compassionate with others, to hear other's opinion, to debate our position, to learn to think. But, worst and better, to evaluate ourselves and look at ourselves. That I hated, but that's what I needed because I had to admit that I was strangulating me. I said at the beginning damn you, it was a nice damn you. I really mean thank you for being concerned enough to care about me. It was crazy but when we were talking in class about the submissive slave mentality and then --------- said she knew exactly what that meant being a woman and treated in the same way and we talk some about that and then --------said something like as students we were taught that the teachers were our masters, inside I felt myself saying, "hey that's all me, too. And add my family to that." Then, you pulled me over after class for a talk, it blew my mind as if you could read my thoughts. At first, I said to myself, "here comes the rah-rah lecture." But, all you did was to ask, "what's going on? Why aren't you giving it what you're capable of doing? Why don't you believe in your self?" And then waited for an answer. None of the usual routine lecture, none of the noble advice, all you did was just to wait to listen. It really surprised me that I opened up to you, a stranger, and all you did was to listen. I was stunned that all you did was to share with me your own experiences. I found out that I wasn't alone. I mean you respected me enough to have the guts to spill yours. I guess I figured if you could do that with me, I could take the chance and do it with you. I was really touched when you warmly said you weren't a know it all and couldn't help but suggested I go to the councilor and when I reluctantly agreed you walked with me to make an appointment. You forced me to start opening doors I would have preferred to stay closed but I really knew had to be opened. And I found someone caring enough just to listen and to give me the courage to put my hand on the knob and slowly start to turn it and see what I am really made of. You always say in class that you can't succeed until you're ready to risk failure. Well, I think I'm about to start getting ready. I'm scared. So, I ask only please stay on top of me and don't go easy. I can't do it alone--yet. I trust you not to give up on me or anyone else in class. You are a son-of-a bitch, but a special one.

To the professor who thinks, as I once rationalized to myself, that teaching lowers his ability, I ask him to think about this letter. I can tell you that no research grant, no conference paper, no award, no reputation, no book or article, no promotion or salary increase is as rewarding, satisfying, fulfilling, exciting, encouraging, stimulating.

I have come to realize from reflecting on my own personal experiences inside and outside class that it hurts to have someone look at you who sees so little worthwhile, whose eyes and demeanor say, "You're a drag. If it weren't for you I'd be off doing something meaningful, some important research and acknowledged writing." When students leave the class, when those uncaring eyes are no longer looking, the imprint still remains deep in the soul. And if they are looked at long enough that way, they begin to look at themselves as those eyes did; they find it difficult to go the mirror and see someone worthwhile. They become small in their own eyes because of those eyes. The loss of self grows. But, why should they have to go through that dehumanizing experience and I shouldn't have to combat it. Nothing so beautiful as a student should be made to feel less than something that deserves respect. I work hard to help students get back that feeling that there is something worthy, beautiful about each of them. Wouldn't it be so simple for teachers and professors to care? It's easy to stand off and say that it's the students responsibility to learn. It is that kind of thinking that allows us to shirk responsibility. It is that kind of thinking that blames the victim for being victimized. It's the same kind of thinking that is directed towards the rape victim, towards the homeless, towards the poor, towards the ignorant, and towards the student.

We don't always address the students' problems by dealing with what causes them. Most campus counselors will say off the record that so many professors don't want to be bothered with such things, that they feel that it's not their concern. But, if you start with the assumption that intellectual ability and academic performance is the professor's sole concern, you won't ask certain questions. You won't realize that you are using one-dimensional terms to discuss a three-dimensional reality. But, if you believe, as I do, that attitude is an integrated and inseparable part of performance, then there are a whole new set of questions to be asked. We can't perform emotional surgery. Intellectual performance is married to what students say, think, feel and do. Attitude affects performance and performance affects attitude. But, I don't think they are separate; it's not one and/or the other; it's how they are related. I'm getting nervous because I'm neither a philosopher nor a psychologist, and I feel myself approaching another realm and discipline. I am getting nervous because I am not the honest man carrying a lamp in the night. But, from what I have observed in my classes, from my conversations with students, from students evaluations and criticism, it's just so obvious that it needs to be said because all students are important. They all are building blocks of society. We must not be satisfied with describing student and professorial behavior. We must be concerned with why so many students lack self-confidence, self-motivation; with why are so many students are silent in class. Perhaps it has something to do with their past educational experience. Maybe it has something to do with family issues. We can begin to ask questions about how they got into this situation and what we as teachers can do to address the issue on a fundamental level.

It's ridiculous to theorize, philosophize, rationalize, intellectualize about education and teaching without dealing with the humanity, the strengths and weaknesses of those to be educated and the educators; without addressing those things that can make both students and us wholesome.

Make it a good day.


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

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