Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Tue, 29 Nov 1994

It was warm this morning. So much for our three days of south Georgia autumn and winter. It was not a very good walk this morning. At least, it wasn't relaxing. Everything looked bleak. The darkness seemed blacker than usual; the quiet seemed less comforting. The shadows in which I usually find great delight seemed foreboding. Even the moon seemed ominous. My muscles were tight. My feet felt heavy. With every step, I felt like I wanted to pound my foot through the pavement. I started feeling once again that surge of a mixture of some unpleasant emotions I felt yesterday: sadness, confusion, and frustration, maybe even helplessness, mixed in with a touch of anger. I had started thinking again about a conversation I had yesterday with a non-traditional student who was in my class last spring. I'll call her Amanda.

I had been strolling across campus, sucking on a tootsie pop. As I was approaching my building, I heard someone call my name. I turned to see Amanda clumsily running towards me while struggling to hang on to her backpack. I knew something was wrong. Her face was twisted with anguish. There was a fire of anger in her glassy eyes that the accompanying tears of obvious hurt could not extinguish.

She told me that she was still having problems with her a professor in her first year math class and needed advice. "That abusive ass hole hasn't changed. There's no Thanksgiving in him. He did it again with the material he assigned over the break," she angrily proclaimed though her grinding teeth and snarled lips.

Maybe I should back up. A few weeks before Thanksgiving break, Amanda's class had reached a difficult section in the material. She had struggled with her homework assignments with little success. All of her classmates that she had contacted had been in the same quandary. So, she had gone to get the help of the professor. But, when she went to him during his office hours, she was turned away. The gist of a part of our conversation had gone something like this, and don't hold me to every word:

"He told me he had more important things to do at that moment and left me standing in the doorway with my thumb up when the sun don't shine. It was office hours. That time is supposed to be for us to come see him, not for him to do his work," she exclaimed loudly in anger. "You always said that there nothing more important than a student wanting to learn. Not for him. That damn abusive son-of-a-bitch thinks more about his precious equations and computer than he does us!"

She proceeded to tell me that when she went to class, she raised her hand and asked a question about the homework.

"You know what he said," she asked. "Said, hell, almost yelled. He said that he had no time for me. He had to cover the material before the course ended, not the homework, and that I was not letting him do it. He told me that if I didn't know it, to get a tutor. Then, he said in front of everybody that maybe I didn't belong in his class or in even in college. He was so damn rude and insulting. He made me feel this small," as she pinched her fingers nearly together. "He was annoyed at me because I wanted to ask a question like you said I always should. He stood there in front of everybody and told me in class that I was hurting the other students who were trying listen, and that I should not to do it again. It was so embarrassing. And I'm not the only one he's done that to this quarter. You'd think we had done something criminal by interrupting his f--ken, precious, boring lectures. Hell, he had just finished taking role and hadn't even started making love to the blackboard! That damn ABUSIVE (her very strong emphasis), son-of-a-bitch!!!! Who the hell does he think he is!"

I asked if she had spoken to the department head.

"Yeah," she answered. "Big deal. He didn't believe me. After all, I'm only a student. He treated me like an hysterical little sniveling child. He asked me questions in way that said Dr. ......... didn't mean what he said, that I had misunderstood, I was confused. I had misinterpreted. Bull shit!! If I did, so did all the others who came up to me after class and said Dr. ......... shouldn't have done what he did. The coward is too afraid to do something or he doesn't care or he's protecting Dr........'s ass. Hell, he's just as bad as Dr. .......... by letting it go on!"

I suggested that she go talk with the Dean.

"What for? Last time someone went there, they just got a song and dance, and was told that he needed something in writing so he can talk with the department head and they can keep a file. Meanwhile, he goes on insulting and abusing his students and treating them like shit or as if they aren't there."

I had told her that we had a new acting Dean and to go see him.

"No way! You're asking me to put my ass on the line knowing that when Dr. .......... finds out he'll get even, and they'll let him figure out a way to give me a poor grade or flunk me. I've got a 3.8 and want to go to med school. No way, I can't risk it."

There was little I could advise her to do besides either grin and bear it or raise a loud stink. Knowing this professor's reputation from past experiences and student journals, I knew she had not misinterpreted either his words or intent.

That conversation a few weeks ago, and its repeat yesterday, brought back a flood memories of journal entries, and several similar and recent occurrences. One was of a time last spring when a student stopped me in the hall with tears, streaks of black mascara steaming down her face. Her tenured, political science professor, known for his in-class foul language and verbal abuse of students, had screamed at her when she asked a question about his condemnation of the religious right's role in American politics, questioned her right to disagree with him, proclaimed his expertise, and threatened to flunk her. Two students had walked out of class; she sat there and cried. And though I talked to the department head on her behalf and convinced her to put her story in writing along with those of other student eye witnesses in the class, nothing came of it except that his file of over twenty years grew a bit thicker. Another memory that came to mind was of a learning disabled student who had been in one of my classes. The student was not officially enrolled in the school's program for students with special needs. When he told his psychology professor of both his reading disability and his willingness to work hard without demanding any special considerations, the professor told him that he belonged in a special school. He went on to tell the student to get out of the class because he was tired of watering down his course to satisfy the needs of students with their "touching sob stories" who didn't belong in college. And I could go on and on.

Try as I could to the contrary, I couldn't get this out of my mind. One uncomfortable word that Amanda had kept using over and over haunted me. So, I want to use that word. We think it is inapplicable in all too many of our classrooms, but it describes vividly the damage and hurt so often inflicted by those at the head of the classroom on the students. That hurt may be inflicted intentionally or subconsciously or both. It may be the result of insensitivity, unawareness, or just plain indecency and heartlessness. Whatever the case, I think this word refers not only to a single outstanding and unusual event, but to a general pattern of behavior as well. I think this word refers not so much to a single individual as it does to a pervading psychology that exists on far too many of our campuses and in far too many classes. This word describes the designed or otherwise process of reducing a student's self- concept to the point where so many students consider themselves unimportant, unworthy of respect and consideration because they are treated that way. That word is "abuse!" How do I define abuse? Is it too strong of a word for our classroom? Am I using it in the manner of a shopworn cliche? Maybe, I'm not sure. If you can find a more applicable--or comfortable word--for yourself, that's fine. But, whatever terms you want to select be sure you are describing the intentional or unintentional diminishment of one human being who is powerless by another human being who wields the power and authority. Now, I don't mean physical assault. I am not merely referring to the more obvious and in vogue issues of racial or gender or sexual preference prejudice. And, I don't mean only biased attitudes towards the learning or physically disabled. To be abusive, you don't have to lay a hand on a student; you don't have to demeaningly call a women "sweetie" and ask for physical favors in return for a good grade; you don't have to act as if African-Americans or Hispanics or any other ethnic group are tearing down the quality of your institution; you don't have to act as if accommodation for the physically challenged or learning disabled is a disruption or diminishment of your class. To be an abuser, you don't have to wear masks of monsters and don faces of evil that have ghoulish eyes, sutured cheeks, greenish skin, or blood dripping mouths; to be an abuser, you don't have to wear villainous costumes replete such accessories as black capes, coned hats, pitchforks, broomsticks, black cats, or bats. A normal looking face, normal attire, respected positions of academic and administrative authority, or academic titles may be equally terrible masks.

All you have to do is prostitute your position. All you have to do is be cynical and negative, negative, negative. All you have to do is say in so many words and gestures is: "you just don't belong" or "you are a loser" or "you're disappointing," or "you'll never get it" or "you don't count" or "we really don't want you." One of the best ones I've heard is "if you don't care, neither do I." All you have to do is to act like a weeder instead of a nurturer. All you have to do is to pepper your thoughts and statements with unending "can'ts," "won'ts," and "don'ts."

Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a verbal slap across the face Amanda experienced: "that's a stupid question," "you're wrong," "can't you ever get it right?" It is the incapacity to see that an inadequate response or performance does not reflect an inadequate person. It is the far more subtle forms of abuse that are far more tolerated or unrecognized, and, therefore, are more pernicious. It is the far less obvious and less selective amputation of the heart and soul that are ignored. It cuts across racial, gender, and special needs lines. It can as subtle as the academic equivalent of neglect, a sin of omission, the disregard of students' humanity and individuality in the crowded herds of large classes, a professor's disinterest in teaching, long lines at registration or payment of fees. It can be as passive as a sense that institutions of higher learning are organized far more for the convenience of administrators and faculty than to serve the needs of students. It can be as random as getting students caught up in turf battles between departments and schools or colleges, or making pawns in personal conflicts between professors, or counting them as no more than impersonal numbers in the funding games. A student can be a deliberate target of a supposedly "harmless" blooper joke. And it may be a combination which increase the negative effects geometrically. It may be verbal or behavioral, active or passive, frequent or occasional. This type of emotional abuse, is one of the cruelest and longest-lasting off all forms heaped upon the students. It leaves no physical scars, but it is often as painful as a fist or a kick. And, the consequent debilitating pain, "no one gives a damn about me except for my check and their job"--as one student put it-- lasts a heck of lot longer.

It has been my experience that a professor's concern, someone's concern, anyone's concern, is important to a student. It is so important that withholding the sense influences a failure to thrive and strive; it influences the decision to stay or leave. Maybe that explains why in their journals students constantly express surprise with a professor, or anyone, who cares for and respects them and treats them as human beings. To avoid being a target, instead of learning and exercising such qualities as risk- taking, challenging, question asking that every students needs for success both on campus and beyond, students learn "their place" in the viciousness pecking order. They learn the ropes and how to play the game. They learn how to cut corners in order to achieve the grades and create a deflecting image of achievement we so demand. Or, they seek the silent almost unseen appearance of the shadow or wallflower which would not make them targets. Or, they just up and leave.

I think emotional abuse is the most pervasive, least understood, least addressed form of student maltreatment. Students are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible. In an era of political correctness, when we are ever more sensitive to the needs of the individual, the pain and torment of students who experience "only" emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand the victims of physical or sexual abuse. We talk about battering and date-rape and the need for specialized treatment. We provide special services for students with learning and physical disabilities. But, when it comes to the quiet student, the underachiever, we are more likely to blame them or believe they will get over it or call it immaturity or label it laziness or decide they just don't belong.

Emotional abuse damages the soul, scars the heart, enchains the spirit. When it comes to damage and disability, I don't see much of a difference between the various categories of abuses, It's only a matter of the choice of weapons and targets.

The cost of emotional abuse can't be measured by visible scars although it can be sensed by diminished effort, lack of performance, poor grades, low initiative, fear, stress, obvious lack of self-confidence.

What's the solution? Of course, there are the seminars sponsored by whomever on awareness, sensitivity, ethics, and so on. But, all these will be of little avail unless we all start looking less for numbers, dollar signs, and "students," and look more for individual human beings. A little caring can go a long way. I think should stop accentuating shortcomings, and be willing to teach and deal with real people; to ask: who are the students, what do they need, how can we help them, what do they want, what can we do. I think sincere decency, sensitivity, and recognition is the key to effective response. It is half the battle of the campus to acknowledge that every student, without exception, is endowed with a gift of importance, with a birthright to respect, with a right to strive unhindered for his or her fullest potential, and that it is our task to help them with their individual growth, development, and success.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
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