Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Thu, 10 Aug 1995
No walking today. No weather report. I was sitting here at my desk, quietly sucking on a Tootsie Pop, blowing an occasional bubble, listening to the mesmerizing soundtrack from _Les Miserables_, and reading some e-mail messages. Then, I started reading a message from a fellow traveler, a kindred spirit, a colleague committed to enhancing teaching at a major southern university. As I read his message, I sat up and found myself enveloped sadness and anger. With every passing sentence, I shook my head every so slightly in a "so what's new" manner. It seems the new administration much preferred the ease of standing behind podiums and sitting in stuffed chairs the and mouth the meaningless rhetoric of talking the talk of teaching excellence and concern with student rather than engaging in the more meaningful but far more difficult walking the walk, and tired of my friend courageously calling it down when its actions in support of teaching and undergraduate students did not match its public pronouncements. Just as I read that because refused to become an administrative puppet rather at the expense of being an advocate for reform and a spokesperson for teaching faculty and students he was no longer the Director the university's Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the haunting song about failed revolution, "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables", floated out from the boombox. I congratulated him. I think I told him how proud I was for him. Sound strange? I told him that we all have to decide how much we each are willing to pay to remain true to ourselves. It is do easy to intellectualize a situation and say, "I would have done" or "you should do." But when the chips were down and my friend's butt was on the line, he held fast. He proved that he didn't come cheap and would not be on the take. That's courage and commitment in my book and is worth both congratulations and a bag of Tootsie Pops. The new Provost may have taken away his administrative position, but the high-paid, hypocritic jerk couldn't touch the heart and soul--much less match it--of my noble friend.
I started thinking how it is obvious that the dominant academic attitude, which places student learning as the periphery of the academic enterprise, is that research and publication deserves predominate a place, partly because faculty prefer specialized, prestigious--and at time more lucrative--research and publication to teaching and partly because institutions derive much of their prestige, power, and income from faculty research. But, before we can talk of the merits this and that concept, philosophy, attitude, procedure, curriculum, or even physical architecture of our classrooms and campuses, we have to talk about people in the flesh. Yet, we get so wrapped up in theoretical, abstract, philosophical or whatever kinds of mental exercises about education--we so throw around these lifeless, flat words like faculty, students, administration, system, staff, university--that we forget we are talking about real, live people.
And so, I now I find myself jotting down these snippets, for want of a better word. I'd like to share with you:
1. I don't think any of us can legitimately pursue or defend educational theory or philosophy without regard to practical reality. And the practical reality is that I cannot separate me, the teacher, from my teaching. Unless quantum mechanics is at work daily in our lives and work, nothing happens by itself without people!. Without a teacher, there is no teaching; without a learner, there is no learning. Without a policy maker, there is no policy. Without an administrator, there is no administrating. Without people, there is no system. Someone, a person, is always involved. And, whatever it is individuals do, it is a consequence of a self-concept as well as a consequent perception of other things and people; their actions and thoughts are an extension of themselves, of their personalities, of their values. I don't think you can deal with a policy or a practice without consciously or otherwise touching upon the personality and value system of the individual involved in that practice, without talking about and to ourselves.
2. So many people, us included, have gotten into a long habit of thinking one way about ourselves and certain things about academia, or doing something in the classroom or about students or about ourselves, and not daring to think seriously that such habits might be wrong or needs remodeling, or rationalizing that little otherwise can be done or needs be done, we create the appearance for ourselves that those habits are right. And so, we create images of perfection which allows us to ignore the imperfection, shut out questions, and/or place the onus on others. And we erect formidable, isolating redoubts in defense of those habits against being wrongly "dictated to" or unethically being "told what to do" or inappropriately being asked "to see things differently."
3. I think we should de-intellectualize all this talk about teachers and students, stop distancing--externalizing, according to the jargon--this talk from ourselves and bring it home, and talk instead about real, frail, imperfect people--not them, but us. As my good friend shows, all this discussion about ethics, professional integrity, educational practice and policy, all boil down to and starts with OURSELVES. Ethical codes won't in an of themselves deal with campus issues, only ethical people will. Evaluations and portfolios cannot create a caring campus environment, only caring people can. Everyone is talking about changing a philosophy, a theory, a policy, an approach, a practice, a method, a technique. So few are thinking about changing themselves! We have to start by taking an inventory of ourselves. We have to look at ourselves and have the courage to ask the difficult questions, and accept nothing less than the hard, honest answers.
4. We must articulate for ourselves and never stop engaging in self-examination and self-evaluation why we are in academia, why we are in the classroom, what is our philosophy of education, what purpose and goal do we see in an education, what are our principles of teaching, why do we honestly teach the way we do. Without such reflection we have no guiding light to illuminate our way.
5. I think honest reflection takes us off auto-pilot. It involves some form of challenge to and critique of ourselves, our personal and professional values. Without such self-reflection we tend to simply reinforce existing habitual patterns and tendencies. But, reflection does not take place in a professional, social or psychological vacuum. Objectivity is non-existent. Reflection is always influenced by our social and personal values and experiences, by our view of the world. So, we have to change our awareness by deliberately setting out to view ourselves in new ways. We have to move beyond our everyday way of looking at ourselves, others, and what we do. We have to take the position of the devil's advocate and challenge ourselves, be our own gadfly-like Socrates, and be ready not only to admit to possibility of error and the need to change, but to start changing if need be. It's constant self-monitoring, self-challenging, self-responsibility. We can't cannot palm off onto someone else the responsibility for want we believe and think and feel, and how we consequently act, and still retain our individuality and independence and integrity.
6. We each honestly and painfully have to decide for ourselves which way we want to live and work. Whether we want to walk the easy road, live and work the casual life and simply exist at the beckoning of others, or whether we want to walk the harder road of deliberately trying to do something about our own lives, about what we do, about other people, about that ethereal thing called society of which we are a part, and about humanity in general.
7. Like it or not, we play show and tell with students. We should make every effort to demonstrate to the best of our ability the characteristics which we wish to encourage in my students. As an e-mail colleague wrote, like it or not, we are being watched and followed, and certainly not just with respect to the subject matter of the course. Many attitudes are 'caught, not taught.' We're, as adults and authority figures, their role models. We cannot teach what we do not live. We cannot offer what we do not have to offer. Our actions betray us. "We will surely reap," correctly proclaimed, "what we SHOW."
Just a few random thoughts triggered by my friend's dismay and my admiration.
Have a good one. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) email@example.com Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____