Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 6 Sep 1997 05:53:27 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Random Thought: Freedom to Teach

It's about 5:00 a.m. I just came in from an exhilarating six mile walk that more than usual put me deeper and deeper into a reflective mood with every step. Those pre-dawn hours are inexplicable magic for me. These dark streets before dawn are a meditative quiet and calming place and time for "getting to know me." In those moments before the interfering and energy draining noises of the day begin their encroachment, I find the discipline and rhythm of walking is my entranceway to my inner voice. It is a time during which I settle with myself, coming out from a night's rest and preparing for the rest of the coming day.

I find it is a time when I stop hearing myself think and start feeling myself feeling, when I get outside the outside world and inside to my inner space and my inner being. I find those pre-dawn moments it to be a paradoxical time when nothing is happening outside and everything is happening inside; it's a stimulating time away from outside stimuli; a time of walking in the darkness that is walking into the light; a time of becoming quiet, venturing hushness, discovering silence, escaping stillness, enjoying and annoying tranquility, and exploring serenity; a place and time of a scheduled appointment with myself for remembering, renewing, reviving, refocusing, rebalancing, reentering, restrengthening, and reflecting; an essential place and time when I most reacquaint myself with who I a am.

I hadn't taken a step out from my house when I started thinking about some comments that popped up during several conversations in which I was engaged on various discussion lists during the past week or so. "Oh, Louis. What do you know," someone wrote me, "you've got it easy. You have tenure. You're free to do what you want." Another said, "You're at a university. You don't have to deal with...." Still another argued, " Your students are motivated and want to be there. You don't how lucky you are."

And you know, I thought this morning, there was a time not too far in the distant past when I had thought they were right. I always had said to myself that as a college professor I was free to do what I wanted in the classroom, that the college classroom is closed tighter than the bedroom door, that no one tells me what to do, that no one interferes; that no one spies on me; that no one observes without my permission; that no one keeps me from acting as I wish, that I can run my class any way I want, that I very, very seldom have to answer to parents, that I can cover however much material in whatever way I decide, that I am my own master.

Yet, as I look back, that supposed freedom now seems so hollow and shallow, so illusory. If I was so free to make my own decisions, why did I often feel chained, restricted, helpless, thrown about, trapped within a set of forces, by the action and decision of others, and by a "system" I could barely influence but certainly not control: Presidents, Deans, VPs, department heads, colleagues, memos, admissions, registrar, bursur, regents regulations, accountability, transcripts, memos, grading system, memos, deadlines, office hours, room assignments, class sizes, advising assignments, evaluations, course assignments, meetings, meetings, and more meetings, and, of course, the type of students on campus. It was ironic. Here I had pronounced publically that I was so free and independent, that I was so free to make my own decisions and do my own thing, and yet privately I so often felt so impotent, so imprisoned, and so powerless within the system. There were times I roared like a lion for all to hear and felt so sheepish where no one could see.

There was a time when I would find it so easy, yet so subtle I almost hid it from me, to point the finger of blame at something or someone for my problems: "The hell with it, nobody appreciates me" or "I'm so worried that they won't grant me tenure if I screw up" or "I won't get that raise if they don't like what I do," or "They won't grant me my promotion if I stir up too many waters," or "If I'm too big a pain in the ass, they won't.....", or, "If I don't kiss ass, I can't.....", and so on. There was a time not too long ago that when I didn't get that position, when I didn't get that promotion, when that paper wasn't accepted that I felt colleagues let me down; there was time not too long ago when students didn't do as I expected and demanded of them that I felt they let me down. In truth, I was letting myself down and surrendering myself to them.

Over the past six years, I slowly came to realize that tenure and my scholarly reputation may have given me a far greater latitude with those external controls, to be able to scoff at and snub them a bit more than my newly hired junior colleagues with a shorter resume and lesser professional reputation. But, I slowly and painfully discovered I remained an inmate in a deeper, darker, more confining, and more isolated prison cell: myself. Despite my words to the contrary, I kept myself locked in by having only one way of looking at myself, at what I do, and at the students.

It was only recently that I told someone that on my campus I have the reputation for being "off the wall." So, I am free to live up to my reputation and be off the wall. But, now that I think about it, that's not really true. I do what I do and believe what I believe because six years ago, at the young age of 50, I painfully discovered a way for changing my underlying belief in myself, about things around me, and in others, as well as for changing what I do. No sure-fire how-to-do formula. No guaranteed fix-it technique. No, mysterious incantation. No, magic elixour or dust. No, something far more disarmingly simple yet profound that proved to be a vast untapped resource and strength: telling the truth. I came to realization that I "just" would have to struggle to be honest with myself. And the truth was that I thought I was free, and I had to admit I wasn't; I thought I had been satisfied, and I had to admit I wasn't. Now I have a relentless hunger and thirst, relentless desire and need to root out the ways I had limited myself and to discard those beliefs and techniques I had used to deceive myself from seeing what truly is. It meant trying key after key, going through door after door, crossing boundary after boundary, breaking wall after wall, building bridge after bridge. It meant letting go of the self-satisfying, pat answers and grabbing hold to the questions. It meant re-opening the book and start reading the never-ending story, of searching constantly for understanding, accepting that there is no ultimate answer. It meant entering a state of openness, accepting the truth that any "answer" is at best an approximation that is forever subject to modification, adaptation, reapplication, improvement--never final. It meant letting a curious "let's see" surface. It meant an unending broadening of my self-awareness and awareness of others, of trying to see more of the human playing field. It meant continually deeping my understanding of myself, people and forces. It meant "the spirit of love."

That's a hard word in academia, love. But, it is at the heart of the true freedom of teaching--of anything for that matter; it is the true soul of meaningful and learningful classroom experiences. I have come to realize that love has everything to do with attitudes and intentions--and actions: of the commitment to serve the students; of a commitment to something larger than myself; of visualizing an academic world that is not deeply self-centered and self-interested; of the willingness to be open and vulnerable; of a willingness to suspend certainty; of a willingness to exchange in the spirit of the question mark rather than of the exclamation point; of a willingness to share in order to influence and be influenced, to teach and to learn; of the commitment to the students'completion and his or her becoming all that he or she can be; of the commitment to my own completion and becoming all that I can be.

As I slowly and humbly came to that realization--not by intellectualizing, philosophizing, or theorizing, but through personal experience--a deep chord resonated within me that I still have trouble describing, even to myself. There was something new inside me and something new out there. It drew me into a whole new series of commitments and connectedness, educational insights and personal changes; it led me to see an invisible wholeness in myself, in others, and in things that is so often hidden by divisions and separations which we have invented and by which we have become trapped. I began experiencing teaching and life in a way I then had no way to describe. I began involving myself in approaches that seemed in line with my new understanding. I began experiencing a broader vision, wider goals, a higher energy, a true aliveness within me, an aliveness in everything I did.

I am forever learning the difference between "freedom to be and do" and "freedom from." The former is the freedom to create what I want I honestly desire. It's the freedom of personal mastery. Freedom. It's the heart of teaching; it's the heart of learning. I am always working on the struggle for freedom. The freedom to be free to be truly myself--free of the imposing and imprisoning restrictions of my own self-prejudicies, free of the traps of my confining preconceptions of others, free of the chains of the limiting preconceptions others have about me--to live and teach freely so that students may be free to learn how to learn and live freely.

With that inner sense of freedom, I ardruously discovered that each of us can in some manner, shape, and form create something new, something that has value and meaning, something that is important, something that leaves tracks in the sand, something that touches someone's soul, something that alters the future, something that says I was here. Every time I feel that freedom at work, it's like holding each of my newborn sons!

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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