Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 6 Jan 1996 14:36:14 -0500 (EST)
Subject: A Random Thought: Anxiety In The Classroom

Went out walking late today. The sun was already up, people were out, cars were whizzing around me. That's okay. I needed the distracting movements; I needed to watch out for cars since I am accustomed to walking in the middle of the roads dthe wee hours of the pre-dawn morning when every sensible person is comfortably asleep; I needed to keep my mind off things--ten things. It was a difficult walk this morning, not because of the cutting chill but because I was fighting to keep my mind on my exercise, struggling to keep my stride while experiencing something to akin to the DTs. I haven't bitten my nails in a whole day, and I am in the throes of withdrawal. I had been walking around campus yesterday with clenched fists to imbed, hide and protect my fingers in the palms of my hands; I have been struggling to keep my mind on other things; I have been wrestling against the urge to delude my teeth with pencils or pens or Tootsie Pops. You see, I am a habitual, hard-core nail-biter, have been ever since I can remember. Oh, have I developed a dexterity of upper body movement to get at the last morsels of my appendages that would be the envy of any ballet dancer. When it comes to tips of my fingers, I can pick, nip, chip, get at, cut and tear far better than can any vulture or hyena. Nothing could ever stop me--parents, teachers, doctors, friends--from munching on those deliciously hard protrusions, not threats of the boggie-man, not promises of rewards, not pencils or gum or toothpicks, not pepper sauce or any other foul tasting slim, not distractions. In fifty-five years, nothing has worked. I am quick to bite my fingernails to the quick, to snack on my cuticles, to nibble here and there like a dog rummaging through a garbage can. Wisps of blood and annoying aches, even a bandaid or two, are not strangers to my fingertips. The stumble at the end of my fingers looks like a war zone. But, I arose this morning and told myself, "'JUST THIS DAY' your fingers will not come within a mile of your mouth and you will not pick at them."

For all of this anxiety, I have Kim to both blame and thank. It was about her that I was playfully cursing under my breath with every step. I have to back up to yesterday for all this to make sense.

Yesterday was the first day of the winter quarter. And, I always do in my effort to create a supportive and encouraging classroom learning community, I began class with a series of "getting to know ya" and bonding exercises that will last about three or four days. Among the first of the exercises is a biographical interview of fun and revealing questions. The students are grouped into fours and I am in one of them. I find that the students don't just ask and asnwer the questions in a rat-a-tat fashion. They begin to talk to each other, explain and discuss their answers, get to know each other. What you would think should take only about twenty minutes usually goes on for about two classes. Well, worth the time, I assure you. Anyway, there I was interviewing Kim and she me. One of the questions is, "what is something I wish I could stop doing?" Kim's answer, couched in obviously feigned laughter, was, "drinking."

"Well," I said, "if you want to stop, why don't you."

"It's just at night with the girls and guys. But, you're right," she sighed. I should. I really do want to."

"Tell you what," I proposed, "every day you come into class I'll ask you if you had a drink the day before as a reminder."

"And the weekends?"

"Want me to call you?"

Her eyes lit up. And, without me asking, she gave me her number. I have to call later this morning.

Then, she asked me what is something I wished I could stop doing. I held out my hands with my fingers curled to reveal the battleworn ends.



"Oh, biting your nails," Kim giggled, wrote down my answer on the bio sheet, and we went on to the next questions to ponder and laugh about.

At the end of the period, as the students were filing out of the classroom, at the door Kim turned towards me and yelled out, "Hey, Dr. Schmeir, you have to stop biting your nails."

"You've got it," I replied instinctively, and she disappeared into the hall. And I shuddered and I realized what I had agreed to.

Needless to say, anxiety was on my mind this morning. By coincidence, the necessity of having anxiety in the classroom is being discussed on one or two e-mail discussion list. It is not a new topic, but Kim raised an interesting question or two that I was mulling over this morning.

So many of us at the head of the classroom say that anxiety is necessary for the students to experience if they are to learn. They sound like medieval monks telling their flock, "endure my children and reap the fruits of your suffering in....." I have often and recently read and heard that professors are doing the students an immearsurable serivce--doing it for their own good--when they draw them on academic racks, put when they tighten their mental thumb screws, when they whip them with intellectual cat-o-nine-tails, when they sear their soles and souls with evaluating hot coals, when they threaten them and point fingers at them and laud power over them and distance themselves. The more student shivers and quakes, so I am told, the more they appreciate and can seize the opportunity they have to learn. "No pain, no pain," the saying goes. Anxiety creates a series of lessons that must be experienced by the students if they are to understand. Anxiety is necessary as an enrichment ofA that experience: character can only be developed by the fires of suffering; adversity strengthens their soul; reaching for the summit of a mountain knowledge would be exhilarating only if they had to overcome and fearfully traverse obstacles of academic crags and crevics; anxiety is a cataylst that inspires achievement. The "touchy-feely" stuff, I have been told on more the occasion, being less firm and more affirming, modeling less the caring about power and more the power of caring, twisting hands less and holding them more, remaining less distant and aloof and connecting more, all this sparing of the academic rods, spoils the students.

What I am wondering is this. If this is all true--that there is no gain without pain, that visions are sharpened and heights of goals are lifted and success achieved by experieincing discomfort and difficulty--why, then, is it that so many academicians seem to want to their teaching to be problem free? We proclaim to students that learning is not easy. Well, who said that teaching is should be easy. If the academics without anxiety supposedly is academic death, why isn't anxiety-free teaching akin to rigormortise? Why do so many wish upon a star that they could teach with ease, quiet, and comfort? Why do so many moan and groan when things don't go their way and students don't do what they want them to do? Why do we get so unsettled when things get unsettling? Why do we want order and try to get rid of problems as quickly as possible as if we were excising a painful boil? We say students don't know how to study, don't have any discipline, can't think, can't do this, don't know how to do that, won't do this, but so many of us try to ignore their difficulties or sweep them under rug by saying it's not part of our job description to teach them these things. Why are they so negative about classroom problems, challenges, and difficulties--maybe even afraid of them? If we're not being two-faced and talking out of both sides of our mouths, if we tell the students or convince ourselves that adversity is the spice of academic life--the hard road to learning and growth and development--and if we aren't really just saying, "do as I say and not as I do," I would think that we would welcome anxiety as a sign that we are alive, learning, growing, and involved in the life of the classroom rather than just a cold body present in the room. It seems to me that teaching, just like learning, doesn't come easy or cheap, shouldn't come easy or cheap, not for us anymore than for the students.

Have a good one.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
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