Violence in Academia

There was an invigorating nip in the air yesterday morning, but nothing like the icy polar vortex of a message I found waiting for me.  I heard again from that mid-western professor whom I had mentioned a few reflections ago.  ”‘Student whisperer’ indeed,” she started her message in a “bah-humbug’ snort.  ”….Well, higher education has one big problem because of the likes of you.  We have made a college education into an American  birthright. Our problem is we have to let in everybody….I hate the retention demands from the administrations to keep them around….But, let me tell you something, buddy, those people can’t make it no matter what we do. They don’t belong in any college….And, I do everyone–me, them, my profession, my university, even society–a service when I refuse to give them false hope and weed them out….If they can’t cut it, I’m going to cut them out….You can’t make gold out of lead…”

When I finished reading her “grinchlike” words, I immediately thought of Emerson, Winnie the Pooh, and Elie Wiesel:  ”What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered;” “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them;” “We must not see any person as an abstraction.  Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

How to answer her.  This is what I said.  It is a variation of a letter I recently wrote to the editor of our local newspaper about recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York.

I told her that I have learned over my lifetime that when we violate, we commit violence.  I am not talking about physical assaults such as have been in the news lately.  I mean violence is done whenever we violate someone’s identity, integrity, and individuality. Violence is done when we demean, marginalize, dismiss; violence is done when we render other people irrelevant to our lives; violence is done when we see them only as an impersonal statistic or generality; violence is done when we distrust, when we disrespect, when we simply don’t care or don’t look hard enough to evoke our caring.

I asked her, who among us hasn’t been the victim of “violence by deboning,” by being stripped of the flesh of her or his personhood with sharp knives of biased generalities, prejudicial stereotypes, diminishing abstractions, and even hateful perceptions.   I have.  At Adelphi, I was one those “don’t belongs” tagged to be weeded out.  But, it was Dr. Birdsault Viault who interceded and nurtured me.  He was not blinded, as was I, to my undiscovered potential.  He was not deafened, as was I, to the opportunity I presented.  In spite of me, he was not deterred from mining the barren surface for the mother lode he believed lay below.  He was my Jacob Marley.  Instead of condemning, instead of judging, he served, reached out, connected, elevated, edified, inspired, bettered, and transformed me.  Or, at least, helped me to start doing that to myself.  And, that, among other things over the course of my life, has made me sensitive to living a nonviolent life as much as I humanly can, for I have learned that only light can drive out darkness, that only faith and belief and hope can overcome antipathy, and only love can be the transforming three Christmases of Charles Dickens.

Rumi said, “It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”  When we love and care about each student unconditionally, the classroom becomes so full of so many wondrous people.  I’ve learned, however, from my experiences, both personal and professional, you don’t look for how to care sincerely, but to seek, find, and tear down all barriers we build within ourselves against truly caring.  Every day I do stuff, exercises if you will, so that in every way in every relationship I have, I’m conscious to honor both myself and the persons around me.  Sometimes that’s as simple as noticing a person.  Sometimes it takes the form of a quiet, kindly word.  Sometimes it’s shaped as the arc of a supporting smile.  Sometimes it appears as an encouraging tap on the shoulder. Sometimes it’s more a complicated matter of quietly and empathetically listening to someone’s story.  Sometimes it’s still more of a complicated matter of becoming involved and assisting someone who can’t take that next step in life.  I just think there’s a thousand different ways that we can practice nonviolence in this fundamental sense.  Now, I think it’s urgent that we reframe education in a very personal way, as simple acts of supporting and encouraging relationship building and community building that empower people.

I told her that her assertion creates the impossible.  And, aside from being a “silver lining” optimist kind of guy, I don’t just don’t believe it; I know it to be untrue; I have proof it’s untrue.   Me!  Moreover, I have seen how we can be a Rumplestilkin weaving ordinary straw into invaluable gold using the spinning wheel of a compassionate heart.  I say you can be an alchemist transforming lead into gold if you choose to be an inspiring, encouraging, supporting, believing, hopeful, and loving person as Birdsall Viault was for me.  And if you are willing to put in the back-breaking effort, you’ll find the biggest motherlode of them all: your caring heart filled with inner joy, an inner pride, an inner sense of goodness, an inner sense of fulfillment, an inner happiness.  You’ll be able to look in the mirror and see reflected a congratulating nod of a head, an enriching wink of an eye, and a rewarding tip of the hat.

I also told her that belief, hope, and love are not wishful, soft, dreamy, new-agey, touchy-feely, and Hallmarkish.  They are a struggle.  They’re a roll-up-your-sleeeves, down-and-dirty, get-in-the-trenches grittiness.  They’re the kind that gets you up every morning and demands you make the world just a little kinder and more respectful place.  And, if you get your heart broken or are disappointed or get frustrated or get angry, as will inevitably occur, they won’t allow you to wallow in self-pity, or shrivel in surrender, or retreat into finger pointing.  Instead, they give you the courage and strength and energy to go on, to get up the next morning and do it again.   They are harder to live with than being cynical, pessimistic, and blaming.  A blamer and cynic and pessimist are never disappointed.

I told her that courage and strength to belief, have faith, have hope, and love have everything to do with loving something or someone so much that you will brave whatever may come your way because you have that much love for each of them. It’s worth the risk  because it’s the only way to overcome her impossible and transform it into the possible.

Louis

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WHISPERER

I hope you all in the United States had a joyous Thanksgiving with your families. Susie and I sure did. We had a too brief family reunion as we traveled to Nashville where my son, Robby, the chef, and his family lives, and my other son and his family flew in from San Francisco. You might say we all had a “gorge-ous” holiday. Boy did we gorged ourselves on Robby’s culinary delights, first a multi-course banquet in his home and then the next evening an even larger feast at his restaurant. And, that doesn’t count the feeding frenzy over Susie’s cheesecake and my rugalach (a Jewish horned pastry), all of which sent all of us into a weekend-long caloric coma. Now I’m home and still groggy from a food OD.

Anyway, I went out onto the quiet streets this calm pre-dawn morning. I always find my language in such silence, and it was in this still that I was thinking about an old Sunday Morning segment on a “horse whisperer” that I had come across while surfing YouTube, and how what was discussed in the interview could well apply to the classroom. But, first. Do you know what a “horse whisperer is?” Well, the term goes back to a 19th century Irish horse trainer who had developed a knack for rehabilitating abused or traumatized horses. He would stand face to face with the troubled horse. People at the time thought that it was mysterious, that he was capable of speaking “horse talk” as he whispered into the horses’ ears, that the horses could understand him–and trust him, and that they were quickly calmed by his magical techniques. But, there was nothing mysterious and magical about what he did. What he really did was have a tender regard, be empathetic to the motives, needs, and desires of the horse. He got to know the horse, not guess or assume or presume or stereotype or generalize, but know that particular horse. He would seek out, find, and see that something beautiful that was to be found in that frightened, aggressive, and uncooperative horse. Sometimes it was obvious and overpowering, and other times it was subtle and delicate, and still other times it was totally hidden. But, it always took a lot of quiet and reassuring love, faith, commitment, and perseverance to uncover it and for the horse to feel it. He was posing no danger or harm, calming both his and the animal’s thoughts, simply being, feeling the power he and the horse were, softly touching and caressing that animal, feeling the strength and passion, enjoying, refreshing, living.

In the spirit of the Horse Whisper, we should be “student whisperers.” We should see each student as we do a magnificent dawn, feeling our pounding hearts and heaving lungs are too big to be caged in by our ribs. Teaching is a love story, a story demonstrated in unconditional caring, empathy, sympathy, and encouragement. All of whom are a potent serum in the fight against the prevalent academic disease of busyness and disinterest. It’s letting students see and know that you understand their feelings and thoughts. It’s personal interaction; it takes effort; it takes energy;it takes time. Yet, it is love, with its companions of faith, hope, and belief, that makes the classroom non-judgmental, non-industrialized, non-standardized. It is love that makes the classroom highly personalized. It humanizes. It individualizes. It has a reverence for each student. It energizes empathy. Student whispers walk the avenue of the heart and invite each student into their hearts.

What you think of life in that classroom plays an essential role in what you do in that classroom with each student. As a “student Whisperer,” you reshape the classroom with the gentleness of a far less frenetic inner quiet, a quiet of being mindful and attentive, a quiet that allows us to bend rather than snap, knowing that most guidance, as Leo Buscaglia would say, can be dispensed with a light touch, a soft encouraging word, a slight smile, and lots of respect and real love for the person on the receiving end. In Galatians 5:22 it is called “the fruit of the spirit.” I call it walking the street of my heart to take each student inside my heart. As a “student whisperer” you accept that your job is to compassionately nurture each student without asking whether they are worthy or have earned it, not to heavily weed out.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance. Those nine virtues say that we are in awe of each student, that we honor each, that we respect each, that we treat each as someone who is invaluable. That “fruit of the spirit” is at the ethical core of my “Teacher’s Oath;” it is being “student struck;” it is knowing that no one in that class is plain or ordinary or worthless or without potential; it is knowing that those in the classroom are rich beyond anything we can imagine; and, that in the classroom there are chances to do amazing things. It is the purpose of everything I feel and do; it is my love of each student; it is a commitment to help others. It is the loving, supporting, encouraging touch, word, smile that reminds us each of them that she or he is not alone, and there is hope.

Think that’s soft, touchy-feely, weak? I say that to be gentle is to be strong and courageous; I say that to be unfeeling is to be weak and fearful. Think back. Think back to a time in your life when, as the Lotus Sutra said, someone entered your life wearing “the robe of gentleness and forbearance.” Think back to the moment in your life when someone courageously took a chance on you making you feel you were worth it. Think of how some “fruit” vividly and robustly shines out in your memory of a time when you needed bracing against the storm. Think how potent it was. My whisperer was Birdsault Viault at Adelphi College in late 1959 who saw something shimmering below the surface when no one else did, reached out to me, helped me start believing, helped me to begin rewriting the lyrics of my sorrowful song, helped me to begin leaning into the light with him, and helped me to start turning my life around. Think that’s fluffy? No! That’s powerful power!

Be a “Loud” student whisperer. Put in the time and effort. Celebrate and, more importantly, live the uniqueness, sacredness, nobility, and worth that is each student. Be truly moved by the awesome wonder of each of them. Don’t let them go unnoticed and ignored as “cellophane people.” Don’t reject any as “don’t belongs.” Have an unconditional–unconditional–appreciative, loving, thankful, kind, empathetic, supporting, safe, encouraging, and calming heart. It sure beats thinking we’re jolting bronco busters who break the rough-stock, feral, recalcitrant students into submission.

As “Student Whisperers” we should work with, rather than against, each student; we should love those we see, for all we have to do is to find little bit of beauty, develop our powers of empathy, and we open ourselves up to finding more in both ourselves and others. In the spirit of Ed Deci, Carol Dweck, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Howard Gardner, Peter Senge, Peter Vail, Teresa Amabile, Barbara Fredrickson, and a host of others, we should nurture self-esteem and confidence, faith and hope, autonomy and ownership, creativity and imagination, curiosity, optimism, and resiliency; we should understand and appreciate each student’s strengths and abilities, and utilize them to help the student help her/himself develop emotional, behavioral and intellectual abilities to both live the good life and make a good living; we should help them find a sense meaning and purpose; and we should help them help themselves become the person each is capable of becoming.
Louis

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ABUNDANCE AND SCARCITY

Abundance.  I was thinking about abundance what with Thanksgiving being but a few days away.  I was also thinking of the “bah, humbug” Scrooge-like impoverishment of that professor’s attitude about whom I wrote last Thursday.  I always say that in the classroom, supported by such research as that of Chicago’s Anthony Byrk and Barbara Schneider that I just came across, there should be laid the foundations for three goals of attitude before anyone gets near the material to be learned:  break barriers, build bridges, forge community. All three are designed to begin to create what researchers call:  ”relational trust,” that is, reliance on others and being open with others.   It’s an impersonal term for something that is very personal,  I prefer to call it “community.”  I know, “community” and “trust” arent’ words that sits well with most in academia.    Nevetheless, those words in action support and encourage; they create communication and connection; they take the grimness and fear out of learning; and, they feast on the too often hidden abundance in the classroom, in both each student and ourselves.  I’ve found it is so crucial to learning that, in the spirit of Abraham Mazlow, Ed Deci, Carol Dweck, Barbara Fredrickson, Teresa Amabile, Howard Gardner and others, I always took the first ten days to two weeks of class to engage students in “getting to know ya”  exercises to start the demolition of separateness and aloneness and strangerness, and to begin the construction of supporting and encouraging togetherness.  And, then, organizing the class in such a way that constantly and explicitly I made supporting and encouraging communication a major “how it works” theme throughout the class’s term.  As, I’ve said in the syllabus for the past 20 years:   “On the first day of class or so you and two others will create what  I call “Communities of Mutual Support and Encouragement.  You will create your own communities according to three rules:  (1)  Each person must be a stranger to each other; (20  Each community will be gender mixed unless the class makeup does not allow; (3)  Each community will be racially mixed unless the class makeup does not allow..You and the other two members of your Community will sit together in a little cluster facing each other.  In this class you’ll NEVER see the back of the head of the person in front of you simply because there is no front or back in this class. The governing principle of the Communities will be “one for all and all for one.” That is, you and the others in your Community will mutually support and encourage each other and work together as if you were one person.  I hope you will become friends, or like family, and learn to love each other.  You are not in competition with anyone else in the class.  This class is a cooperative ”family” effort.  You will learn to respect, trust, support, and encourage other people.  You will learn to work with other people. You will learn to communicate with other people.  Remember ONE OF THE INVIOLABLE CLASS OPERATIONAL RULES:   YOU WILL SIT IN CLASS ALWAYS LOOKING AT EACH OTHER.  NO ONE WILL LOOK AT THE BACK OF THE NECK OF ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE COMMUNITY.”

You see, the real scarcity in the classroom is not ability or potential; it is attitude.  It is an impoverishment of perception and assumption, a scarcity of notice, a short supply of attention, a dearth of faith, belief, hope, and love.  That scarcity weakens stamina and breeds the deadly diseases and infirmities of fear, anxiety, joylessness, disbelief, resignation, blindness, deafness, apathy, and a host of other killers of spirit.  That impoverishment is uneducating of all those in the classroom.  The idea of the power of the inner dynamics of emotions on performance is squashed with assault of being soft, squishy, irrational,sentimental tosh, and touchy-feely.  They’re accused of being alien in a place whose drivers are information, tests, grades, GPAs, scores, and credentials.  It is this myopia that leads to self-fulfilling prophecy because we don’t ask the right questions to deal with this drought.  We always ask the debilitating questions:  Is what were doing going to succeed?  What if it doesn’t work?  Where’s the time?  How are we going to grade it?  How will we be assessed?  What will others think?

We should be asking ourselves two questions:  What is the right thing to do?  What is required of us if we want to make a positive difference, a transforming difference, in someone’s life?  I’ve found that the answers to these questions brook no compromise, for lives are at stake.  They opened my eyes to the abundance within each of us, how to break free of the drought; and that to reeducate in the classroom you cast out the harbingers of blame and become a prophet of responsibility.  You belief.  You have faith.  You have hope.  You love.  You care.  You respect.  You trust.  You are respectful.  You are trustworthy.  You take the time and banish that thief of connection:  ”busyness.”  You travel the galaxy of nurturing.     You do whatever it takes so that a student survives her or his greatest fear, her or his more defenseless and vulnerable moment,  her or his most unloved feeling.  You nurture unceasingly.  You show up for each of them time and time and time again.  You’re there time and time and time again.  You are loving beyond any assessment instrument.  You have an endurance for care.  You draw from a deep well of selfless serving.  You create a serum that kills all pernicious killers of spirit, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

What I am more than suggesting is challenging, painful, scary, time consuming, and difficult.  It means taking risks, become vulnerable.  It pushes to the brink of change.  It means doing a whole of things we’d rather not do.  It means we have stop blaming.  It means we have to close the distance.  It means becoming involved in the responsibility for others.It demands an investment of the heart.  Sure, it’s a lot easier to get a grant or bring to campus the latest dog and pony show from pedagogical or technological experts.
But, there is research demonstrating the emotional component in any classroom is both real and strong, and influential.  That is to say, if you’re truly interested in improving educational outcomes, read the research on “relational trust” or “community.”  The researchers found that if a classroom is full of strangers, they won’t trust each other.  You can throw a lot of state-of-the-art technology and pedagogy on them, but not much will change.  On the other hand, as has been my experience for two decades, if a classroom is full of people who respect and trust each other, who invest themselves in that which is communal, they will come into supporting and encouraging community; they will love each other, and you’re going to get great results.
Louis

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YOU CAN’T GET TO THEM ALL

4:50 am.  Can’t sleep.  It’s quiet.  Aroma of a freshly brewed cup of coffee.  Chopin softly playing on my Sonos sound system.  No walking.  It’s a Novembrrrrrrrrrr 18 degrees wind chill factor out there. Plants snuggly wrapped in protective visqueen.  It’s so cold, the cockroaches are wearing antennae muffs.  Talking of the cold, I got a chilly a message from a professor in response to my my story of that unexpected meeting with the student from the Holocaust class last Thursday morning during my walk.  ”That’s only one student,” she said with a nip in her air.  ”Surely you couldn’t get to them all like that….at best you can only get to some or a few….Doesn’t seem worth the time and effort…I question your effectiveness….doesn’t sound like a very efficient use of your time…”

Reasonable enough by her standards.  But, not by mine.  I told her that I knew I couldn’t get to them all anymore than could she.  No one can, and it’s unrealistic to judge someone by that factory-type production line measure.  So, I said, I don’t play the “100% game.”  But, at the same time I don’t ease off.  I just don’t know how many “some” or “a few” are.  In any event, I don’t have to get to them all.  There is in the Talmud an obligatory statement by a first century rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.”  I’ll put it in another way:  just because getting to them all is impossible doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.  The “some” or “few” students are reminders that give meaning to our lives, a someone and something that give us hope.  Still another way is if I accept and embrace the reality of my limitations, I won’t be uptight about them, and I’ll be free to fully experience them.  And, yet another way, all I have to do is to get to “one” to change the world and alter the future.  Think of that student in the Holocaust class.  Think of how many “ones” she will “get to” in her lifetime, and how many ones those “gotten to’s” will get to.  Ripple effect they call it.

So, that just may be a failing in our system of assessments. While it’s important to be as “efficient” and “effective” as we possibly can, when efficiency and effectiveness are our only criteria, when we play a numbers game, the powerful, self-serving lesser angel within us will try to cook the books one way or another to insure that we game the system to up our numbers by watering down our tasks, taking on smaller and smaller doable tasks, doing only that which is safe and familiar and convenient and comfortable and acceptable, and with which we can demonstrate “effective” and “efficient.”  But, maybe we too highly value immediate efficiency and effectiveness; maybe its more important to be a futurist, to be faithful of our vision–to experiment, to adjust, to adopt, to be respectful, to be trusting and trustworthy, to be fearless, to stretch, to risk, to challenge, to go into the unfamiliar and unknown, to persevere, to endure–the way it can make a difference in the lives of others.  Let’s do some math.  Suppose I “get to” only five students in each class of 50.  A mere 10%:  lousy assessment numbers.  Certainly, inefficient and ineffective you say?  But, add up four classes a semester (five in the old quarter days), two semesters a year (three quarters in the old days), not taking into account summer classes, for 46 years.  Over a lifetime, that adds up to an army of “got to’s” who will get to others, and they to others.  It’s a powerful story that goes on and on and on, made possible by the one line I contributed.

No, as Rabbi Tarfon also said, revealing the secret hidden in plain sight, “The day is short, the labor vast.”  So, I accept and embrace and am inspired by what I know is real, and it will set me free to gratefully, fully, and wholly experience it.  I will let the years of “ineffective” and “inefficient” speak for me.  I will not let a “you can’t get to them all” be an excuse for ignoring, evading, not wanting to know, and not doing anything.  I’m not a short hauler.  I was, am, and will be in it for the long haul. Persevering, committed, enduring faithfulness to my vision, trusting my deeper and inner knowing, not allowing the power of my inner human core be weakened, are the only ways I know how to hang in there.  Sure, as Rabbi Tarfon inferred, I will die with my vision unachieved and without being able to declare a victorious “I’ve done it,”  but I’ll go with the satisfaction of knowing that I was all in, that I put it all on the field, that I gave myself to my vision and used my gifts to strive to achieve that vision with everything I had, and that I did make a difference.

Louis

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A CHANCE MEETING

It was a good walk this morning.   In the fifth mile of my six mile roundtrip, I didn’t realize what was about to happen.  This is what I best remember.

I was moving along at my usual fast pace, abreast of the Phys Ed building, when I heard voice shout out behind me, “Dr. Schmier!”  I stopped.  I turned.  I recognized the face.  I didn’t remember the name.  Before I could get a word out, she blurted with a feigned frown, “Dr. Schmier, I hate you.” Then a beaming smile appeared to lighten up her face, “And, I love you.”  She leapt forward and gave me a tight hug.

Excited, she stepped slightly back, and in an almost out-of-breath, hurried, rat-a-tat fashion saying, “I just have to tell you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  After all these years, I still just can’t get that Holocaust class out of my mind.  That yellow star is still branded into my heart.  I see that yellow star every time I pull out my underwear drawer.  I deliberately put it there so I knew I’d see it every day.  The ‘Jew’ on it just screams at me every day, and I think about what good I’m going to that day.   I even read the first page of the syllabus once a week.  You just don’t know what’s happened to me since that class.  I’m not shy anymore and I don’t do things by what I think other people will think or say, or by who they want me to be.  I’m not afraid anymore.  Me! I’m becoming more and more brave.   I’m so conscious of struggling not to be prejudice, I watch every word I say and everything I do and I’m so aware of other people and being respectful to them.  I now refuse to be the onlooker and bystander I once was.  I refuse to be one of those silent good people.  Me!  Can you believe it?  I call down my friends, boyfriend, my parents, especially my mother, my sisters, people in my church back home, anyone, once did it to my preacher, and talk with them.  And it all began with you and that class.  You’re not just my favorite teacher; you’re my best professor; you transformed me into a much, much better person than I ever thought I could be, all in one class.  They called it a ‘Perspective Class.’  Boy was that the truth!  It sure effected mine.”
Dumbstruck, eyes watery, I couldn’t find any words.  Before I could utter at least a “thank you,”  She gave me another hug and said abruptly, “I’m late for class.  Got to go.  I saw you and just wanted you to know that you’ve made a big difference in my life and maybe in other lives I’ve touched.  Bye.”
 And off she hurriedly ran into the Phsy Ed building.  I just stood there, frozen, numb, deeply humble, a tear or two falling from my eyes.  There was such joy in her voice, and I still don’t know who she was, but she sure knows.  I turned and walked faster than normal, thinking “this is what education should be,transforming,” and struggling to remember her words.
I’ve got to get to work on the book I want to write about that Holocaust class with its “Star Project,” and break through the organizational barrier that’s been stopping me these past two years.

Louis

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LIFE SAVVY

Without getting into the out-of-control imbalance and hypocrisy of college sports, higher education makes its appeal to students in an unbalanced and distorting way.  It advertises itself in economic language, not in social or cultural or moral language.  It sells itself as a producer of professionals, but not as parents, friends, neighbors, and citizens; it touts job, with its title, position, and paycheck, and very seldom does it sell character development.  It images itself as an employment agency.  Too many professors are high on being information transmitters and stuffers, and teach to credential; too many present themselves as head hunters for a good paying job; too few talk of personal transformation.  Higher education has put itself in restricting balkanized containers:  departments, colleges, schools, courses, classroom, campus, major, program, degree, tests, grades, GPAs, pedagogy, assessment, technology.
By putting on center stage the vocational “business” and banishing to the wings the human “beingness,” the idea that education’s goal is to help a person learn how to live the good life has gone into eclipse, overshadowed by the idea that education’s sole role is vocational or credential, that is, to help a person earn a good living.  Students are asked in word and action, especially at revealing career days and job fairs and Career Services Office,  ”what do you want to do,” and seldom, if ever, “who do you want to become.” And so, higher education has generally surrendered a significant part of both its educational and “higher” character.
Whatever makes higher education both education and higher, often ignored “beingness” intensifies it; it focuses; it concentrates.  It’s the moral core; it’s the ethical center; it’s the source of integrity and authenticity which goes by the name “character;” it’s the name of the game.  It’s intensely personal; it’s very social; it’s a resource for questioning, change, development. It is “beingness,” not “business” that puts you on a questing life of pilgrimage that takes you out of your world into other worlds and thereby expands your world.
As a guide to myself, almost exactly twenty years ago, in a piece I called “What It Is We Get Paid To Do, I wrote that higher education “is the development of a thoughtful citizen and a compassionate human being who is also a skilled worker. It is a mission that is concerned with the whole person rather than merely the partial wage-earner. It is the mission that seeks to insure that our students will graduate as individuals of character more competent in their ability to contribute to society, more civil in how they think, more respectful in how they talk, more sympathetic in how they act, more sensitive to the needs of the community of which they are a part….”
I believed and lived that then; it believe and live it even more today.  But, you know something, you don’t get invited if you think this “fluffy,” “touchy-feely,” “tosh,” “junk” way because most academics find it real hard to admit it, grasp it, talk about it, much less believe and live it.
Louis

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WHAT REALLY MATTERS

Saturday is my 74th birthday. It has become a sober as well as a celebrating time for me.  For the past seven years, before the elated moments of celebrating with Susie, and the joyous gorging myself on her cheesecake, I always feel deeply introspective, dive real deep, about my birthday.  I shouldn’t be here.  Saturday will be exactly seven years, one month, two weeks, six days that I’ve been living on the edge of life.  The early morning of that day, Friday, September 14, 2007, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, was for me not just the beginning of a new year, but the start of a new life.  That day was the day I should have died.  That day was the day I experienced an unexpected massive cerebral hemorrhage from which 95% die or survive with serious mental and physical impairments.  And, here I am.  Alive.  Unscathed.  I vividly remember the neurosurgeon tearfully telling me six weeks after my head exploded, on the afternoon of November, 1, 2007, the very day of my 67th birthday, that he’s never seen a “walking 5% miracle.”   His clean bill of health and promise that I was not a ticking time bomb were not too bad birthday gifts!

A “walking 5% percent miracle.”  That number changes you.  At least, it did me.  A day hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t asked the unanswerable question, “Why?”  Why did it happen without warning.  Why wasn’t I among the other 95%.  When I was told that possibly the hemorrhage was the result of a cracked skull I had suffered in a collegiate soccer game almost exactly 48 years earlier, I realized how tightly my present life is tied to its past; that life is not a bunch of separated and isolated way stations; that it’s really a process that is at times obvious and not so obvious.  Events of days gone by are intimately connected with events of today and with those which will be bye and bye.

I also came to realize that merely asking questions has a motivating, generating, maybe even inspirational, power.  You see, I don’t stop thinking, don’t stop wondering, don’t stop being grateful, don’t stop going deeper inside, don’t stop seeing keener outside, don’t take anything for granted, don’t stop living.  I don’t stop realizing that the view from that edge is so much clearer than the view that most of us have.  It creates new realities.  It puts so much in better perspective.  It sharpens what seems so indistinct; it brings up close what seems to be so afar; it makes reachable what seems to be so inaccessible; it makes simple what seems so complicated; it makes extraordinary what seems so ordinary; it makes beautiful what seems so otherwise.   It brings into focus what is really important.

What was G.E.’s slogan? “Better living through science?”   Sure, it was a week of science in neuro-icu at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital that kept me here, and the months of science at home to avoid brain seizures, to deal with recurring headaches, and to endure chemical spinal meningitis as I healed also kept me here.   But, to live well, not just to live better, much less just to live, takes more than that; it needs more than just being here.  It’s the intense questions beyond information and skill:  ”Now what?”  ”What are you going to do with your ‘here’ and ‘now?’”  ”How do I celebrate living and not just having survived?”  ”How do I make sure I won’t die before I die?”

Like a Roc, out from the ashes of catastrophe arose a significant mobilizing and strengthening of my already strong value system with which to live a good life. The cerebral hemorrhage has caused me to see more intensely.  It has more keenly sharpened my eye for Robert Frost’s road less traveled.  It has made me more aware of Linda Ellis’ dash.  It has made me more mindful of meaning and purpose, especially in those classrooms.
By all this, I mean what I am leaving behind in the hearts and minds of other people such as Sam and those two students I met Monday at the Student Union is far more important than whatever title, position, authority, renown, and stuff I may have accumulated.  On a personal level, so many of have been told that when you get that salary increase or get that promotion or secure that tenure, or present that conference paper or receive that grant or publish that research, you will be fulfilled, satisfied, and especially happy.  So many know, but won’t admit, that it is not true.
Let me tell you something about the soul of education.  It is the sense of meaning, purpose, and service through human relationships.  The validation of the human agenda in education has the power to make a difference.  It’s the power of presence, of human relationship and connection, of simply being there, of listening and seeing, of hospitably welcoming, of totally embracing, of sincerely caring, of being in the service of another person.
A teacher is one of those serving people who realizes that everyone is a vital thread in the fabric of the future; everyone has a unique potential; everyone has dreams; everyone hopes; everyone has grace; everyone has a too often a hidden, ignored, and forgotten sacredness and nobility; everyone is beloved.  A teacher is an unconditional believer, a befriender, a listener, a healer, an accompaniment, a companion, a seeker, an uncoverer, a gift giver, a retriever, a helper, a transformer, a supporter, an encourager, an empathic, a nurturer, a recoverer, a reminder, and a lover. And, letting that matter above all else both to you and each of them.  I’ll repeat that:  and, letting that matter above all else both to you and each of them.
I’ll repeat something I just said in the previous Random Thought:   my TEACHER’S OATH, whose emergence is directly connected to my survival, is about remembering, bringing out of hiding, recapturing, and restoring the soul of education.  You’ll find it’s not about pedagogical qualities or technological qualities.  It’s about qualities of human relationship.  Your unconditional belief in, hope for, faith in, and love of each student is important to each student, but most professors don’t know or want to know that; that unconditional belief in, hope for, faith in, and  love of each student is important to each professor, but most professors don’t know or want to know that.
Education is one of those endeavors that is as close to love as you can get.   To build a trained, caring, spiritual, serving educational system that is worthy of students and us all, that’s my integrity; it’s my truth; it’s the place in me from whence comes my greatest truth.  And, my cerebral hemorrhage placed me more entrenched in that place.

Louis

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BELIEVING IS SEEING, III

How does that saying go?  In the strangest places at the strangest times in the strangest manner.  Yesterday I had a luncheon coffee clutch with my friend James Martinez from the College of Education.  It was the first time in over a year that I stepped on campus other than going to a gallery opening, concert, or play.  And, as luck would have it, I met the new Provost and invited him to join us. While we were talking, a student came up to me who had been in first year class that last semester before I reluctantly retired.  Fall, 2012.  She was one of those people who wasn’t inclined to take risks, who claimed she wasn’t creative.  Now, she a junior ed major who wants to help others “like you did for me.”  I gave her my website to read my RTs.  I hope she does as she said she would.  And, as we were leaving, another student, who had been sitting at the table behind us, saw me, jumped up, and yelled, “Dr. Schmier,” and rushed over.  After she came over and introduced herself, I remembered her unhappiness.  She, too, was now a junior who had been in one of those last semester classes with me.  As I recollect, vaguely to be sure, she and her parents were a bit at odds.  They wanted her to major in something she “could use.”  She wanted to be an art major.
“What are you doing now?” I asked, expecting her to tell me she was majoring in something like accounting.
“I’m an art major!” she told me with a beaming smile.
“What’s your medium?” I asked.
“Metal work,” she replied as she proudly stuck out her hand to show me the ring she had made.  ”The sculpture project we did in class did it for me and gave me the courage to get my parents to come around.  I’m so happy and excited now.  Thanks for helping me believe in myself.”
“You know my email address.,” I said quietly.  ”Email me.  I want to see your work.  That’s not just a courtesy ‘ya’ll come see us, ya hear.’  I mean it.”  I hope she does.

Damn, I miss that.  Anyway, I have a question.  Why is it that so many of us forget that every master was once a novice, that every professional was once an amateur, that every professor was once a student, that every one of us–every one of us–needed and had someone believing in us, seeing us, and helping us get where we are and who we presently are?   My helping hand was Birdsal Viault.  Who was yours?

One of my way-out-on-a-limb answer to that question is that virtually all of the classroom bemoaning, pity-party, “ah me” with having in class “don’t belong” students, “they won’t” students, “in my day” students, “they’re letting anybody in” students, “need to be weeded out” students, “don’t have time for” students are a result of blinded and deafened–and unkind–mindlessness.  Even blanket, GPA induced, adoration of “good” and “honors” students is the consequence of mindlessness.  Mindless presumption.  Mindless perception.  Mindless assumption.  Mindless manipulation.  Mindless expectation.  Supericial.  Shallow. Manipulated.  Self-serving. One way or another. Directly or indirectly.  Consciously or subconsciously.   Obviously or implicitly.  And, you won’t give it your soul; you won’t give all you’ve got.  No reason to do so.  Student and professor.
We really don’t know who is the person, the human being, in that class with us beyond maybe a name.  We don’t now each student’s story, a story which, as Rachel Naomi Reman would say, tell us about each of them, that helps us make sense of them.  We haven’t read it.  We don’t walk in their shoes.  We don’t understand the resignations, frustrations, angers, even apathies in this context.  It’s their stories that tell what each student is made of, not the transcript or SAT score.  To get a peek at the meanings hidden in each chapter of those stories, is why I had students journal me confidentially each day.
Most of us, however, don’t approach the unkind feelings in that way. Instead, we conger flattened images of them.  We let the real person fall by the wayside.  We draw up all sorts of attributions about them, and usually fall into the abyss of what the psychologist call “attritubiton error” that causes us to lose sight of the student’s humanity.  Nevertheless, supposing they’re this or that kind of person, we sew a label on them.  We look at them and hear them and respond to them according to the label.  They read that label, accept it, act it out, and live up to it.  It’s almost impossible for anyone to tear off the label.
You know, if you go back and read my TEACHER’S OATH, it’s about recapturing the soul of education.  You’ll find it’s not about pedagogical qualities or technological qualities.  It’s about qualities of human relationship–and profound spiritual qualities.  When we currently educate, we only educate a very small fraction of the whole person.  We practice segregated education, not integrative education as we should.  When we recognize that and treat everyone as a sacred, noble, and unique individual each is, when we feel sacred, noble, and unique, we feel a deep happiness.  When you have people going to class with this real feeling that goes beneath the skin and transcript, when they really feel good about themselves, the work becomes exciting, fun, meaningful, and nurturing for them.  And, you have a better chance that they’re going to do more work, accomplish more, and learn more.  That is true for students; it’s true for faculty; it’s true for anyone.
Yeah, I know what some of you are going cynically and defensively think and say: “new agey,” “flighty,” “touchy-feely,” “soft,” “fluffy,” “tosh,” “cheesy.”  But, when you don’t love, you don’t respect; when you don’t respect, you don’t love; when you don’t love and respect, you don’t see and listen to; and when you don’t see and listen to, as Ellen Langer would say, you’re mindless–blind and deaf–of what is going on around you–and inside you; and, consequently you don’t respond in a meaningful way to what is truly going on, only to a distorting label.  Love, respect, see, listen:  conjoined quadruplets.
This  has gotten me to think about a theme for a series of linked conference presentation I always wanted to give, but never did.  It would have consisted of three integrated sessions.  But, that’s the rest of the story.  Later.

Louis

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BELIEVING IS SEEING, II

We aren’t really the very rational, objective creatures so many of us academics profess to be.  You think only subjective emotions lead us astray?  You think we don’t have what I’ll call “cognitive biases?”  Think again.  Those biases are called “labels,” “stereotypes,” “generalizations,” “perceptions,” “presumptions,” “expectations.”  And, those cognitive biases routinely impose barriers and imprison.  Those cognitive biases continually steer us wrong.  Don’t believe me?  Read some of the stuff by Harvard’s Ellen Langer.  In a recent NY Times article, as well as in many of her other publication, this preeminent psychologist argued that people are trained not to think and are thus extremely vulnerable to right-sounding, emotionally satisfying, but actually wrong notions.  “They’re just not there,” as she puts it.  The bottom line is that when you’re not there, Langer reasoned, you’re very likely to end up wherever you’re “mindlessly led by the label.”   And so, she went on to say, people, academics included, are also spectacularly inattentive to what’s going on around them.  It’s an inattentiveness that makes them mindless; and that mindlessness, in turn, makes us indifferent.  And, that indifference doesn’t allow us to see much, listen much, reach out much, touch much, much less welcome and embrace.  We’re indifferent to those in whom we don’t believe can make a positive difference, and blame them for our ineffectiveness.  They’re those “don’t belongs,” those “they’re letting anyone in.”

But, that probably scares a lot of us academics who put themselves above the sordid fray of the “real world.”  We don’t like being called “biased.”  We don’t like being placed among the “mindless.”  After all, we’re intellectuals; we tout ourselves as objective, apart from the brutishness outside the Ivory Tower .  But, we’re not as clear sighted and sure sighted as we make ourselves out to be.  Those sorting out labels give us a predisposition of believing who are the academic brahmins we see, who is worthy of  our efforts, for whom we have the time, who we want in our classes, and on whom we lay doting wreaths of praise.  Those caste-creating categories make us susceptible to the beliefs of who is an untouchable “waste of our valuable time,” who should go unseen, whom we should ignore, to whom we should be indifferent, and whom we should weed out.  But, as Ellen Langer said, “the observer affects the observed.”  Let me put it this way, what you believe about yourself and others you will see; what you believe and see, you will feel; and what you feel, you will live; and what you live, you will do.  Think about how we have an easy time of carving our assumptions about students and ourselves into stone.  Think about the fact that you can only ignore someone you don’t believe is worthy, valuable, sacred, and noble; but, you can’t ever take your mind and heart off, even for a second, those of whom you’re mindful, from the ones you see, from the ones you value and deem worthy of your time and effort.  

I know personally what Maya Angelou meant when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  I was once among Adelphi College’s academic untouchables until Dr. Birdsal Viault took me under his wing and treated me feel like an academic brahmin.  As he did, it scared me.  I initially recoiled.  The shadows were far more friendly where no one would see my weakened self-confidence and low self-esteem.  I saw no reason why he believed in me.  Certainly, not from my dismal GPA by which all others professors judged me.  There were times he got disappointed, frustrated, even angry, but in spite of my resistance and reluctance, he wouldn’t throw up his hands and let go.  To this day, I remember a gnawing with in me, of being forced to ask myself fearfully over and over and over again, almost every day, “Why does he believe in me?  I don’t?  What does he see in me that I don’t?”  And, as he and I discussed answers to those questions almost every day in his office, I slowly began to move from disbelieve to belief, and then I began to see.  From academic untouchable to academic brahmin: “The observer affects the observed.”    Ultimately, I would say each day I walked into class, “If me, why not others.”  I repeat:  what you believe about yourself and others, you will see; what you believe and see, you will feel; and what you feel, you will live; and what you live, you will do.
The real challenge is opening our eyes to the good news:  ”Thar’s gold in them that hills,” and seeing the possibilities within us and others.  So, let me pose a question or two or three.  If the science has proven changes in the ways which we view ourselves and the world around us–what we believe and therefore see, feel, live, and do–in fact, alters our lives and our experiences dramatically, what would happen if we have the courage and strength to change our beliefs and see differently?  What would happen if we supported and encouraged, instead of fearing and castigating, those who are struggling to make those changes?  What would happen if we discarded these biases of limiting, demeaning, belittling, caste-creating labels and presumptions?  What would happen if we changed our language?  What would happen if the most important words in our new vocabulary were “sacred,” “noble,” “unique,” “respect,” “invaluable,” “faith,” “hope,” “human being,” and, above all, “love?”
Louis

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THE REAL MOTHER LODE OF TEACHING

Still thinking of Sam, the “Reverend Sam.”  In the course of our conversation, he said something like, “you saw us beyond the label ‘student’ as individual human beings”  This has gotten me thinking over the last few days.  We let so many labels reduce or even block human contact:  average, mediocre, poor.  When we do that, we strip away someone’s humanity; and, when we strip away humanity, there is a tendency to stop thinking about a student  as a person with a life and feelings.

You want to assess?  Fine.  The truest assessment of a teacher is how she or he cares about the fate of the “average,” “mediocre,” and “poor” student, feels the duty to act on their behalf, and sees an obligation to help them help themselves become the persons they are capable of becoming.  It is easy to admire the “good” student and scoff at the “poor” student.  It is easy to parade out the “honor” student and bemoan the “mediocre” student.  But, you know, we haven’t done a thing when students come into our classes already as “good” and “honors.”  But, those others?  Those “average,” “mediocre,” and “poor” such as Sam was?  That’s another story. Abe Lincoln would have said, “god must have loved the average student.  He made so many of them.”  Do you love them?
From my experience, “thar’s gold in them thar hills.”  They’re hard to teach only because you don’t know each of them and understand each of them   But, take the time, make the effort to find ways to connect, to overcome loneliness, aloneness, and distrust.  Work tirelessly to get them to believe as you believe, to see as you see.  Trust me, as you do, you’ll realize they each have so much potential, more often than not than they themselves dare realize. Compassion will replace resignation and anger, your heart will open up, your arms will extend, you’ll embrace, and you’ll role up your sleeves.   As you do, you will offer them a shot at achieving because they have a caring teacher supporting and encouraging them through their daily struggles.
Prospect for those deep, rich, veins lying untouched beneath those unappealing, supposedly barren lands!  Mine them!  The caring for, the nurturing of, the passionate compassion for, and the affection for the students who need help the most–in no uncertain terms, with nothing left out, with no caveats or reservations, with no hesitations, with no equivocations–those are the true barometers of a teacher.  And, from my experience, let me tell you a secret; like the Reverend Sams of this world, they are the mother lodes of a teacher.
Louis

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