4:10 a.m. Can’t sleep. Too churned up. Got the go-ahead yesterday from the doctor to at least fast walk as far as I wish. I’ve already done a fast, but not to fast, walk. Susan and I am getting ready, antsy is a better word, to hop a plane for San Francisco where we’ll spend the next two weeks engaged in cheerful holiday grand-kid spoiling. My fingers are numb from wrapping eight days worth of Chanukah presents for each of the girls. So, it may seem a little weird at this time of joyous celebration and holiday cheer to talk of heresy. But, it’s heresy that’s on my mind. No, I’m not going to advocate teaching intelligent design in biology classes, although I think we need some intelligent design for the configuration of our academic classrooms. This is why.
I went to a friend’s house under construction a couple of days ago. There I bumped into a student from last year, working with his brother, installing high-end cabinets designed and fashioned at his brother’s cabinet shop. I watched him. He was skilled. He was intense. He was precise. He was engaged. He was enjoying what he was doing. He had avidly learned his crafts. I know personally. He and his brother had built the oak island in my kitchen. He triggered thoughts of another student whom I’ll call Joe. Joe didn’t like 8 am classes. He was always sleepy from nights with little sleep. Why didn’t he sleep? Studying? Writing research papers? Working on class projects? No. He was up all hours of the night with his guitar practicing with the other member of his combo for gigs they had around the local waterholes. I thought of another student, Bill, who always complained about how tough it was to get up to make his morning classes. But, during my walks I would catch him out there in the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning hupping 1-2-3 with his ROTC unit. I thought of still another student whom I’ll call Sara, who was more involved in her cheerleading than she was in her classes. She got “sick.” She never let it stop her from practicing. She can’t say that about attending her classes. There was June who would forego classes when they conflicted with theater rehearsals, but never the reverse. There was Harry who couldn’t understand why it was acceptable to skip a class or two to attend an organizational convention. There was John for whom the pressures of rushing his fraternity took precedent over the demands of classes. There Samantha who seldom arrived to class on time, but was punctually when it came to her job. And, there was Bob, a football player, whose dedication and work ethic on the field wasn’t brought into the classroom. I can’t tell you the number of times I talked with them and others like them, called them from class on cell phones when they didn’t appear to work on or present a project, conspired with their coaches and directors and commanders. Teresa explained it all when she said she “had” to work on a sorority parade float rather than on a school assignment because “I can’t let my sisters down.” Need I say more? Once again, I thought about why didn’t those skills and capabilities and that enthusiasm and reliability and responsibility show up more often in the classroom? It’s not a new thought, but after watching and talking with my cabinet-maker student, I began to think thoughts of heresy.
Colleges and universities are supposed to be places of higher learning. But, where does memorable and deep learning really take place. We academics assume and proclaim it should be in the classroom. But, is it? Well, a weak maybe at the graduate level, but I’m not all that sure it occurs at the first year level or as much at the upper classman level as so many suppose. I know that when I reminisce about my high school days Southside, my college days at Adelphi, and my graduate days at St. John’s University, and The Hill, when I start telling the stories, when I recall the memorable events that are today as vivid as when they occurred 38 to 51 years ago, when I think of the life shaping experiences, not one–I repeat, not one–is about academics.
What do I mean? Ever walk down the halls and peer into classrooms? What do you see? Really see, not what do you want to see? You don’t see many “turned-on” classes. What you see is mostly boredom, not learning. I see an overwhelming majority of students day dreaming, looking at their watches as they feel the minutes are turning into hours, peering out the windows, doodling, slouching, whispering to see other, reading assignments or looking over notes for other classes, tuning out, staring, apathetic, disinterested, disengaged, mechanically taking mindless notes. We all know students will find every excuse and reason and rationale not to attend class: a lack of parking, traffic, a late campus bus, a sister performing in a play, a doctor’s appointment, a family illness, a flat tire, a lame alarm clock, a family affair, a sniffle, a rehearsal, a game, a convention, most anything. I see teachers orating. Well, to be honest , most of us aren’t paragons of Demosthenes. We more often than not drone in monotones or read from books, looking over students or into books, indifferent to the glazed stares and blank gazes of the students as if filled or empty seats made no difference. I see teachers, backs to the students, talking to the blackboard or heads turned down while scribbling on overheads or punching computer keys or faces turned away reciting some droll powerpoint presentation.
So what do we do professors do. We defend ourselves. We attack, lash out, blame. We immediately label the students lazy, unworthy, unprepared, lame, air-headed, undisciplined, irresponsible, slack, immature, uninterested. To cure these debilitating diseases, we chastise them more, blame them more, control them more, penalize them more, and coerce them more. That is, we make the classroom less appealing and more-prison like. Doesn’t work, does it. It’s little wonder that we then get resigned, annoyed, frustrated, angry, and burnt out.
But, if you hang around these same students outside of class, if you’re a fly on the wall in their residences, if you just watch them around campus and off-campus, if you read their journals, guess what you’ll find. These lifeless classroom zombies come alive. Their trods transform into dance steps, their slow pace quickens, their juices get going, their blood flows, their blank eyes twinkle, their sullen faces smile, their mournful sighs turn into rowdy laughs. Students who are emotionally absent in the classroom exude emotions outside the classroom. The ugly worm of their apathy metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly of excitement and interest. They’ll eagerly go to their jobs; they’ll concentrate as they play computer games. The closed, shy ones open their hearts to others. These classroom slackers have a lot of outside interests that excite them. They’re doing things they loved to do. They’re putting themselves wholeheartedly into their jobs, teams, clubs, fraternities, sororities, troupes, units, friends, lovers, and ensembles. They are doggone good at these things; they’re a bunch of skilled people; they’re a bunch of neat people.
Again, I’ll ask that question. Why don’t those skills and capabilities and enthusiasms and commitments show up more often in what we academics proclaimed is the more important classroom? Well, acting the heretic, what would happen if I turn that question up on its end and ask three questions? First, what if I ask what is it about woodworking, cheerleading, playing in a combo, playing on a team, acting in a troupe, throwing a pot, which they obviously love, that is worthy of their best effort. Second, what if I ask what it is about classes that tend to make them unworthy, or less worthy and important, of that kind of engagement. And finally, what if I asked are we really interested in the answers, of looking at places of joy, places where students lose track of how hard they’re working because they’re so involved in what they’re doing, places where students lose track of time, places where they stop counting minutes, places where hours are turned into minutes, places where students voluntarily learn a difficult skill, where they work and work and work over and over and over again at a thing until they know how to do it, places that might hold some important lessons for us and demand that we change the configuration of our classes.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I haven’t done any formal study, just intensely observed and noted for nearly forty years as a professor and teacher. I’ve been reading an average of 160 student journal entries each day of a term for something like ten years. Let me give you my baker’s dozen of answers why students are tuned into teams, troupes, units, fraternities, sororities, clubs, ensembles, combos; why these are a turn-on for students while they’re generally turned off and tuned-out in the classroom; why the outside activities are indelibly tattooed onto their souls while the inside the classroom activities are seldom more than temporary ink:
First, in these activities they’re active participants and contributors rather than passive recipients. They feel useful. They feel needed. They’re using their imaginative and creative powers. They’re focusing on the strengths of an empowering “this is what I can do” rather than on a weakening, submissive, fearful “what do you want.” They’re not empty heads to be filled in a time, manner, and method determined by others.
Second, they’re believed in. Someone has faith in them. They’re actively encouraged, supported, and prodded to go beyond their best. There’s no such thing as “good enough.” They’re pushed and pushed and pushed. They’re congratulated and then are asked to do more and more and more, to stretch their limits, to expand their horizons. It isn’t an environment of distant lecture or controlled discussion, test, go on, and never to come back to that stuff again.
Third, they’re looked up to. They’re important. They’re noticed. They’re valued. They get extraordinary amount of applause, recognition, appreciation, approval from the institutions, audiences, and from peers. That doesn’t happen to members in a first year math class.
Fourth, in the band, ensemble, team, sorority, fraternity, squad, club, etc they’re acknowledged and treated as unique individuals with the ability to make contributions to the whole. They’re not as just another unnoticed, faceless, shadowy number sitting anonymously in a crowd or herd of classroom seats. They’re a community of mutually supporting, trusting, and respecting friends and family; there’s always an understanding shoulder and a listening ear; they learn that alone each is weaker, by far, than if all are together, that shared confidence is stronger than individual confidence,
Fifth, they can’t let others down. They don’t want to let others down. They’re intertwined with each other. There are webs of mutually reliant connections. There’s mutual commitment. There’s something larger than them at stake. They’re team mates, sisters, brothers, buddies, comrades, partners, members, fellow thises or thats. No isolation here. No stranger here. No aloneness here. No separateness here. Personal achievement is linked directly with responsibility of the achievement of others, as well as the improvement of others. Mutual commitment, support, and encouragement help overcome fears of risk-taking and failure that curtail achievement. They’re “openers,” not “shut downers.”
Sixth, repetition is honorable and acceptable and understood–and meaningful. You go over and over and over the same stuff. You learn your lines; you learn the playbook; you learn the score; you learn the steps; you learn the maneuvers; you learn to work with others. It’s called drills and rehearsals and practice.
Seventh, they’re encouraged to take the initiative and act on their own. They’re always on their toes, always alert to the unexpected. No time to coast. The practice field is different from the “real thing” of the playing field. Rehearsing is different from the show going on. The audience is always different. The opponent won’t cooperate and do as it’s supposed to due during a competition Drop line, bust a play, miss a note, and you have to improvise. Little is erected that might limit potential, stifle creativity, shackle innovation, or prevent taking the initiative. It’s not an iron-clad class precisely scripted by the professor whose idea of a good class is when things go as he or she planned, when predictions come true, when the expected and prepared for occur, and when there is little or no interruption or disruption or diversion or distraction–or regrettably questions.
Eighth, spirit, heart, emotion, adrenalin are all part of the mix. A musician has to play with heart; a player has to have his or her heart into it; an actor has to be emotionally involved with his or her part. When a musician does well, he’s on a high and ready to go at it again. When a football player misses a tackle, he’s angry and ready to go at it again. When an actor misses a cue, he or she curses him/herself and goes at it again. High or low, members of the theater troupe, band, squad, team talk with each other, support each other, encourage each other, and assist each other. But in the classroom we dismiss or disallow or ignore emotion. We don’t care about flowing juices. We worship the cold, disconnecting god of objectivity. We generally prohibit communication except for the most restricted exchanges. When we bring 30 to 1000 students together and ask them not to communicate, eyes front, not to cooperate, not to use one another as resources or exhort one another to go further, then we make it clear to them that their being together is simply a matter of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Ninth, students follow their hearts, pick their position, choose their roles, and select their instruments. But, with academics, students are seldom empowered. We give them a list of specific classes they have to take–some euphemistically called “guided electives,” we enter the classroom as talking heads, we decide the discussion-of-the-day and control it, we give them assignments within those classes that they have to do, we tell them they have to do things our way, we test them, we grade, and we don’t offer many class alternatives that are exciting to them or class activities that are interesting to them.
Tenth, students help each other. That is, the more skilled assist the less skilled because the entire troupe, combo, squad, team, fraternity, sorority is dependent upon each and every member. They inspire each other, model for each other, set examples for others. In the class room, sadly more often than not, the “better” students aren’t allowed to stand out per se during the class except to be used as a put down of others.
Eleventh, there’s a lot of personal contact, a lot of one-on-one instruction and conscious encouraging “good job” from authority figures. The director, coach, leader, commander gives time for relationships to form, gets a good sense of who each student is, finds out what drives each of them, gauges their feelings, finds their confidence levels, understands what each of them can do or not do. The players, actors, whomever will see the coach, director, whomever in a more human and less formal frame, although no less authoritative. There are no more important words than honesty, trust, and respect. Students can ask questions without being put down or without feeling weird.
Twelfth, the coaches and directors and commanders and whomever are genuinely interested. They love what they do; they want to be where they are; they want to be there on the field, in the theater, on the court, on the stage. More importantly, they love each student. They say it in words; they say it in body language; they say it in action. How many of us academics can honestly say all that? How many professors will say they love to be in the classroom most of all, they love teaching, they’re more dedicated to each student than to the discipline, and they love each student? I wonder how many give the appearance of not caring so that they won’t be hurt when the students haven’t as yet learned to care and for fear of being chastised and branded as unprofessional or non-professional or touchy-feely? But it is only in those few classrooms where the teachers say, both in word and in action, that they absolutely loved what they were doing and love each student that the students were engaged. We academics forget that we didn’t come out of the womb with a love for a discipline. I bet if we thought about it, we’d say someone got them interested, that they followed someone they respected into an activity that that person loved, and they discovered it from there.
Thirteenth and last, they emphasize character values: “give it your all, accept nothing less,” “do whatever it takes,” “get your ass in gear,” “no ‘pain’ no gain,” “get your heart into it,” “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” “be mentally tough,” “put your heart into it,” “don’t be selfish,” “success is spelled t-e-a-m,” “it is hard,” “talk to each other, ” “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,'” “take pride in what you do,” “together you’re unbeatable,” “you can be the difference.” It’s a hand with five separate, but coordinating fingers that can be clenched into an all-powerful fist: connection, trust, responsibility, caring, and respect. They learn that discipline is simply doing what you’re supposed to do as well as you can when you’re supposed to do it.
There’s a baker’s dozen for you. Is each of these taken separately a magic pill? No, of course not, not in themselves. But, look at the pattern. Look at the mutually supportive and encouraging and loving and dedicated and committed social or community model as a vehicle for motivation, inspiration, and learning that is more often than not better than the classroom. Like it or not, it’s a model for learning that appears on the field and courts and stage, in clubs, fraternal organizations, and jobs. They’re a model for the infectious classroom that transmits the joy of learning from a professor to a student and from student to student.
Maybe we academics can learn a lot from them. They’re not an escape from the real world as they often are described. They are closer to that real world than is the academic world of the classroom. Students don’t want to be isolated; they don’t want to be strangers; they want to be on a team, in a troupe, part of a combo, etc. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be in a situation where they feel that they are doing something for the greater good, even if they don’t consciously realize it and have been trained to think otherwise. Maybe we academics and our classroom configuration are the escape from the real world and are not the preparations for entry into that real world that we think we are. Enough heresy.
Once again, Susan and I wish each and everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwansaa, and best for the coming new year.
Make it a good day.