Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 11/25/2004 5:21 AM
Random Thought: Just Some Thankful Random Thoughts

I apologize for sending another Random Thought so close on the heels of the previous one. I scribbled this down last Sunday night and had forgotten it until I cleaned out the pockets of my pants last night. I hope you will bear with me:

Here I am, sitting on the floor at Gate 29, E Concourse, waiting in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. It's an especially reflective wait. I'm waiting for a flight home into the arms of my Susan; I'm waiting to take a biopsy on my prostate; I'm waiting for the coming Thanksgiving with family and dear friends--and some strangers.

I just spent what can only be called four glorious days at the Lilly conference on excellence in college teaching. It is tempting to think of the Lilly conference is just another professional conference. That isn't true. The conference, for me, was about more than sessions on pedagogy, technology, methodology, techniques, philosophy of teaching. On the surface, the Lilly conference is one of information, association, education, and affirmation. For me, as I told many first-time attending "newbies," as it is for others, Lilly is not just a professional conference. If anyone saw how many of us hug each at the conference's beginning and end, you'd know what I mean. It's like a Thanksgiving gathering. It's a feast; it's a retreat; it's an experience; it's a learning community; it's a family reunion at which we old timers strengthen friendships, make new ones, and exuberantly welcome others into the fold.

A lot of us who have attended the Lilly conference year after year after year talk about something we call the "Lilly spirit," something that transcends each of us, but few of us have really nailed it down. The fact that we feel and acknowledge the presence of such a transcendental feeling is evidence of its existence--whatever that it is--and separates Lilly off from most other professional conference.

Here and now, feeling that aura still enveloping me, I'd like to take a stab at it. Lilly is something that lures us. Lilly lets us see how very rich we who attend are. When anyone is experiencing the proverbial slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, others protectively hover around them in support and encouragement. I've seen that occur time after time after time. It happened to me. Whenever anyone one of us cannot attend they feel an emptiness and they are consciously missed. Whenever anyone of us dies, we feel a deep and sustaining loss and mourn together. I remember how we felt when we lost Beverly Firestone and Tony Grasha.

Lilly is a bonding of friends old and new; Lilly is a sense of belonging. Here you will not find the flaunting of resumes. Egos and reputations are set aside, for egos and reputation are incompatible with sharing and gratitude and humility. In all the years that I've attended Lilly, I've never heard one back-stabbing word, not one word! Never! Unlike most other professional conference, unlike the machination on many campuses, Lilly honors generosity, humility, encouragement, uniqueness, creativity, imagination, uniqueness, tolerance, respect, kindness, welcome, inclusion. At Lilly there is plenty for all and plenty for all to share.

Most of the "newbies" don't expect that; upon their arrival they don't understand that. But, at Lilly there is no cast system as the old timers consciously make efforts to take newbies under their wings; and most "newbies" quickly and unexpectedly embrace it and get wrapped up in it. Few, to their surprise, fight it. It is so easy for a "newbie" to be transformed into an "old-timer" at his or her first conference. It is magical; it is mysterious. Then, again, is not when you're in a gathering where everyone cares for and about each other.

We all find each other in a common effort than can only be described as courageous. Yes, courageous. Whether those who attend Lilly know it or not, they are courageous people. They have the courage to change. Most everyone is there to listen and to reflect far more than they are to talk. They are there to unlearn as they learn, to break old habits as they find new ones, to share themselves as others share with them. They was there because they have a sense of how complicated education really is; they came with the admission that they know what they've been doing hasn't been working properly; they come knowing they can do better; they come to find ways to improve and change; they graciously accept criticism that is always respectfully given; they come with to find things that make more sense.

So, while waiting in Atlanta as everyone who flies through Atlanta does, I thought I'd jot down just some, but by no means all, of what I've learned in formal sessions, at the dining tables, in the hallways, on the steps, and upon what I must reflect in the coming weeks and months. I offered a full day pre-conference workshop and a three hour conference session. Yet, I took so much away from so many people than I gave. On this Thanksgiving day I am so thankful:

I am thankful to Alex Fancy from Mount Allison, who reminded me, as he always does, that teachers who know how to give their all all the time are the ones who have the best chance of getting others to give it their all;

I am thankful to Linc Fisch who shared that the most effective teachers are not the ones with the longest resume or the greatest reputation. The most effective teachers' effectiveness is in their attitude and their ability to energize and encourage others with their optimism, enthusiasm, encouragement, support, faith, belief in them.

I am thankful to Craig Nelson who said teachers should be lousy poker players; they should never know when to fold.

I talked with Dee Fink from Oklahoma about things other than football. We agreed on the importance of purpose and meaning in what we do. Over coffee we talked about how academics can't be wrapped around their self-centered "I."

Jim Eison and I discuss that we will not get to the purpose and meaning driven "why" of all of our "hows" and "whats" as long as we ask self-centered questions dealing with "my" security, "my comfort," "my safety," "my ambitions," "my reputation," "my dreams." If you want find your "why," if want a purpose driven teaching, you have to have an "otherness," a focus on each student.

Doug Robertson reminded me of what I'll call "the power of new," how we should do new things and stretch at least a little bit each term. Radha Gracia showed me that, literally, in her two hour heat Yoga session as we stretched, twisted, bent, sweated, creaked, cracked, and groaned.

An education should be about respecting freedom. Ken Styer from Stark State University of Technology and Kathyrn Locke from Shawnee State University helped me see more clearly that a true education should be about helping students become thoughtful, about helping students develop the habit of teaching themselves to think in informed and flexible ways across a whole range of concerns in life beyond mere employment. Ken and Kathern came as newbies. They came to learn and I learned so much from them. We came as strangers to each other; we left as new-found friends.

Pablo Aquino offered me insight that teaching is not primarily a matter of authority or knowledge, but of the use of authority and knowledge to cause change. They not only could choose their values, attitudes and behavior, but they promote changes in their school environments through advocacy and action. Teachers who simply do that job so well change lives for the better.

I was told by a "newbie" in hotel management that the taste of a chicken is determined by what the chicken eats. It's no different than a student or each of us. So, I ponder the question of what it is we are feeding each student and ourselves.

There is my good and zany friend, Ron Berk, who unabashedly oozes the joyful child as we all should. He said in one of his rare sane moments, attitude is more important than information. And so, when we enter a classroom, we should think of the student first and the subject second. Ain't that the truth.

I remember talking with Todd Zacrajsek from Central Michigan about the need for academics to accept the hard truth that they are not immune to the affliction of learned fearfulness and helplessness that plagues so many students.

Teaching is a matter of setting examples, Ken Barton and I discussed, of modeling principles above convenience and safety and politics, of doing rather than merely mumbling or saying, of standing up rather than merely sitting around.

Milt Cox, mentioned in a passing conversation, that teachers, like anyone else, are going to have precisely what they think they're going to have. They are going to become precisely the persons they think they are going to become. So, we each should take heed in what we want and think.

Want to think of something scary? The number 3. My good friend, Luz Mangurian from Towson State, reminded me once again that a teacher has just the first three minutes--I repeat that, the first three minutes--of the first day of class to grab a student; otherwise the student is lost for the entire term. Want to think of something just as scary? 93% of what students hear is spoken with facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones. 93%!! And we academics so love to talk. Luz also reminded me, that students size us teachers as soon as they enter the classroom, that they are most interested in who we are than in what we know. It is the students, said Luz, who are the real experts in who cares about them. The students! Not us. But, who truly listens to the students. We should however uncomfortable or inconvenient their words may be.

In sessions after sessions, conversations after conversations, I was reminded how much in our humanity we faculty are like our students and how much we faculty ignore that simple but powerful tool of empathy.

Milt Cox, the founder and continuer of Lilly helped to create a paradox. I left physically energized and bone tired; my brain was bursting, going on and on and on like the pink bunny, and dead. I was filled and depleted. All at the same time. Neat trick.

At the end of the conference, we always ask of each of us give a hearty and deep sincere thanks. And, we do. Here, at Hartsfield-Jackson, for all of this and so much more, I am so thankful as Thanksgiving day approach to all of those--Melody, Melissa, Laura, Michele, Will, Gregg, Miami University student helpers, et al--who worked behind the scenes in preparation and worked equally hard during this conference. I know a lot of them. I am grateful to them. The magic of Lilly is that all those chores don't seem like chores to them or us. The "spirit of Lilly," to me is not conference we all do everything in our power to attend; it is the idea that we care about and tenderly nurse.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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