Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 7/25/2005 5:52 AM
Random Thought: Unreasonable: A Word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching

This is the end of the story. So, this professor accused me of being so "foolish and unreasonable" for because of my emphasis to put teaching on a true equal footing with research and publication, and because of my emphasis on teaching in a manner other than traditional lecturing, testing, and grading.

After I had read this professor's accusation of being "foolish and unreasonable," I thought of an interview given by Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, I had heard a few month ago. You've got to admit that Home Depot, like Walmart, is one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes of the last twenty or so years. Bernie Marcus, however, admitted that if he had listened to those who had said his idea was unreasonable, if he had been deterred by those who branded his venture as foolish, if he had seen only what others thought possible, he wouldn't have seen other possibilities, would not have taken the risk, and would not have co-founded Home Depot. People call you "unreasonable," he said, because they take very personally someone talking about doing something different from what they're doing. They see it as deliberate personal criticism of their own way of looking at and doing things. They feel you're directly questioning their values or forcing them to look at things in a new way. These people, he continued, feel embattled and are almost spoiling for a fight as if they are defenders of the Holy Grail. These people think that what they call being reasonable is a guarantee for "knowing better" or "being right," and that being unreasonable means you haven't thought things through. So, they'll write you and what you're doing off in militant fashion as irresponsible by calling you "unresasonable" while pronouncing themselves "reasonable."

"Many talented people throw up their hands in surrender and miss a lot of opportunities because they're reasonable, that is, they listen to others who think they have a monopoly on all the answers," he observed. "when, in fact, they don't even have the questions. They're afraid of making a mistake or being disappointed, and don't go off to follow their dreams..." You can't be bold going with the flow, he concluded his interview. "Being reasonable so often means only that you're letting others set your limits and create your future with their limited vision."

After hearing Bernie Marcus, I want to boycott reasonableness. I am a cancer survivor. I wouldn't and won't let the cancer control me. Why should I then let someone else control me? I want to stay hungry and be foolish. I want to dream; I want to follow my dreams; I want to have a vision; and, I want to pursue my vision. I want what I do to have such a purpose that it will last long after I'm gone. I don't want to be bound by limits, mine or anyone else's, on what I can do and on whom I find worthy of my time and efforts. I want that buzz of feeling engaged and optimistic, of keeping that edge honed, of listening and seeing and learning and growing. I don't' want what I do to be routine and ordinary. I don't want to be reined in by acceptance. The secret, at least the secret I've discovered, of being adventurous and staving off boredom, of fueling my fire and avoiding burnout, of celebrating the question instead of accepting the accepted answer, of staying intrigued and instead of becoming disinterested, of welcoming serendipity and side-stepping predictability, of embracing any possibility that comes my way and shunning control, of humming with an openness rather than sighing with a preconception, of daring to experience the open seas instead of staying safely anchored in a sheltered cove is "unreasonableness." For me, being a cancer survivor, the quality, vitality, and meaning of my life in academia is far more important than playing the game and merely surviving. I live by the words imprinted in the yellow band on my wrist: "Live strong." Living life: that's what academic life should be all about; it's certainly what having cancer is all about.

"Unreasonable." It's a word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching. I'm going to send it to Kenny. You know, "reasonable" in the context used by this professor in our extended exchanges, so often carries with it a demand for "agree with me" uniformity, "run with the herd" conformity. It's painted with a cowering and resigned "playing it safe" and "settling for" drab. It resounds with an outside noisiness that drowns out your inside self. It doesn't glow with satisfaction. It is so often used to impose a tunnel vision. It so often is a sedating accepting "settling for" and "settling in" word. It's so often a putting off "I would love to, but...." It's so often an unexploring auto pilot and at anchor don't question word. It's a word that flows downstream with the current that doesn't run into a lake of fulfillment. It's a restricting word that severely narrows your options. It so often rings with a prohibiting "you can't do that" tone. It's so often a boring "take the wind out of your sails" word. It so often thuds with a static "it's always been done this way." It so often means accepting being spun and spun around by others. It allows so many of us to talk of freedom and individuality while we submit to and are stupefied by the tyranny of an academic culture imposed by others. It's so often like what the Buddhists call living inside an eggshell. It's so often a sorrowful word that mourns the perceived purity and sanctity of yesteryear's exclusive scholarly Ivory Tower and the perceived current pollution by today's dynamic openness and inclusiveness, or, as this professor put it, of "letting everybody and anybody in."

So why is emphasizing the acceptance of teaching on an equal footing with research and publication branded as "unreasonable?" Why is advocating serious consideration of teaching methods other than lecture and controlled discussion, testing and grading that are based on the recent research about learning so "unreasonable?" Well, for one thing, as Bernie Marcus indicated, "reasonable" often means being set in your ways. That is, he observed, most of us don't do well listening to anything new and strange. It comes across as uncomfortable and even painful dissonance. Too many of us don't want to be reminded that we aren't complete and have so much more to learn. Too many of us don't mute our compulsion to judge defensively in our favor what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, professional and non-professional. For a lot of reasons, many of us don't have the tolerance, respect, and patience to try to see and listen to divergent and novel ways. Instead we tend to cling to our preconceptions, and disallow the co-existing presence of those "unprofessional" divergent and novel ways. Another reason is the view of time that has been imposed on us and so many of us have accepted, however often begrudgingly. It's summed up in this professor's proclamation, "I just don't have the time!" So many of us academics are, as I once was, the offspring of a shotgun wedding between time and scholarship. We had to go through school in such and such a time; we have to secure tenure in such and such a time; we have to get a promotion in such and such a time; we have to be peer reviewed in such and such a time; we have to publish such and such an amount in such and such a time; we have to secure an income generating grant in such and such a time. Sometimes I think the more we're in a hurry to do something, the less we really care about doing it and the more the moment at hand loses its uniqueness. Is it little wonder that so many who are consumed with being reasonable consume themselves and burn out.

The more we associate only our scholarly resume with value, the more we think we need only research and publication to survive academically, the less we feel teaching is acknowledged, appreciated, encouraged, and rewarded. The more we associate only research and publication with academic life, the more we yearn for the archive or laboratory. The more we tend to our research and publication, the more we gravitate to the "time honored" ways. We create our own time-impovishment by convincing ourselves and pronouncing to others that it's "unreasonable" to think we have the time to truly tend to and experience the wonder of the people in the classroom and the less time we devote to these people and finding ways to devote our time to them.

Bernie Marcus is right. The world of business is in many ways not much different from Ivory Tower. People are people no matter where they are and what they do. I know a lot of academics, like this professor, talented people, caring people, loving people, people-oriented, student-centered people, who have a forlorn, unfulfilled desire to devote of all their time and energies to teaching. But, with the rarest of exceptions, they live in fear of sounding and acting like anything less than 24/7 publishing scholars and being dismissed accusingly as "foolish and unreasonable." I know a lot of academics who are reasonable, who, having "settled for" and "settled in" to the routine of academic acceptance, who are haunted by their unrealized dream, who have a sense that they've sinned against themselves and the students. They know that to devote the same kind of time and to display the same kind of devotion to focusing on teaching as others demand be spent for research and publication is not a survival technique in academia. They know, as it stands now, lip-service not withstanding, that if anyone at the collegiate level should want to be a non-publishing 24/7 teacher, they find themselves in the cross-hairs. Should they say they want to devote all their time to teaching rather than research and publication, instead of being respected, instead of being permitted to co-exist, they're drummed out of the corps with accusations of being "unprofessional" or "non-professional" or "not dedicated to your discipline." Should they say that teaching is as academically and educationally professional as research and publication, should they serve students more than or instead of editors and grantors, they're fair game for an academic safari. Sadly, if you want to find those "unreasonable" 24/7 teachers in higher education, look on the endangered specie list.

Being "foolish and unreasonable" may not be a way, as this professor asserted, to get into the game and survive in academia, but, it is a way to truly live life. Life is an adventure, and adventure means stretching your boundaries, and stretching your boundaries is about exploring the potential within yourself; and exploring the potential within yourself is about steering clear of guarantee or predictability, and steering clear of guarantees and predictability is about trusting chance, and trusting chance is about daring yourself to do something you or others wouldn't normally do, and daring yourself to do something you or others wouldn't normally do is about doing something small and humble that is for you as bold as climbing a mountain or going bungee jumping, and being as bold as climbing a mountain or going bungee jumping is about opening your mind and spirit, and opening your mind and spirit is about being continually interested in everything, and being continually interested in everything is about making new discoveries, and making new discoveries is about feeding creatively on your imagination and feeding creatively on your imagination is about getting that adrenaline rush of hard won joy or getting pleasure of finding that magical spot or having the satisfaction of making the difference that make all the effort worthwhile.

I know how daunting being "unreasonable" is, not just because of its impeding obstacles and dangers, but because of its complexities and because it opens you eyes. "Unreasonable" is not a sign directing you to take the easy road. But, being reasonable seldom truly speaks to us. In fact, being reasonable so often jades not just the teaching experience, but the scholarly experience as well. What charm is there in regimen? Being reasonable so often takes the spice out of life.

Blandness is not the way to be true to yourself. That's not the way to be a student of everyday life; it's not the way to find adventure in the classroom and a classroom filled with adventure; it's not the way to take the time and make the effort to take in the beauty that is in each person in the classroom. Want to know how unreasonable being reasonable can be? Well, think of this: it is the height of folly, as Martin Seligman asserts, to think that true contentment comes from holding onto the same goals and doing the same things that never made us happy in the first place. Burnout, a shutting off of the spigot, then, may come from the expectation that the academic riches of promotion, tenure, salary increase, research and publication, grant-getting, and professional renown will make us happy in the future when our current lives are rich with evidence that they don't.

We need unreasonable academic heroes who use the same sort of bold personal vision, dogged determination and ingenuity, and burning passion of the Sam Waltons or Bernie Marcuses of this world. Such heroes would be change agents who measure success in terms of student intellectual and emotional and social growth rather than by measuring the growing length professional resumes, doing what cynics tell them can't be done and naysayers say shouldn't be done. We need unreasonable heroes, people who muster unusual courage or nobility of purpose to do extraordinary things, who have the ability to translate their devotion into action, who have a durable impact on the "system" and the world by changing the way people think and act and helping each person help him- or herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming.

After all, the people who influence us the most are not those who buttonhole us with reasonableness. The people who influence us the most are those who unbutton us with unreasonableness. Keep in the front of your spirit the words of George Bernard Shaw. He wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Ain't that the truth!

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Be unreasonable. And, may you live all the days of your life and make a difference.

         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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