Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Fri, 27 Aug 1993
It was eerie out there on the streets this morning. It had just rained, and even at 5:00 a.m. the asphalt streets were still warm enough to cause wisps of steam to rise. There was a hypnotic, surrealistic beauty to it all. I felt as if I were walking from cloud to cloud. The street lights shimmered as if a faint St. Elmo's fire danced around them. As the storm cloud passed, the returning pre-dawn moonlight covered the grass, bushes and trees in glowing glossomer while draping spanish moss sparkled as it moved gently in the remaining breeze. I was sure Puck would jump out from behind a glistening bush and mischievously walk with me.
It was an intense scene that served to intensify my thoughts about the classes that had just concluded. I've been going over in my mind the student evaluations and events that had occurred in class, what I had learned in my classes about the students and about myself that I can apply in my upcoming classes.
As I reflected between my huffs and puffs, I saw that the students taught me a great deal this summer, maybe, in a way, more than I taught them. They taught me the need for constant humility to accept criticism and suggestions; they taught me that there is always room for me to improve and grow; they reinforced my belief that I truly cannot teach those whom I do not know; they taught me to listen more intently; they helped me to realize that I cannot ignore their overall needs and solely rely upon my authority of being the "prof" to do my job; they continued to remind me that the professor is not the center of their class much less of the universe.
What brought all this home was the almost universal comment in the evaluations that the atmosphere of the class had changed dramatically for the better about two-thirds into the quarter as if everything had come together. An overwhelming majority of the students echoed one evaluation:
One day, about five weeks into the course, the day after we had an open class evaluation, this group of students came to me after class and asked if the triads could "scrap" the summaries. Instead, they wanted to come into class with questions that they would throw out to the class for discussion.
I answered curiously, "What's wrong with the questions in the syllabus?"
"Nothing, but we've been talking and think we can get better discussions and more out of them. You know, those are your questions, not ours. We only ask questions when we don't know something. We want to ask questions of each other that will help others to understand the material, and you could sort of guide us along."
I guess that I hesitated and they sensed what I was thinking. "You know, you said it was our class and that you wanted us to take as much control as possible. What do you think?"
Talk about throwing down the glove. Boy, they had me on that one. What's that about putting your money where your mouth is? I have to admit that I felt a grip of fear generated by old prejudices and distrusts. I believed that they had potential, but I was worried about the quality of their questions. No, I had to trust them as I asked them to trust me. And, I always told students that you don't know if you're right or wrong until you try. A flash of climbing that cliff literally whizzed through my mind. I said, "Let's do it. You want that responsibility, you've got it. If it doesn't work, we'll go back to the way we've been doing it."
It was rocky at first. The questions were the simple "Who was" or "what was." I was nervous that it wasn't working, but each day I told myself to have patience. They've never done this before, and education is more journey than destination. Then, one day, that day, one of the students volunteered a question. She was not one of the "vocal" students. She asked a "why" question: "why did Gertrude Stein call the 1920s the 'lost generation?'" Silence. God, I hate silence. I think I'm afraid of silence more than anything else in my classes. It's as if it's more of a sign of my failure than the students' indifference. Like nature, I hate a vacuum, a vacuum of sound. But, I bit my lip struggling to convince myself, "they're thinking; they're thinking." Then, it started to happen.
One student quietly said, "Values."
A moment later another student quietly uttered, "Morals."
A third student hesitantly said, "I think it had to do with Einstein and Freud, and what the book called the new science that said people had to rethink about themselves and others."
"No," said a fourth, "it was those flappers and sex and wild dancing."
"Do you think it was that new invention of the movies," a fifth asked, "showing all that Rudolph Valentino stuff?"
"I think it was the challenge to religion. That's why Darwin came under attack in the Monkey Trial when Carnegie talked about him and capitalism," voiced still another.
"It seems to me it was just like in the '60s that I had been reading about in one of my tidbits. New ways fighting with old ways and no one knew for sure what to think."
"You know my grandmother was a flapper, but she doesn't like women's lib and women today, and tells me how it isn't like her day. I don't understand. I think she doesn't want me to know what she did at my age."
This went on for the whole class time involving about two-thirds of the students. I barely uttered a word. Just before the class ended, one student asked, "Where did the KKK get all its influence up north at this time?" Time had run out and I said, "The next chapter for.........."
"Dr. Schmier, we're not finished with this chapter," shouted one student. "Let's talk some more tomorrow." So, much for the calendar schedule.
The next day, the class jumped into the issue of the KKK, nativism and prejudice during the 1920s. Then, from one side of the class came a loud "damit to hell!" We all turned. "I just don't understand how my grandfather could be a bigwig in the local klan and be so hateful. You know I've worked hard not to be prejudiced like the others in my family. But, every now and then, and I gotta say this, sometimes in this class, in my triad, I find it creepin' into my thoughts and attitude. It's like this history book is living inside me and influencing me. I'm real sorry Dee (an African-American student in his triad). I just hate it, and have to fight it. Dr. Schmier, I guess having been a civil rights activist so long ago (I wasn't wild about the 'so long ago' crack) you don't have to worry about dealing with those feelings."
Truth time. I told them that I had been something of a civil rights activist, though I didn't have the courage to go into the deep South and put my life on the line, that I had fought for integration here at the university, that I was almost at the Washington march (our "car" had broken down), and that I briefly had dated an African-American girl as a teenager. But, I, too, have to fight those subtle feelings, those culturally ingrained attitudes, and have to "kick myself in my head" for having them.
"I know what you mean," blurted out a non-traditional African-American woman. She told us about her grandfather, who was white, not being able to take his dark-skinned children into the stores with him; how she and her sister had very dark skin while her three brothers were white. "We didn't know racism in our family." Tears came to her eyes when she told of her daughter who came home from school after being told by another child that "nigger skin is dirty" and threw her dark-skinned doll into the trash can. "I cried. I surely cried, and people like those KKK called themselves 'defenders of American values.'"
Stunned, a woman in another triad solemnly said, "I just read about Brown v. the Board of Education in AMERICAN HERITAGE. Now, I know what Thurgood Marshall meant."
"So do I," Lloyd called out. "My mother was Filipino and my father's family treated her like dirt. They liked me because they said I had my father's white blood in me, but her they ignored. It hurt; it hurt a lot. It made me quiet around whites. I only chose Spanish-Americans and black-Americans for friends. I noticed Juwarna looking intently surprised at him.
"I guess them KKK folks would have reacted the same to the people with Aids," Amy suddenly commented.
"Aids is God's scourge against an abomination. I wouldn't be caught seen or associating with a homosexual or lesbian," said Maryann (not her real name).
In a huge act of courage, a girl in Maryann's triad arose and said to Maryann, "I'm gay and we've worked together all quarter and enjoyed being together. Is that going to change?"
Silence. Dead silence. With only five minutes left to the class, I quietly said, "Let's go home."
The next day, at the beginning of class Maryann arose, said she had done a lot of thinking that night, and apologized to the class and to her triad partner. They continued to work closely together with the third member.
Now, not every day was as magnificent, not every question was as provoking and not every comment was as personal. But, the class had thereafter a different tone. It was as if, as the student's themselves said, the class began to hit its stride. For me, it was another realization of how our prejudices can be unproductive. We call the students adults and treat them as young and immature adolescents; we say that they are responsible while we act as if they do not realize the value or extent of learning; we say they don't know what's best for them or that they are the best judges of what is good for them, but we don't know who "them" is. But, I learned more graphically that students are quiet or passive in class not because they are indifferent, hostile or childish; they are afraid, feel devalued and are "not connected."
I, the professor, created the class for them; they didn't organize it around themselves. They responded to things better, channeled their intellectual and emotional energies and altered their attitudes, when they helped to create their own environment, when they asked their own questions, when they could better relate to things, and when they could see the benefit of their participation. And by becoming a partner, most of the students started on the road to becoming independent thinkers. At their urging, I am going to incorporate this change into my classes next quarter.
I started this class thinking it would only be a "summer class" rather than a class taught during the summer. Shame on me.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) email@example.com Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____