Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 22 Dec 1993
"Tedium ergo sum: I'm bored, therefore I am." How's that for a variation of the Cartesian first principle? For the last several days, I have been pouring over my student evaluations and reading student journals. I do that as I prepare to make needed changes in the coming quarter's classes. I noticed that one of the prominent themes that ran through almost all the students' descriptions of my performance and the nature of the course was what they described as the uniqueness of the enthusiasm, the excitement, the stimulation, the inspiration, the animation, and the spiritedness that permeated the class. "It was so wonderfully a different learning experience," wrote one student, "from all my other dull teach-test classes that are so routine and boring where I only have to memorize a lot and forget it later just like in high school."
But, I wasn't only thinking about the students' evaluations this morning. During the first part of my walk I was also thinking of how this morning I felt particularly invigorated and excited as far as power walks go. Anyway, I felt different. The briskness was not due to the chill in the air or to anything I was thinking about. It was simply the fact that everywhere around me there was relative newness. I was consciously experiencing the thrill of a series of mini discoveries. I was more turned on, more alert. I had changed the route of my walk. I do this periodically because after a while a particular route begins to lose its challenge. It starts to become old hat, a drag, that same ole thing. It loses its zip and has a wearying effect on my body and mind. I had memorized the walking course and could run it in my sleep. I think sometimes I do. It was now fraught with an uninteresting, bland sameness: same houses, same trees and bushes, same streets, same signs, same turns, same, same, same, same. I knew every crack in the streets. I knew when I was going to breathe hard and feel it in my legs on the incline, and when I was going to feel a resting relief on the decline. And, in self-fulfilling prophecy, I did. I was losing the joy of the walk, and was increasingly finding that I not only had to force myself to go out there, but I couldn't wait until the damn thing was over. I was getting bored. I had grown "accustomed to its face." It was time for a change of scenery and experience.
Putting together the nature of the student comments and the atmosphere of my walk is what caused me to abuse Descartes. I began wondering whether my revised Cartesian theorem might regrettably be a first principle applicable to campus academic life. I started thinking about why the students felt so much of the excitement and the inspiration of learning apparently has been squeezed out of their education. Why, I asked, is it that when at the beginning of each quarter I ask the students to describe a meaningful classroom experience or a meaningful association with a teacher that they have had, they seldom can.
It wasn't long before I found myself thinking the unthinkable, something many of us have danced around and have been afraid of touching, afraid of seeing, afraid of mentioning. I wondered about how many colleagues I know who walk through their lives and academic professions, walk onto campus, walk through the halls, walk into our classrooms, and walk through their presentation on their same old stagnating, unchallenging, spiritless route. Probably far more than most of us want to admit publicly. I know, professors are supposedly intellectual Jasons, captivated by the pursuit of the golden fleece of wisdom, in perpetual cerebral motion, drawing sustenance from knowledge, drawn by the unknown, obsessed with curiosity, compelled to grow and explore. Nah, professors are never bored or boring, never lackadaisical, never languid, never accepting of anything less than excellence. Students are; professors are not. Most professors bounce into class with great animation, oozing adrenalin through their sweat glands, putting students on the edge of their seats, setting a mood of great expectation. "Ah, the game's afoot," their demeanor shouts out. "I'm here! Let's go at it! I'm ready! This is good stuff! Let's dance!"
If that's the case, I wonder, then, what all those jokes and comments about "yellowing lecture notes" were about. I wonder why students constantly, though not openly, complain that so many of their college classes are, as one student said, "as exciting as listening to myself breathe." The students feel that they come to campus and too often find that it's really the "yawning of a new age" for them and the challenge for them is far more of a "yawning experience" than a daunting one.
Now, I'm not naive enough to think that when many students describe a class as boring, it's often a transparent diversion from the fact they go to class unprepared or don't do the assignments or don't study. I think, however, there may be another side. The fact that so many students are turned off by their "classes" can also reflect that what is really going on inside the classroom is too often dull. "Dull classes" translates into dull and disinterested professors.
Wander the corridors of the university or college as I often do. Wander through your memories into the classes you took as a student, what do you see. I'll bet you will see and recall more often than not the traditional indifferent, impersonal, cellular, structured, stylized, institutionalized "box and one" class: robot-like students, passive and disconnected observers, sitting separated and isolated from each other, moving their heads up and down in monotonous unison as they play the cadence of their note-taking role; a cold, unemotional, zombie-like glaze covering their faces, minds shut down, forcing interest.
Many of us say that if students are apathetic it is totally their fault. If they doze, if they daydream, if they doodle, if they kibitz, while we at the podium are waxing brilliantly in our oration, we condemn the students for being rude, arrogant, and disrespectful, as well as unappreciative of the opportunities presented to them. It could be, however, that they're just bored and have every right to be bored. I have heard so many colleagues say, "It's no fun anymore," and leave it at that. They make little attempt to make their classes fun for themselves and fun for the students.
We teachers have to bear a large measure of responsibility for the boredom in the classroom because all too often we're bored and are boring. We are the role models; we create the spirit and atmosphere of the classroom; we set the pace. Yet, with too few exceptions, we perpetually continue to administer intellectual and emotional anesthesia drop by drop into the students' minds and hearts through the classroom catheter: drip, lecture-memorize-test; drip, lecture-memorize-test; drip, lecture-memorize-test; drip, lecture-memorize-test; drip, drip, drip. Class after class, term after term, year after year into the students' spirit flow these academic barbiturates.
So many professors are just as robotic as their students, just as unexcited, just as apathetic. With their back to the students, they talk to the blackboard on which they're madly scribbling, thinking that their voice will ricochet off the walls, seemingly oblivious to those behind them. So many professors, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, recite from their notes from the textbook or read words on a screen from overhead projectors. We complain about students' apathy to each other, but do we listen to the students? If we did, this is what we might hear; this is what I hear:
"Do you know what it's like to sit quietly, do nothing for a full hour, and look and sound interested. Now that's hard. Not worth much, but hard."
"What am I going to do. Dr. ------------ in my English 101 class (freshman), his lectures are one 45 minute long sentence. He's just about convinced all of us that English is a dead language!"
"She's so dull. She talks her lectures as if as if her whole entire vocal range is one note! It's like she's reading us a bedtime nursery story to put us to sleep. And it works! The only work we do in class is to work to stay awake."
"We don't know what he looks like. His face, I think he has a face, is always down in his notes. He talks to them, not us. He knows them better than he does us! I don't think he'd notice if we weren't there. I'm not sure he'd care."
"He's a walking metronome in class. Now that's exciting!"
"I've been in the military. It's like a snail's pace marching drill: lecture ......1.......2........3; lecture ........1........2...........3; lecture .......1........2......3. If he was my drill sergeant, we'd never get far from the barracks."
"He just reads the textbook. He won't take any questions because he says he has to finish the material. Who needs him."
We've all heard them all because we have said them all when we were students. What perplexes me is that so many of us experience amnesia, turn around, and do the same thing. We have forgotten those legions of stories detailing how it usually, except for that one teacher or professor, was like for us and how we were treated when we sat on the other side of the podium. It's almost like too many teachers are saying, "If I went through it, so do you. If I made it through, so can you. It's a test of endurance and commitment."
Maybe one aspect of being an effective teacher is to remember what it was like being treated as a student. Instead, the academic "good ole boys and girls club" keeps such things quiet and perpetuates the proper image. "We're all good, conscientious, caring teachers in the classroom," is the official line. Never show feet of clay; never show humanity; never do anything to show a chink in the academic armor; never admit to the existence of the problem; never say anything openly, however constructively, about or to a colleague; never talk about changing and improving. Yet, the fact remains that in and around the classroom there are so few needed smiles, so little laughter, so little enjoyment, so little curiosity, so little joy, and so little excitement of learning. It's as if so many professors think that any display of gaiety and love in academia is so unprofessional. "You've got to be serious," I remember a colleague arguing with me. "Learning is no laughing matter." If that is so, we've squeezed life's juices out of learning.
"Hey, I'm told that I don't have to like college, just do it," a student explained in an evaluation. "So, why should I care if I am bored in a class. Most of my professors don't care. They just want me to do it their way. So, I just want to know what the professors want me to know to pass a test. It's a tedious lecture- memorize-test routine. But, hey." If that's so, we in academia have succumbed to the greatest of life's dangers: we take ourselves too seriously.
I will go out on a limb to say this: nothing is more revealing about a teacher than how that teacher teaches. Classroom behavior of far too many professors, however, is far more a reflection of their disinterest in teaching and in students than it is a sign of a weakness of teaching techniques. In some cases professors have gotten into a rut. They have taught the same course the same way term after term, year after year. Their classes have become so routine that they can teach them in their sleep, and often do. Like me on my old walking route, the professors have lost the sense of adventure, the thrill of the hunt, the anticipation, and have little to get their juices flowing. But, they have done little to change the situation and tragically they continue to inoculate those sleep inducing attitudes into the students. They go into class with a faked excitement that is transparently so unauthentic. Sometimes they don't ever bother to feign intellectual orgasm. They exude all the excitement of a Gregorian chant. There's no zip in their steps, no energy in their movements, no alertness in their mannerisms. It's, as one colleague in the English department bemoaned of the coming quarter, "the same old hum-drum course with the same poor students; another day and another dollar. Just a few years to retirement, and boy I am counting. Oh, well, I guess I can hang on."
Many professors use the students as their own red herrings. "They have to excite themselves," so many of my colleagues righteously proclaim, as if the love of learning is built into the human genetic code. I admit that students have to assume some responsibility for their learning, but that's only a half truth. Teachers use these excuses to distract themselves and others from the real issues, to throw themselves and others off the track. Putting all the onus on the students for being disinterested and placing all the responsibility on their shoulders to become excited is a way for professors to escape from a connectedness with themselves and the students.
It is far less threatening, less uncomfortable, less painful, and certainly less honest, than saying "I don't really care"; or "I'm tired"; or "I don't really understand"; or "I won't change my ways"; or "I only teach because I have to, not because I want to"; or "It's my job to lecture and its their job to learn." Professors will say the students are indifferent when they really mean they themselves are indifferent; professors will say the students are bored when they themselves are bored; professors will say the students have surrendered to mediocrity when they themselves seldom struggle to improve themselves; professors say the students don't think the courses are important when they themselves often feel teaching freshmen or even undergraduates is unworthy of their talents. "After all," an acquaintance at another university proclaimed, "neurosurgeons didn't kill themselves to get where they are just to take out splinters. Ph.D.s shouldn't have to teach surveys."
Some professors are going through a check list to achieve promotion, tenure, and professional recognition in which teaching has no significant role to play. They don't have time for devotion to such distracting, time-consuming, unacknowledged, inconsequential nonsense as teaching students. Others, having achieved the safety of tenure, and maybe professional recognition, don't know what's left to do but to continue to go through the motions of teaching as they always have done. They settle down into a smothering routine, a safe and distant routine. Only the other day as I, with great animation, was trying to convince a colleague to adapt a character-based approach to her teaching and use the triad structure in her classes, she remarked with a tone of disbelief, "Louis, stop killing yourself. Why are you doing all this? I can't believe you're still at it. You've got tenure. You're an old horse with only three years to go to retirement. You ought to be relaxing and counting your days. I know I would!"
Sad. If we want students to think about why they're bored, we have to think why we're boring. Going back to my walking route, it wasn't so much that the route had become dull. There was always something new to see if I really made the effort. It was that I had made it routine. So, the disinterest is not totally outside ourselves. It is an attitude, our attitude, over which we have some control. We created it; we can address it; we can change it.
The simple truth is that if we go into a class expecting the students to be bored, we will not be disappointed. But, if we go into a class believing the students are interested, we will see them as a gift of excitement, bombarding us with a challenging array of variation and diversity. But, that takes a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of involvement, a lot of interest, and, above all, a lot of commitment. Moreover, I think we have to remember that teaching the same particular course is not the same as teaching it the same way. There's so much truth in the saying, variety is the spice of life. I told this to a colleague last week as I preached my methods, and he walked right into my trap.
"You must have taught this course a hundred times. How many different ways can you lecture that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th and that it says so and so," he asked.
"I don't lecture. But, I will handle it, at any given time, as many ways as there are students in my classes," I answered. He looked at me. "I'm not interested in when the Declaration was signed or what it says. The students can get that stuff out of the book or find out every July 4th," I continued. I am interested in letting them explore why it says what it says and what it means to them. Then, I have sixty possible routes to take in each class in each quarter."
"But you'll never know what discussion will pop up at any given time until it happens," he replied. "That's scary. Instead of one lecture, there is a possibility of any of sixty discussions generated by God knows how many relationships, experiences and personalities of the students. My God, How do you handle that?"
"I stay alert, on my toes. But, you're right. I can walk into class never knowing what's going to happen. I just let it happen and go with the flow. Sometimes, it does flow. Take the Declaration and Jefferson. One time an African-American female student became Abigail Adams by the raising issue of 'all men are' as opposed to 'all men and women' and got us into a knock-down-drag- out discussion about women's rights. At another time, some white students wanted know how Jefferson could seriously use the word 'equal' during a time of slavery without being a hypocrite. 'Where were the Indians during all this?' a student once shouted out, and off we were into a discussion of cultural collisions. Once a student wanted to know what do we do when two unalienable rights clash with each other. Better believe that prayer in school and abortion popped up. That one lasted two days. I've had discussions about what the Founding Fathers meant by 'life' and 'liberty' and 'happiness' and 'self-evident truth.' We've gotten into discussions, arguments, debates over matters about welfare, government, individual rights. Heck, once a student raised the question that if the Founding Fathers disagreed on these things, how would we know just what they intended to happen?. There's no end to the possibilities. I'll let them talk about anything, no matter how controversial or confrontational. That keeps the blood flowing in class. I just don't let anything get personal."
"You do that every day? That's too unmanageable for me. I'd rather avoid any controversy in my classes," my colleague replied in disbelief.
Not me. For me, teaching, then, is like my walking. I still walk; I still walk the same distance; I still walk the same distance at the same pace. I just always am prepared to change the way I do it. And as I do, I have a never-ending sense of revitalization. There were different sights, sounds, and experiences; the walk is awash with newness and unexpectedness and alertness and challenge and discovery. I have to be more alert now that I have to be tuned in to my walk while I am tuned into myself. I can't take anything for granted. I have to keep on my toes, so to speak, for the unknown cracks, bumps and potholes in the street, consciously think about the traffic patterns of those occasional cars and trucks and which side of which street to walk, beware of what new turns to make, plan new pacing strategies. It's now a bit of an adventure. And when I feel that sense waning, I will again change the route.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____