Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Mon, 26 Jul 1993

Hi from hot and steamy South Georgia. It was strange this morning. I hardly noticed anything as I roamed the darkened streets. In fact, my walk seemed to last only a minute or two. I guess I was deeply, very deeply, engrossed in my thoughts. Lucky for me that not even the milkman is out at that wee hour of the pre-dawn morning. I can't remember slowing up for a stop sign or red light to see what was coming.

I was thinking about the results of an exercise I had given my students at the beginning of the quarter in an effort to get a sense of their feelings and attitudes about me as a professor, about themselves as students, about the purpose of a college education, and about college itself. I think that is important since it is the too often ignored emotional side of the student which energizes or stifles a student's effort and affects his/her performance. Going over the results once again, I was again astounded, saddened, angered--and challenged.

The exercise is fairly simple. I asked each student to complete the following sentences using metaphors, similes or analogies:

            Education is/is like......... 
            Professors are/are like........ 
            College is/is like.......... 
            Learning is/is like...........
            Students are/are like............ 
119 students took the exercise. They were mostly freshman and sophomores. Some were juniors. None were entering freshman, and about 25% were non-traditional. They each, therefore, had some educational experience beyond high school. Let me tell you the results just related to their attitudes towards professors.

19 students unemotionally described professors in what I call "either/or" terms: "good-bad"; "allies and enemies"; "unalike" "an influence"; "role models."

26 students described professors in positive, though inanimate, bland, and unexcited, terms: "challenges"; "stepping stones to learning"; "knowledgeable"; "intelligent"; "well-running engines"; "facilitator"; "guides." I found it curious that none of the students completed the sentences using terms dealing specifically with human relations.

74 students tragically described professors negatively in such terms as: "unloving parents"; "ants at a picnic"; "annoying gnats"; "necessary evils"; "a boat without oars"; "a steering wheel without a car"; "locked treasure chests"; "tops that spin over our heads"; "a dark tunnel"; "yukkie cockroaches"; "holier than thou preachers"; "gods that can't be pleased"; "ultraviolet rays"; "wormy apples"; "exploiting bosses"; "professional non-listeners"; "drill sergeants"; "bumps on a road"; "nursing mothers with dried up breasts"; "dentists pulling your teeth without novocaine"; "the opposite of learning"; "uninterested guides"; "mind-bank embezzlers"; "balloons filled with hot air"; "devouring wolves"; "tyrants"; "dictators"; "monsters"; "St. Peter at the gate"; and "a sledgehammer."

About themselves, only 27 students used positive imagery, and, then, a few did so with obvious anger and defiance: "reason profs have a job"; "real people growing"; "THE FUTURE--DAMIT"; "first draft of a mansion"; "doctors without a degree"; "deserving respect!!!"; "budding flowers"; "young, exciting, wild, and curious"; "just as good as the profs"; "creators"; "adventurers"; and "survivors."

The rest of the students resorted to negative imagery which could be described as passive at best and denigrating at worst: "slaves"; "sponges waiting for water to be spilled on them"; "victims"; "drones in a hive"; "an empty canvas to be painted on"; "dogs called to heel by their masters"; "lab rats"; "lumps of clay waiting to be molded"; "oxen whipped by the rider"; "cows herded together"; "pieces on a game board"; "blank pages to be written on"; "robots"; "mimics"; "production workers waiting for orders"; "parrots"; and "babies to be nursed."

Yet when it came to completing the next sentence, "Education is/is like.......", the results were totally reversed.

Only 6 students used negative imagery: "Saturday Night Live"; "pure memorization"; "useless in the real world"; "pure boredom"; "a Three Stooges movie"; and "a game." The rest of students had only positive images in terms of vocational advancement and/or personal development: "giving life to a child"; "a ladder to the heavens"; "an exploration of the spirit"; "options for a car"; "the doorway to a career"; "planting of seeds"; "an endless book"; "a credit card without limits"; "a bank account"; "a foot in the door"; "keys to the kingdom"; "discovering your soul"; "a better paying job"; "a lover that sneaks up on you"; "dieting--hard at first, have to get in the habit, but worth it in the end"; "getting in top shape"; "a beginning without end"; "food"; "a rainbow"; "paving a street with gold"; "an expanding universe"; "never-ending story"; "seeking the golden fleece"; and "adventurous."

And what they think of college? Well, 22 students wrote answers like: "a beginning of something"; "a place to meet people"; "good years"; "I'm not sure--yet"; "a place to party"; "enjoyment before the work in the real world begins"; "an opportunity"; "being free to be me."

24 students offered positive answers with a bit more color than their comments about the professors: "a step in the right direction"; "a chance to improve"; "a place to find yourself"; a challenge to test who I am"; a place to learn"; "a nourishing water fountain"; "a playground of the mind"; "an opening world"; "a piece of candy"; "a dreamland of opportunity"; "a building block"; "the future"; and "an intellectual vo-tech school."

76 students, however, regrettably were just as visceral, though perhaps more imaginative, in their disparagement of college as they were of the professor: "a well with no ladder to climb out"; "a rat race; "unsupervised high school"; "a tug-of-war"; "a banquet with lousy food"; "growth that's stunted"; "a poorly mixed drink"; "a prison with a four-year sentence"; "a mental ward where you get lobotomies"; "Excedrin written all over it"; "a church where you're told you're a sinner"; "a hotel with uncooperative doormen"; "a ball game with pitchers trying to strike you out"; "trial by combat"; "a tour where the guides won't let you roam"; "a confusing maze"; "seldom worth the effort"; "a boring production line"; "a job with insensitive supervisors"; "expensively over-valued"; and "an opportunity only a few help you to seize."

I thought it was very interesting that the most colorful, creative and imaginative imagery was negative. It was as if the neutral and positive attitudes were at best lackluster and the negative ones visceral. Now, I'm no psychologist, but it doesn't take much to figure out from where students get these ideas that professors are authoritarian, unapproachable, uncaring, insensitive, self-centered, and disconnected. My common sense and experience tells me that these students did not come out from their mothers' wombs with these attitudes any more than I can believe they were written into their DNA code. No, these attitudes were made, not born. They reflect the experiences of the students. They largely explain the source of the "sorriness" and "apathy" about which we often complain. The students are too busy being scared or demeaned to answer that question, ask that question, question that answer, write that sentence, do that exam. It drives me up a wall that almost invariably, whether it is any kind of an assignment or an exam, they want to know from me "what do you want." They're coming into class intimidated, terrorized, and denigrated. They're very reluctant to open either their mouths or their minds because, as they tell me, they're afraid of "being wrong," of "being made fun of," of "looking dumb." That's their reality, and it's a reality which we must confront and change.

It seems that at least these students value an education. But from their personal experiences they do not think that college or professors are up to the task to provide one, or that college or professors care to support and encourage their efforts, or treat them with respect. It is a sad, sad, situation. It's an indictment! Now, we can deny it. We can rationalize it away. We can even argue that we had no part in shaping these restricting attitudes. "It's the fault of the public school system," my colleagues exclaimed. That is, indeed, part of the answer. But, all that won't alter the fact that these perceptions exist among the students, that they influence both the attitude and effort of the students, and that the reason for such perceptions rest on personal experience. Yet, we professors generally do little to correct the situation. To the contrary, the sad truth is that at the collegiate level too many of us perpetuate and exacerbate those attitudes. Far too many professors display their own sense of aloofness, aloneness, distance, and defensiveness. They often put themselves in the foreground, forgetting that they are a channel for education, not its source. To them, the classroom is about power, and the students are the weak.

Let us, the powerful, use our power in the students' interest. We set the tone of the classroom; we are the role models. We should take the first step to connect with them, understand their hesitancy to reciprocate, and keep trying until the connection is made. That can only be accomplished if we, at the least, stop, look and see, and listen and hear. We must have the courage to reflect, examine and admit more. We have to fear, defend, deflect, and accuse less. After all, it's the interest of the student, not the professor's interest, I'm talking about, and isn't that what we are all about? Then, and only then, can both student and teacher start attacking those stifling stereotypes the students expressed in this exercise. But, we cannot connect with the students unless we come to know them, and to do that we must become a learner of the students. To do strive for that goal, we must have an eagle eye for each student's body language, facial expressions, and voice tones. I think the real power of the teacher is knowing the student for the individual human being he/she really is.

Some of you will argue that it would be a struggle. I answer by saying that the purpose of a teacher is greater than the teacher and should be more powerful than the teacher's ego. Teaching is a struggle, especially when you expect a lot from it.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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