Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 29 Sept 1993
"Whose school is it anyway?" That question has been swirling like a hurricane through my mind all this past first week or so of classes. It was on my mind as I walked this morning in the brisk morning air that is our one day of south Georgia autumn. I was thinking about an incident which had occurred early last week in front of the mail window in the Student Union. It was a madhouse as opening days of class are prone to be, especially in the Union. Tired, frustrated, and angry students were lined up snaking into the college bookstore. Cutting across them was a line of tired, frustrated, and angry students standing up in front of the mail window waiting to receive their mailbox assignment and combinations. There were masses of tired, frustrated, and angry students struggling to practice their mailbox combination as herds of other tired, frustrated, and angry students leaving the bookstore bumped into them, and through them weaved people going in and out of the snack room. It was crowded; it was noisy; it was hot; it was smelly; it was crazy; it was inhuman.
I was standing in the mail line behind four students waiting to get two stamps for some personal mail when a young man, neatly bedecked in a tie and jacket, rushed up to the window and broke into line, interrupting a student who was trying to get her mailbox assignment.
"Hey, get in the back of the line," a harried student angrily yelled from behind me. A supporting chorus of "candid comments" quickly arose from the other students.
He snapped his head around toward the student. "I'm a professor and I'm in a hurry to get to my class," he loudly pronounced with obvious authority and annoyance.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the student sheepishly apologized as if she had done something wrong. Everyone backed off and submissively went quiet. But, they were not happy campers.
"You can still get in the back of the line and wait like the rest of us," I calmly said.
He whipped his head around so fast I thought it was going to be wrenched off from his neck. Lordy, you'd think I had challenged both his manhood and authority. Probably did. The annoyed look in his eyes was immediately replaced by an anger. He looked at me as he proclaimed with deliberate emphasis in an obvious attempt to cower me, "I....am....Dr. ________________....in.....the....______________department. Who are you?
I didn't know him, and he surely didn't know me. I think, since I was dressed in jeans and sporting my UNC NCAA National basketball championship shirt, teaching attire for that day, he thought I was merely a graying (only slightly graying), non-traditional student.
"I'm Louis," I innocently and quietly replied, "Louis Schmier." Then, with increasing firmness and a deliberate, and admittedly mocking, authoritative emphasis to match his, I added, slowly emphasizing each word: Dr....Louis....Schmier! Professor....of....History! Who are you?"
He didn't answer. I continued, "Now, would you please get in line and wait like the rest of us. "
The angry expression remained fixed on me. The smiles appearing on the faces of those students didn't help his disposition, nor did their snickering. He turned abruptly and I watched him go into the snack bar. So much for integrity and for being in a hurry to get to class.
"Doc," said a student behind me who lightly slapped my shoulder, "That was worth standing in line for."
After getting my stamps and mailing the letters, I went into the snack bar. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dr--------- sitting with a few other professors, none of whom I knew. He apparently said something and they all gazed in my direction. Ignoring them, I got a cup of coffee and sat down with some students. Here comes Dr-------. He didn't know when to give it up.
Ignoring the fact that the students and I were talking, he interrupted, "You know you embarrassed me out there in front of all those students, and I don't appreciate it."
"I thought you did a good job of that on your own. I don't think there was much I could do to improve upon it," I replied in a tone of obvious irritation as I looked up at him from my chair.
"Well, I think we as professors should be entitled to some respect. Students don't give us that anymore."
"I can't imagine why," I matter-of-factly asked with feigned ignorance.
"Well, the likes of you don't help the situation," and he abruptly walked back to his table.
Now, I admit that Dr.-------- may be an extreme case, but he is symptomatic. If we are bold enough to be honest, there is a general attitude out there permeating the educational establishment that students exist to serve the administration, faculty and staff, that it is we who allow the students to grace our presence, that we take from our valuable scholarly time to engage in the lesser task of teaching, and that the students should be humbly grateful that we would grant them an audience in our presence. But, whose school is it?
Dr.-------- said that students don't give professors respect anymore. Personally, I think what he and others really mean is that the professors aren't worshipped. If it were up to the likes of him, there'd be separate faculty and student water fountains or separate faculty and student bathrooms. I may have climbed mountains, or at least mountain cliffs, but I've never reached the summits of either Olympus or Sinai. I'm glad the students have given up the image that professors are almost priestly, mystical people. Gods are distant and unapproachable. Fear, not respect, is what Dr. -------------- is talking about. He is talking about a power relationship. He wants to wield power over the students who would feel the brunt of its exercise. Dr.------------- talks of respect. Respect, however, isn't automatically bestowed by a degree or publication or administrative position. He has to earn it through his attitude and behavior towards the students and colleagues. Respect is a mutual engagement of and sharing among individuals to the benefit of all. Let the likes of him be focused on student concerns, not his authority; with tending to their needs, not controlling them; with empowering them, not overpowering them.
Yet, schools have been organized for the administration and professors, for everyone but the student. The prevailing attitude that runs rampant on our campuses is a condescending, "What do students know?" In the classroom, far too many teachers demand blind obedience; outside the classroom, administrators require equal umbrage. Students are so intimidated they don't feel like they're part of a team. They're so terrified and passive, they let professors and staff and administrators do things to them few others would tolerate. They feel depersonalized because their individuality is so often ignored. A colleague of mine, an enlightened colleague, developed an interesting exercise. She had the students stand up in class, put their hands on their heads, and march around the room. She then asked them how they felt. "Stupid" was the general consensus. "So, why did you do it?" she asked. "You're the professor," was their innocent, sincere, and very revealing reply.
Sometimes I feel colleges and universities are far more business and academic research institutions than educational ones. We manipulate and school rather than educate and ask students to be seen rather than heard. We may be good at lecturing, writing on blackboards, assigning rooms, scheduling classes, doing committee work, crunching numbers, developing budgets, holding concerts, attending conferences, constructing edifices, naming buildings, winning athletic championships, beautifying campuses, writing flowing goal statements, researching. Administrators and faculty and staff play the numbers game, placing dollars above students and herding students into large depersonalizing classes, maneuvering them into courses. Students are caught in turf wars and power struggles between and among professors, departments, schools, colleges, professors and administrators, professors and staff, staff and administrators, ad nauseam.
Professors may grumble privately, but their own self-interests, not that of the student's, prevents most from speaking out in public. It's little wonder that students may like a particular professor or staff member or even an administrator, but they don't like the educational system which tends to demean them. Providing a building, a course, a program, a championship team, an academic or bureaucratic talking head is not the end of the social contract with the student. We need far fewer administrators and staff personnel on our campuses; we need far fewer "scholars" and "experts" in our classrooms; we need far fewer information transmitters among our faculty. We need far fewer people dealing with "things" or coldly treating students as things.
We need a heck of a lot more "teachers" and people who know how to deal with and want to deal with people who will talk to students, listen to them, respect them, and make them a part of their own process of development.
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" -\____