Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Fri, 11 March 1994
Dickens opens A TALE OF TWO CITIES with: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." That's how I felt as I started my walk this morning. I thought a good walk would be soothing and cleansing. I was wrong because I felt the same way when I finished. It was a very strange walk. Very strange. I felt like there were two people inside me, each moving at a different pace along the darkened asphalt, side-by side, each in a different dimension, distinct yet bound together. Because of the events of the last three days, it was as if each of those two people inside me were in Dickens' different time warps.
One of me was walking along crisply with excitement thinking Monday had been the best of times. I had just returned from the four day Lilly conference on college teaching. It was something else. The site at UCLA's conference center at Lake Arrowhead 5000 feet up in the San Bernardino mountains was idyllic. The atmosphere at this altitude may have been thin, but in the conference lodge it was densely relaxed, congenial, familial, collegial. There were no stiff and stuffy formalities, no egos, and no professional posturing among the over 150 teaching faculty, staff, and administrators. Everyone, initial strangers and friends alike, was on an instant first-named basis and quickly started talking on a very personal level. Everyone really cared about teaching; everyone listened carefully to each other; everyone was truly interested what each had to say and what each was doing; everyone was supportive and encouraging.
When the conference ended, it closed with warm hugs and sincere handshakes of comradery. For many of us, what had initially entered into our brains had traveled to our hearts and had become part of our spirits. I flew home Sunday physically tired, emotionally fulfilled, and intellectually exuberant. My brain was as stuffed by the flow of ideas as my stomach was by the unending serving of sumptuous food. I was thinking about all I had learned, about how I could introduce some ideas and techniques into my classes, and about how I could electrify some of my colleagues. And, excite them I did. A professor in the English department was stirred by a service\learning concept. The head of developmental studies was enthusiastic about the idea of merging two developmental studies reading and writing classes with one of my intro history classes in order to offer the students something substantial and purposeful with which to learn reading and writing skills. The director of the university's struggling first year experience program ate up the idea of creating an advisory body of concerned senior faculty to revive the program. The students in my two intro courses had demonstrated their responsibility and my trust in them by discussing their reading assignment on Thursday and taking their quiz on Friday without a hitch, without a monitor, and without me. Monday did in fact seem to be the best of times.
The other me seemed to walk slowly, finding each step was an agony, because Tuesday had been the worst of times. I had left campus Monday afternoon with a nagging feeling. I had asked one of the students in my first intro class how the quiz had gone. After a moment of silence and obvious hesitation, she quietly answered, "Fine." My "blueberry" sense said something was awry, but I chalked it off to her natural reluctance to talk in class.
Late that night, about 11:30, the telephone rang. At the other end of the line, an agonizing, nervous voice said, "Dr. Schmier, this is John (not his real name). Sorry to bother you so late, but I've got to tell you that there was wide-spread cheating in the class Friday. I left the room and didn't take the quiz because I refused to violate your trust. I wasn't in class today because I was afraid. But, something won't let it go. I feel that if I didn't talk to you I would be violating your trust as well."
I felt like I had been hit by that proverbial ton of bricks. We talked for about an hour. As I nervously pranced around the living room, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, he told me what had happened. The students who had finished the test quickly pressured the student I had left in charge to go over the test so they could leave early; the students who had yet to finish the quiz were ignored or told to leave when they complained, and as the answers were read out still others, many others, copied or changed answers. Finally, he asked for advice about what to do next.
I asked in return, "What do you think you should do?"
"I don't know," he replied. "I just don't want to accuse anyone. I don't even want an apology. I just want everyone to know that I felt that I was not given respect, and hope that they would realize what they had done to me and to themselves and to you."
"How are you going to do that?"
"I guess I have to tell them. But, hey, that's tough."
"The right things to do are never easy."
"I'm going to me in there alone with maybe one or two others."
"They're also lonely. I know. I'm where you are now in a confrontation with the President of the university over class sizes."
"Will you be in the class when I say something?"
"Of course. Do you want be to be there?"
"I do, but no. No one will be honest with you around. I don't know if I've got that much guts. I've got lots to think about tonight."
"You do whatever you think you have to do."
" Thanks. See ya tomorrow."
As I got back into bed, my wife asked with quiet understanding, "What are you going to do tomorrow?"
"I don't know," I quietly answered with a heavy sigh. "I don't know, but I think I'm going to print up a sign: 'Caution. the Surgeon General says teaching can be dangerous to your health.'"
I fell into a troubled sleep that night feeling betrayed, violated, raped. It hurt; it broke my heart. I won't deny that. The successes and joys are easy to handle and write about. It's the pain that offers the challenges. It's situations like this that remind me that teaching is easier to talk than walk, that assault my identity, that challenge my values, that heighten my sense of vulnerability, that put my outlook and philosophy to the test. After all, when I talk about teaching, I am talking about an "inner labor." A course, an approach, a technique, a concept, an assignment, a test, or a discussion is really me. That course and all of its parts are inside of me. They're a part of my being, and if students do not respond to the spirit of the course they are, in fact, jilting me.
Tuesday morning I was having coffee with some colleagues and reluctantly told them of the situation. I was ready for a barrage of "I told you sos." I got some of the "what did you expect" stuff. As for advice on what to do:
"Flunk them all for the entire course," advised a colleague with a callous firmness that was in the spirit of the Queen of Hearts screaming, "Off with their heads."
"You did your best. It's all their fault. I'd read them the riot act and ream their butts and give them all zeros," another asserted.
"You at least have to fail them on the quiz," a third suggested. "Technically, it's within your right to have them expelled."
"Right. But the administration wouldn't back you up. You have to make them an example. They screwed you good. If you don't want to give them all "Fs" for the quarter, I'd give them a make-up and make it so hard they'd fail. At least, they'd think you were being fair."
I went back to my office, closed the door, dimmed the lights, shut the computer off, and took the phone off the hook. For the next two hours, with my feet popped up on my messy desk, leaning back on my chair, occasionally sipping a quickly cooling cup of coffee, staring at the ceiling, sometimes closing my eyes, I just thought. Somehow it didn't seem right to spurn the students, to distance myself from them, to undo everything I've striven for, to wield the power of the grade as retribution for being spurned at a time when they seemed to need guidance and support the most. That's almost always been the traditional academic knee-jerk reaction: blame the students; proclaim them intellectual invalids; declare them morally corrupt; pronounce punishment; wash your hands; and walk away. That seemed to be the safe thing to do, and so many of us do it. But, I knew it would make me feel less as a teacher and a person.
I was facing a challenge. I knew when I started my triads and developed my character-based curriculum everything was not going to be peaches and cream. There were risks. There were going to be setbacks. I knew there was a big risk in letting them run the class. There's no quick cure for the "Learning Dependency" that infects and debilitates so many of the students. If I want to teach well, I have to keep myself and my integrity exposed to both the joys and pains. If I started being open only to the good experiences and shutting myself down to the possibility of having to taste less palatable ones, I would become isolated and my teaching would become defensive. My techniques might not change, but I would start walking the road of shutting myself off from all experiences for fear they would be threatening and painful. That fear would forever destroy the possibility of creating the bond of trust between me and the student; it would cut the connectedness of intellect, emotion, attitude, and purpose between me, the student, and the subject. I knew if that happened I would stagnate. I would be so distanced, so shut down and shut off, so isolated in a personal ivory tower, that I couldn't feel either the joy or pain of my craft. I felt like a doctor's needle was pricking the soles of my feet to see if there was feeling in my legs. The moment I stopped feeling, I'd stop caring, stop growing, and be dead!
Then I thought: Carpe diem! That's my life's motto. Seize the day! Realize that not every day was going to be sunny and warm. Not every love making with my wife would be magnificent. Not every effort would succeed. But, I believe I have to find something bright in even the darkest of days because right now this is the only day I have. I'm not a Scarlet O'Hara thinking tomorrow is another day. I took my feet off my desk and went to class thinking about how to seize the day.
I slowly entered the classroom. There was no music this day. No joking with the students. Disappointment, pain, was written all over my face. No smiles. No frowns. Just an emptiness. My movements around the classroom were slowed. I could see the students knew I knew. I stuttered a few words when John nervously stood up and asked me to leave the classroom so the students could talk. I sat on the steps in the hallway, deliberately sipping my coffee, concentrating on the liquid swirling my mouth as I tried to think about how to make this worst of times into a best of times. For the next thirty minutes, students came and went stunned, hurting, angry. Some needed a smoke to calm down. Others needed a drink of water to wet their parched mouth. Still others just walked aimlessly around, tightly clutching themselves, trying to quickly recharge their batteries. Some didn't want to go back into the room. I quietly told them that they were part of the class and had to return. Each time the door was opened I could hear the cacophony of voices, at times raised and at times deliberative. I didn't know whether the class would explode into smithereens or come together as a family in crisis. One young man just crunched down on the lower steps and sobbed. He turned to me and said tearfully, "I'm sorry." "You hurt yourself as well as me," I quietly said. "I guess we've got to help each other now." As I said those words, I realized that if that sense of a supportive community was to be saved in the class, I and the students would have to revive each other. As I came into the classroom, Wanda, one of the non-traditional students, was rising to speak.
"Before Dr. Schmier says anything, I have something to say. I've been listening to all your excuses. I wasn't here Friday. If I had been, I would have tanned your selfish bottoms like I feel like doing now. You're nothing but selfish children! I wasn't here Friday because my sixteen year old daughter tried to commit suicide on the school bus while all her friends looked on. Not one had the guts to try to stop her because it was none of their affair. That's what they said. You who just looked on or the other way are just as guilty as the ones who cheated or violated the rights of some others. If you look on now and do nothing when your fellow students are cheating on an exam because it ain't your business, you will learn to look on and do nothing as you go on in life convincing yourselves nothing is your business. I know my daughter's friends could have stopped her if they had the guts to do more than look on."
In the few minutes left I spoke to students about helping each other. Classroom community can exist only if respect and the exercise of power--real power--is a two-way street. I asked them if they realized the power they wielded in the class, that when they use that power improperly, as they did, I can't help but get turned off. And, I and my teaching and their learning suffers, just as when I use my power improperly they and their learning and my teaching suffers. "Journals are due tomorrow. Let's all of us journal about this, and think about what consequences you should impose on yourselves." I said to close class.
The next day, Wednesday, we read our journals to each other, I included. Here's a sample of the full range of what some of the sixty said:
"I'm a whore. We're all whores, and damn cheap ones at that. I figured I sold myself out for .34% of my final grade. A drugged up whore downtown gets more than that for a lousy quickie! My honesty doesn't seem to be worth much of a f---!"
"The real tough test Friday, the test of trust, we failed ourselves."
"I'm here for myself. No one here is for me. If anyone wants some [sic] to care for them, let their mother enroll in class! I'll do whatever I have to do to pass. Read, study, discuss, cut a corner or two, whatever. I need the grade to get into the nursing program! I don't see where anyone did anything wrong except get caught."
"When am I going to learn to work harder at learning rather than just working at making a grade? No one has ever taught me the difference except you. I thought I had that licked. Habits are hard to change. I've got to. But, how do I get that to sink in. Really sink in. I'm really scared. No bull shit."
"I'm not guilty of cheating, but Wanda is right. I'm just as guilty because I didn't try to stop them from cheating."
"I've been cheating my way through all my school life to get the grades because it was easy. What you're asking me is tough."
"I just followed the crowd like I always have done all my life. I guess I have some growing up to do and need to speak up for what I feel is right and wrong. It's easy to write this in my journal. I don't know if I can do it outside these pages."
"I've always been content to sit in the shadows, but I think maybe that's not enough. I have to have the self-confidence and determination to stand up for what I believe. I am truly as disappointed in myself as you must be with us."
"I didn't cheat, but I should be punished because I looked the other way and didn't do what was right. I sure admire him (John) for taking on the class almost alone. I don't have those balls. I'm going to talk with him."
"All I'm going to write is that I think people who tattle on others are weaklings!"
"For 13 years I've been taught that grades were the most important thing on earth. Grades, grades, grades at any cost. I looked into your hurt eyes yesterday and now I wonder."
"I once wrote in my journal that you can't climb to the high ground if you settle on the middle ground. Who am I kidding. It's easier to climb down than up. I took the easy way. Now I have more to climb."
"I don't think what we did was all that bad since that quiz only counted for 1.5% of our final grade."
"I was just too much of a coward to do anything about it. I'm tired of being a wimp, a nerd. Next time, I'll stand up for what I know is right. I hope."
"I thought what we did was cool. I'm just sorry we just got caught. It's a dog-eat-dog world out here. We have to make our GPAs and all that to graduate."
"How can you ever trust us again."
"----- said in class what we were doing was cool. I thought so too. That's chilling."
"You gave us 200 per cent of yourself and we threw shit at you. I guess it would serve us right if you threw us to the wolves. The way I feel now, I think even they would spit us out."
The overwhelming majority of the class decided that everyone should get a zero on the quiz.
I think I and many of the students, not all, came out from this experience beaten and bloodied, but, hopefully, being sufficiently courageous to use this trying episode and to face those issues yet to come and to keep growing into the kind of people my university and society so badly need.
As I write this thought, I remember something one of my colleagues said Tuesday morning. "Louis," she said sympathetically said, "why do you get yourself into these things? What you're doing is great, but you're at the end of your career here. It's not going to make a difference because no one is going to give you any pat on the back or awards or salary increases. Just decide and have done with it, and stop torturing yourself. Relax."
For me, one lesson is that in spite of the fact that teaching is not easy, that it's frustrating, time-consuming, challenging, irritating, and, when things go wrong, demoralizing, I remained undaunted. I felt the painful prick of the doctor's needle on my sole which told me I cared and was alive. I reaffirmed to myself that I don't care if anyone else knows what I did or if I'm going to get some payoff or if it is going to make a difference in my career. What I do has little to do with getting a salary increase. I'm a tenured full professor with three years left to go for my 30 years at this institution and retirement. I don't have to do it because it will look right on my vitae or evaluation. I admit that there was a time when I did these things to be important and look important. Now I do what I do, I have to do it, because it is important, because it is right and just, because I have to try to do what is the right thing for no other reason than that. I'm not out to change the world. I can be satisfied with making a difference in the life of one person. That may sound self-righteous and idealistic. Maybe a bit preachy, but I've found this to be the most satisfying of all reasons for teaching. When it goes right, there's nothing like it. No prize, award, recognition, promotion, salary increase can match a student going out of his or her way to tell me that I had a significance influence his or her life. The most wonderful returns I receive for teaching are those letters and conversations with students some of which I have shared with you.
So, I think my very best answer to my colleague and to myself is by example. To be me, to be what I profess, to fight the good fight in the defense of the value of teaching whomever may approve or disapprove.
You know, now that I look back on this entire week, it may just have been the best of times.
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" -\____