Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 14 Mar 1994
What a walk this morning. I went out a bit later than usual. The sun was up. The bird were singing. The temperature was an inviting 57 degrees. No humidity. The bugs haven't figured out that winter is over. I glided through the streets bare chested in my grubby shorts. There was as much spring in my step as in the air. It felt great. I don't remember touching the pavement: not a heavy breath; not a feeling of the slightest muscle twinge. I felt like I was Mercury with wings on my feet. But, if I thought I was fast, I was a tortoise compared to what's been happening on campus this past week.
It's the end of the quarter! That means it's sprint time! Off goes the academic regalia, on goes the racing shorts and track shoes. Like Alice's hare, so many professors have been anxiously running and exclaiming, "I'm in a bind. I'm in a tight bind because I'm so far behind. No time to say hello, goodbye. I'm in a bind. I'm in a bind. I'm in a bind." For almost a week, so many have been in a panic, racing around at a blinding speed to finish the course: running from office to library to secretary to copier to class; making assignments in rapid fire "read chapters 29 through 43 for tomorrow" fashion; running between desks like Speedy Gonzales and throwing reams of hand-outs in the air while yelling, "grab one. You need this for the test;" fanning textbook pages as they scream "ignore that paragraph, omit these pages, skip that chapter," sliding transparencies on and off the overhead projectors so fast that they create motion pictures, scrawling on the blackboards in a blurring speed, lecturing at sixteenth note pace and sounding like a 78 record being played at 45. In fact, the whole place has been looking and sounding like a VCR on fast- forward.
Today is the last day of the quarter. I assure you that when I leave campus this afternoon the place will be sprawling with bent over professors, painfully heaving as they hold on to their knees for dear life, with professors struggling for breath as they lay prostrate out on the grass in total exhaustion, with professors slumping over their desk drained of all energy as their lungs cry out for air. But, all of them are whispering with great satisfaction between their heavy gasps, "Whew, I made it. I covered all the material. Am I good or am I good!" Then, with a great sense of dedication and accomplishment, their eyes roll, their heads sway erratically, and they faint dead away.
And we say students cram? Ah, but our cramming is so different. We can go to sleep comfortably thinking we have been academically honest because we have left nothing out. We have covered everything required. We have prepared the students to take our exam or the department's exam or to move on to the next course or to take the standardized exit or entrance exam. We have done our duty. We have offered them a mastery of the subject.
I don't think I am being impish. I was in the English department Monday morning, sipping a cup of coffee talking college basketball with some colleagues when a junior faculty member quickly walked by muttering, "I'll never finish this course."
All this helter and skelter reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor last fall who had participated in one of my workshops at a conference. He asked me: "With all the time you spend in class on journal sharing, exercises to help the students learn how to critically think and study, to develop a sense of family, to do evaluations in class, how do you finish a course? If I did all that I'd never cover all the material. As it is now, I'm always so far behind that I have to race to catch up at the end of the semester."
"I never finish a course and I don't try to," I assured him. "I'm always cutting stuff out during the course and changing the syllabus' calendar as the students get into prolonged discussions. During a 'good' quarter, I usually cover only about two-thirds of the stuff in the textbook, whatever that's worth."
"But," he replied nervously, "they won't learn everything they have to."
"They won't anyway, so why sweat it."
"But, that's history. This is microbiology. I've got to cover a certain amount of material because they need certain material to take the next course in the sequence."
"How much of that material do you think they remember afterwards?"
"I don't know. I'd guess about 80 or 85%."
"Not in your wildest dreams! Try somewhere around 30% to 40%, if you're lucky, real lucky, 50%."
"But, they can't pass the next course without this content."
"Which is better, that your students learn twice as much material half as well or half as much material twice as well. Why not take time out and get them to appreciate the impact and influence of microbiology. Let them read articles about the moral issue of human genetic engineering and discuss it in class. Make the course an exciting, meaningful and fun course. They'll remember more of it."
"That's asking a lot."
"Look, if you cover all that material just to say you've covered it and little or none of it is retained in the first place, it's the same as if you never covered it at all. The only difference is that now when someone asks 'Why are the students doing so poorly?' We can say, 'Hey, don't look at us. We covered all that material. It's not our fault they don't know it now. It's their fault for not learning it.'"
So, in this academic Daytona 500 whom have we really served? It seems to me that we often cram all that stuff into our courses more for our benefit than that of the students. We seem to think that it is some dereliction of duty, some indictment of our ability, some demonstration of incompetence if we did otherwise. We seem to think, to paraphrase the Bard, that it is better for the professors to have said it than never to have said it at all; that it is better for the students to have heard it than never to have heard it at all. I sometimes get the feeling at this time of the quarter that professors lapse into the belief that all they have to do to teach is tell and all the students have to do to learn is hear; that if they mention it, the students get it and if they don't, the students won't.
But, have the students really learned all that material we crammed down their throats for any purpose other than vomiting back to pass a test and get a course grade? Have they really retained the material in a way that is purposeful or have we merely perpetuated the talk-listen-memorize-test-forget patterns?
I once had a professor, Dr. Birdsall Viault, my mentor at Adelphi College who set me on my course when I was adrift, who replied to a student protest that the class hadn't finish the textbook and asked if omitted material the would be on the final exam, "Mr. Schmier, only geniuses and fools finish the course. I can assure you without fear of contradiction that you and I are neither. But, I can assure you that whatever we have covered, we have covered well."
"But," I continued in my subtle protest, "I'm taking the GRE next month. What if the material we didn't cover is on it?"
Dr. Viault replied with a twinkle in his eye, "Mr. Schmier, I am confident you have the ability to learn that extra material on your own if you so wish."
Personally, taking my cue from Dr. Viault, I'd be happy if students really learn a few key concepts about history, get an appreciation for it, maybe acquire an understanding for it. If they become history majors, they can get the finer details when they get sufficient background. If they become historians, they can rise to the level of sophistication that they can wrestle with the latest controversies in the field, grasp them, and see their ramifications. For now, I would much rather my students learn a lot about how to assume the responsibility for their own learning, how to learn on their own for the rest of their lives, and learn a lot about themselves. Whatever we cover, let's make sure we cover it well and that it serves the student rather than us well.
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" -\____