Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 10 Mar 1998 08:56:27 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: In the Dark Everything Seems So Simple

The stoop is cold. The air is crisp. There's a dampness hugging the soggy grass and littering clumps of pine needles and spanish moss as reminders of this weekend's thunderous storms. Dawn is arriving. The light is revealing a fast moving floe of sooty cotton in the sky that was hidden in the pristine blackness. In the dark everything seems so simple

With the rising sun comes a "messiness," complexity of line, nuances of texture, subtleties of form, gradations of light, layers of shadow, shades of color. This got me to thinking about how so many of us academicians--classroom faculty, administrators, staff--when we look at students so prefer a pristine darkness in which we can blithely exile each student from the company of authentic and complex and individual human beings to the confining assembly of simplistic invented people. In the dark everything seems so simple: students should be living one-dimensional, single-purpose, bodiless, monastic educational lives of reading, researching, studying, pondering, and writing. In the dark the sooty, very real day-to-day lives each student actually lives so often remains a hidden story to which most of us academics are almost clueless. Most of us make little effort to bring a light of day that would reveal the "messy,"complex, flawed, and very human reality of each student. I guess I'm particularly sensitive to this rift between dark and light, simple and complex, mythical "student" and real person. Last week was an "interesting " time. It seems that everyone has a story. I was thinking about a professor who is threatening a non-traditional student with a six point deduction off her final grade for having missed three days of class and an assignment. What was this struggling single parent's crime? She had the audacity, as this professor told her, not to have she priorities in order; she chose to spend those three days, nearly sleepless, in the hospital with her three flu-dehydrated children rather than come to class and make an assigned presentation. I was thinking about a first year student whom I visited in the hospital; she has been there a week while the doctors struggle to find the cause for the sudden appearance of blood in her urine. I was thinking about a student who had to miss class for a few days because she was maid of honor at her sister's wedding in Utah which was, as someone told her, "inconveniently not scheduled during break." I was thinking of an LD student who is rightly so proud of herself for having taken the courageous step by participating in a class discussion. She spoke only a sentence, but to everyone in the class it was an oration worthy of Pericles himself. I was thinking about a forlorn student whose parents have successfully pressured her to leave school and become the primary care-taker of her ailing grandmother in Oregon. I was thinking about giving a consoling Tootsie Pop and a few whispered words to a distraught student who came into class crying because she had just gotten off the phone listening to her father angrily call her a "stupid black piece of shit" and threatening to pull her out of school for having trouble passing developmental math class. I was thinking about an honors student who loudly plopped down in his seat and told me he was madder than a wet hen because "the 'ignorant' teacher" gave him a B+ on an essay. And, I was thinking about the scribbles, one-line entries, two to three page pouring out of a heart, doodles, decorations, colorings, poems, drawings in the 152 student journals I read every week. Each pair of eyes, each face, the movement of each body, each voice, each revealing journal page constantly remind me that in the dark everything seems so simple and I see "messy" imperfect human beings with struggles, strife, emotions, dreams, hopes, strengths, weaknesses, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of confidence, stressed lives, struggling lives, feelings of inability, courageous lives, unsatisfied lives, undecided lives, uncertain lives, rechanneled lives, questioned lives, pressured lives, unfulfilled lives, inexperienced lives, fragmented lives, kaleidoscopic lives, frenetic live, complex lives, varied lives, memories of past lives, lives as yet to find their meaning.

If we take the time, want to take the time, care to take the time, we can see how, like a handle pumping water from a well, the students' focus is pushed and pulled by sickness, accident, death, athletics, encounters, challenges, personal problems, family problems, competition, pressure, sexual preference, separation, abuse, finances, jobs, learning "disability," physical "disability,"religion, race, single parenting commuting, alcohol, drugs, new-found independence, late-night partying, late-night studying, gender, divorce, late-night loving, worrying, military duty, fraternity, sorority, lost love, new-found love, distant love, love-making; We can see how each student appears as a frenzied conductor struggling to orchestrate a cacophony of musicians each of whom is playing from a different score completely oblivious to the others: coaches, professors, boyfriends, girlfriends bosses, parents, commanders, teammates, step-parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, grandparents, fiances, children, roommates, baby-sitters. We can see how each of them is like a circus high-wire performer walking carefully and carelessly, skillfully and clumsily in the struggle to balance feelings of separateness, aloneness, loneliness, reputation, strength, abandonment, self-esteem, confidence, expectations, demands, familiarity, strangeness, confusion, sadness, joy, failure, accomplishment, pain, anger, strength, insecurity, wanted, unwanted, supported, neglected, noticed, ignored, loved, disdained, rejected, mocked, applauded, unsure.

Yet, as one professor castigatingly told me, "I'm going to stay like Sergeant Schultz. 'I know nothing.' And, I don't want to! Nor should I have to." When, however, we audition for the role of Sergeant Schultz and say "I don't want to know about your problems," we unnaturally divide the student's "self." When we say, "check your personal baggage at the threshold," we artificially compartmentalize the students' lives. When we say, "that's not none of my concern," we fictitiously validate only certain facets of their lives. When we say we aren't interested in their personal lives or their lives outside the classroom, we isolate the classroom aspects of their lives as if they were uninfluenced by other parts of their lives. We unnaturally separate the person from the student. In the dark everything seems so simple.

We professors so often deny the limitations of both our and each student's error-prone humanity that so many of us who disapprove of fiction are master creators of our own mythic image. Throughout this filtering and excerpting by our biases, blindness, and deafness we create what Huck Finn would have called a "true story with 'some stretchers.'" We create a needed symbolic image in our academic life to triumph over reality which we can use as proof of the needlessness of changing our attitudes and ways. It creates an interesting and illuminating social, intellectual, and moral problem. We so love to announce to the world in the slick recruiting brochures and eloquent mission statements and glowing press releases and flowing speeches how much we care about each student and how concerned we are with the needs of the whole student while at the same time a seldom contested dehumanizing and depersonalizing mentality of being concerned only with a part of the student governs in most classrooms. We trumpet that we crave diversity, seeing each student as someone unique, and so often reduce the complexity of real life and individuality of each student to the distorting simplicity of stereotype and uniformity allowing us to look at and hear them as the same thing. In the dark everything seems so simple.

When stereotype, often expressed as an "I think..." or "It is my opinion" or "I believe,"-- an evasive intellectual way of saying myth--and truth contend, when the "stretchers"make for a more comforting and reassuring reinforcement of the status quo then the "true story,", most of us are in the habit of imposing our biases on our perceptions of students with a heap of pronouncing "In my day...." and cavalier "students today...." and distancing"students are adults." and disengaging "students are responsible for their own learning." When symbol and real life clash, we tend to rely more on our concepts of students than on our observations, more on self-serving assumptions than what we see. We assume that reality is similar to our perceptions than to freshly observe what is there before our eyes.

It's a leap of abstraction, a "castle in the sky", a leap to a generalization that so roots and grows like entwining bamboo or kudzu that we limit ourselves to familiar and safe ways of thinking and acting. We act almost like that witness during a trial who adamantly swears to the truth of something that didn't in fact happen, and will refuse to change his or her testimony minds even when his or her mistakes are pointed out. We seldom carry the real, flesh and blood, individual students in our heads; we carry images, assumptions, experiences, stories, mental models. And it is what we carry in our heads, the mental models, not what is truly before us that decides whether we are governed by the "yuk" factor or a "wow" syndrome.

If we believe students are incapable, we behave towards them a lot differently than if we believe that they are overflowing with potential. Our perceptions effect what we see, what we selectively observe. Our ideas decide what we measure. Our belief decide how we act. In the dark everything seems so simple. Our inclination to talk in generalities, simplified explanations, and predictable forecasts appear at face value to establish, maintain, or restore a sense of control over our ever-increasingly complex educational system that seems to be spinning out of control. It allows us to deal with ever-increasing class size, ever-evolving academic culture.

That talent to generalize, however, also limits our learning and understanding of the individual student, especially if we are unaware of that leap of faith in our generalization. How many times have we said "students don't care" and wonder about how true it is for each and every student? We have made the leap to a generalization "not caring" and made the generalization into truth! No one questions whether the particular student cares or not. It's a given; it become axiomatic. No one questions when the student does something that reveals a "caring" because it is passed off as the proverbial exception to the rule. The truth that professors who think of students as uncaring, that "they don't listen" becomes a reinforcing inference, treats them with indifference and so the students become more often than not indifferent. No one asks each student if he or she cares, and might have found out that in his or her mind they care very much; they may have found out that a student has a disability, has reasons behind actions or inactions. Before we are aware of our leaps of abstraction, we aren't even aware of our need to ask. This is why reflection is so vital to see our perceptions and how be may be hiding them and hiding from both ourselves and the student. In the dark everything seems so simple.

Every time I pick up a journal, talk with a student, listen to them talk among themselves, I am confronted with this spot leap of generalization. Each spoken word, each inflection, each movement, each journal entry forces me to ask what I believe about the nature of people, of education, of particular people. What my beliefs are based on and if my generalizations may be wrong or misleading, if my generalizations are merely reference points or conveniences of conversation or absolute truths. They all remind me that most stereotypes and generalities apply to groups, not to individuals. And the more you focus on the individual, the more you see such generalities are a pursuit of the will of the wisp. It's something akin to what Toni Morrison said in a recent interview about race. "When you know 'race,' what do you know about that person? Nothing! Oh, you add on the stereotypical baggage, but you still don't know that person." It's not different with "student" and "that person." In the dark everything seems so simple.

The danger of our stereotyping is that we are not aware of it. It does its impersonal dirty work in subtleties, in the shadows of our mind and soul, unexamined and unquestioned, and thus is anointed as a healthy "snapshot of whole truths" rather than as ongoing, incomplete assumptions or "stretchers.". It therefore remains unchallenged and unchanged and untreated--and limits our actions to what is familiar and comfortable. To paraphrase Heather Pringle in a recent article in DISCOVER that challenges the image of Ice Age women as hapless, little cave-mates being dragged around by the hair by macho male mammoth killers, the individual students are there, and they can speak for themselves. They answer the questions we have. But if we don't envision the questions, we're not going to see the individual students, and he or she will not speak to us, we will not hear, and we will not have the choice to listen and act.

If you're looking for the student without faults, you never find him or her; if you're looking for the humble student whose head is covered with an academic habit, you'll never find him or her; if you're looking for "the average student", you'll never find him or her. We could probably do more, then, if we expected each student to be and treated him or her less like a resident of Olympus and more like an individual error-prone human.

In the darkness everything looks simple.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
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