The Awesomeness of Students: NY Times Edition

Given some of the discussion in some of my previous posts (also here) and this post by Paco, today’s article in The New York Times, “New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology,” is quite interesting. Here are a couple of choice passages:

“The baby boomers seem to see technology as information and communication,” said Prof. Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University and the author of “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age.” “Their offspring and the emerging generation seem to see the same devices as entertainment and socializing.”…Naturally, there will be many students and no small number of high-tech and progressive-ed apologists ready to lay the blame on boring lessons. One of the great condemnations in education jargon these days, after all, is the “teacher-centered lesson.”

“I’m so tired of that excuse,” said Professor Bugeja, may he live a long and fruitful life. “The idea that subject matter is boring is truly relative. Boring as opposed to what? Buying shoes on eBay? The fact is, we’re not here to entertain. We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind.” “Education requires contemplation,” he continued. “It requires critical thinking. What we may be doing now is training a generation of air-traffic controllers rather than scholars. And I do know I’m going to lose.”

Freedman closes the article with an anecdote:

I am reminded of a story I heard from an Ivy League junior at a social gathering last year. She and a friend walked into the lecture hall for a class and noticed two young men in a back row surfing Internet pornography sites. They called out and waved to alert the professor. He stopped his lecture. He turned his eyes to the young women, those would-be whistle-blowers. And as the pornography show proceeded undetected, he chastised them for interrupting.

I don’t have too much to add to all of this right now. One question that came out of this article was that perhaps we teachers should think of ourselves as entertainers. Do students want a magnetic, entertaining figure with who they could attach themselves, rather than a paradigm of analytical ability who they could emulate? We’ve all seen this, hang around the bar at any professional conference and you will spot the magnetic figure surrounded by emotionally starved (or in my case I was literally starved, I was born emotionally starved so that’s nothing new) grad students (and others) just yearning to identify with the Master. However exaggerated my little example is here, the very idea of this is, shall we say, rather problematic and it returns us to Paco’s initial problem. Given the redefinition of the university from that which is in the business of delivering a liberal arts education to that which is in the business of concerning themselves with the “bottom line,” it would seem to me that teachers have to entertain. Yet, once this happens it shifts and breaks down communication in the classroom. Either we become charismatic leaders to whom students can identify–ummm, nepotism anyone? Or, we try to hammer away at this and teach them to think for themselves and to be critical of what they hear not only from the the broader culture, but also within the University in their courses. Hopefully we won’t produce too too many air traffic controllers…kind of a dream job for me, truth be told.

9 thoughts on “The Awesomeness of Students: NY Times Edition

  1. Speaking of boring – I spent a whole weekend reading Heidegger’s analysis of boredom in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics which, to my shame, I had no idea existed (analysis, that is) – now I think it would be great to teach a course on boredom and make it all fun and interactive… in any case, Heidegger’s analysis is probably one of the best things written on boredom I’ve seen plus it’s such a nice change stylistically I almost decided to stop reading secondary literature.

  2. Students respond to charismatic figures – whether they “need” such figures is a different matter entirely… I’ve always somewhat considered it useful to try to thwart students’ impulses to try to position faculty in this way, although of course there’s a complex balancing act between this, and the mobilisation of the “aura” of the teaching relationship to decentre students from their own habits and bounce them out of the grooves into which their thoughts would otherwise fall. Students often borrow or “try on” dispositions they derive from various faculty members, before they move on to develop their own critical dispositions – the question is how to minimise the risk that this process will stall midway through, abridged by some sort of disciplining relationship… It helps if faculty don’t themselves want disciples… ;-P

    On the issue of faculty as entertainers… It’s interesting. There is an ongoing discussion of this issue at my current university. One of many problems with the local discussion of the issue is a sort of over-valuation of “data” – a treatment of student opinion as “given”, as though this opinion is fixed and the teaching process won’t react back on it. My courses are outliers – they require a great deal more reading and writing, and more difficult reading and writing, than most other courses students will take. They’re abstract. They cover a lot of history. They don’t seem very practical. And our students tell us, routinely, that they don’t want abstract, impractical courses that aren’t directly relevant to the requirements of their workplace (Australian high school students chose a professional specialisation before they enter university, and are admitted to universities on this basis). Yet my courses, that don’t particularly seem to meet any of these demands, evaluate well. One reason for this is that, when students say they don’t want “impractical” “theoretical” courses, they don’t actually have much sense of what such a course would entail – the question is too abstract for them to answer at the point that it’s posed. It’s only through going through the course itself, through the apprenticeship the course provides, that they learn what you “get” from this kind of thinking.

    In terms of my local context, I find that I do need to structure courses so that students are, in a sense, “forced” to engage the material. Otherwise, the prejudices they bring into the class will mean that they don’t engage enough with the material to experience the sorts of things theoretical work opens up. A shift takes place for most students a few weeks in – not because they’ve been particularly entertained or enticed, but because they’ve done quite a lot of difficult work, and begin “seeing” things differently…

    A bit murky in this comment – deep into trying to write something, so this is procrastination break of the morning… ;-P Fantastic blog, by the way – I keep meaning to pick up some things from here at rough theory – I just haven’t had much time to write for the blog recently.

  3. Shahar, N., I have to say that this approach of “teacher as entertainer” both attacts and repulses me – it attracts me because I think that teaching philosophy would change considerably if professors were a little less arrogant and self-important in a sense of always assuming that “smart students will get it, idiots will have to endure” – because, of course, philosophy is about the big questions and thus no matter how we raise them students are bound to scratch their head and repent of their mediocre non-critical ways. on the other hand, i think the philosophical kind of entertainment requires much more work than just jotting some notes down on a yellow pad and honestly some days i’m not really up for it because i come from an educational background where “serious” means “boring” – if you entertain you make “serious” learning experience into an “entertaining” one and lose the substance – so i would joke around, of course, but than quickly get serious when it comes to the actual material – like that scene from Pulp Fiction: c’mmon, let’s get in character! [before they knock on the door and kill all the college kids who they the suitcase]

    P.S. thanks for kind word about our effort, honestly, i think we hardly try 🙂

  4. N., thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. I wish I had your students!!

    Your comments touch upon the larger issue of “what is actual state of the university?” and “what do we want the university to be?”

    As for the more pragmatic stuff, e.g. are teachers to be entertainers, I have a sense that the very idea of entertainment has seeped into higher education as a direct result of the broader culture, whether technological as in the article or otherwise. In fact, the new president of the institution I work at introduced a new focus he calls “Customer Service” where students are to be treated like customers. While this attitude is certainly nice in the financial aid or registrar’s office, it is very problematic in the classroom. It reinforces to the student that we teachers are there to cater to their wishes, whether that means not giving someone a D because they have a scholarship that requires a B average, or, handing out A’s because they enrolled in the class.

    While of course I’m generalizing, some students do in fact experience that astonishment at some point while reading through the history of philosophy, but that’s the minority, really.

  5. Mikhail – If by “entertainment”, you’re thinking of not treating the subject matter over-“augustly”, that’s perfectly fair. By that measure, I might even “entertain” in my classes, as I tend to present philosophical material as something that responds to problems that are arising in much more “accessible” forms in social and intellectual history at the time, and my theoretical courses are generally intended to help students see these kinds of connections (and, hopefully, learn to make them in relation to their own default dispositions, although this is much more difficult…). I’m also very strongly committed to the notion that this kind of material can be taught – that the material can be broken down, that much of the barrier to absorbing the material is a matter of socialisation and the cultivation of a sufficient framework of references and context: that the primary difficulty with approaching complex intellectual material is not really related to “intellect” or aptitude (although certain students certainly find it easier than others), but rather to the need for an apprenticeship that is, at base, quite similar to the apprenticeship required to understand any sort of community.

    One of the organising themes of my theoretical courses tends to be that quite mundane circumstances – slight shifts in collective practice, for example – make certain concepts simply easier to grasp, certain conceptual leaps easier to make – so that changes in forms of thought over time don’t reflect changes in collective intelligence, but background shifts in what people do, and the forms of thought tacitly presupposed in those actions, render certain forms of abstract thought more… thinkable. Among other things, this means that the content of my courses involves a movement back and forth between material that is quite a bit more concrete, and material that seems, read superficially, quite removed from the everyday, in order to try to get students used to thinking this kind of movement. Among other things, this tends to demythologise the abstract materials a bit, placing them in a continuum with more familiar ways of wrestling with our experiences.

    At any rate: from my point of view, I’m not particularly entertaining in the classroom… ;-P But this doesn’t mean that I cordon philosophical material off into some stratified sphere, or that I rely on students’ natural talents – among other things, I wouldn’t see that as teaching.

    Shahar – I don’t always have my students either. 🙂 And I’m not trying to oversell what I achieve in my courses. In some circumstances, I may just be getting the sort of cohort effect from students who think they’re doing something really difficult – a much smaller set of students will retain any sort of long-term interest in the material.

    But, in an institutional culture that also strongly emphasises a “customer service” model, I find that, strangely, many students miss being challenged. They wouldn’t say so coming in to my courses, I don’t think, but coming out the other end, the comment I often get is that I “respected” them – basically, I trusted them to be able to do something that isn’t particularly easy to do. This experience then reacts back on their other learning experiences – other courses may have been easier: was this because other people believed they could achieve less?

  6. N., I agree with you of course in principal about setting the bar and having students rise to the occasion to meet the challenge, and, that students do in fact respect us for that, but my general experience with students at the institution I teach at has not always reflected this.

    As a rule, I don’t give pop tests or other types of prods to force students to keep up, simply because, well they are adults. We read original texts, no secondary lit, no textbooks. However, this no prodding philosophy either works splendidly, and the class as a whole influences each other to raise the bar, or, like this semester, attendence drops, participation is only by a select few, etc.

    Many of my students are not prepared for college period, so by the time they get into the philosophy classroom they haven’t picked up many of the reading, writing and critical thinking skills that they should have. This is not entirely their fault, the institution as a whole wants to move them along to produce high graduation rates to get more funding from the state, prerequisites are often overrided. Many of my students went to very poor, overcrowded high schools in the inner city, many of them are single mothers, are the first in their family to attend college, and most have to work full time. I often find myself teaching philosophy second and other skills first. Yet, at the same time, this is college, those other issues aside, I still have at least one student each semester who tells me he isn’t going to buy the books b/c he’s not going to read them anyway! Oy.

    But, it is rewarding when after making it through the most difficult series of the course, which is I think, an interrogation of Descartes’ rationalism, Hume’s empiricism, and Kant’s critical philosophy, students look back on it and the writing they did and are impressed with themselves. And, they should be. Whether or not this stimulates a long term interest, I don’t know, but I have heard stories from faculty in other disciplines who told me that some of my students told them my philosophy courses “fucked them up,” in a good way, which is a nice compliment, I think!

  7. Shahar – Just a quick note that I may giving the wrong impression of what I do in the classroom: I spend an enormous amount of time on “how to read”, “how to write” sorts of skills – the students I work with don’t come, for the most part, equipped to tackle complex texts “cold”, and the material would be completely inaccessible to them if I didn’t do this. (One of the reasons, I suspect, that some other faculty locally don’t think “our” students can handle/are interested in reading complex materials, is that they don’t cover this kind of basic skills level explicitly. I’ve heard faculty occasionally voice that this kind of teaching is “beneath” them – that students ought to come knowing how to do this; some people seem to treat reading and writing skills as an aptitude, rather than as a skill that can be explicitly taught, etc. While it would certainly be nice if students came in with these basics covered, this clearly isn’t going to happen any time soon – if I don’t cover it, it ain’t gonna get covered… So I spend quite a lot of explicit class time on it…)

    I do understand your point about students being adults, and that therefore measures to ensure that they do reading, etc., tilts potentially in a paternalistic direction. In many respects, I go with this – but not in relation to reading. I might behave differently if I were teaching in a setting in which comparable types and levels of reading were being expected of students in their other courses, such that students had a reasonable chance of coming to my courses with the capacity to be “rational maximisers” about the choices they make in relation to reading, or not reading, the material closely. As it is, students most likely won’t have taken any courses where the reading is so pivotal to what the course is trying to teach.

    My current structure for theoretical courses (I also teach other sorts of things, which I won’t approach in this same way), is to require students to write something specific on the readings before they arrive for each class. These writings are assessed, as is their participation in discussion. My students are also often “non-traditional” and with many competing demands on their time – I manage this, and accommodate their adult decision-making around their priorities, by having potential reading/writing assignments each week, but only counting the best [x] of these assignments toward their final course mark. These means that they can stuff up, skip, juggle, slack off, etc. – occasionally – and still do very well in my course. But they must seriously engage with a decent proportion of the readings, in order to succeed in the course.

    They often don’t “get” the reading – but this is part of the point. I want them to come to class, having had a serious go, not at reading passively, but at having tried to re-present the material to someone else (their writings are also posted publicly, viewable to other students – which means they can read one another’s attempts). This prior go will then help them see the difference between what they got out of a text, struggling with it on their own, and what we collectively get out of the text when we discuss it together: this provides a very concrete level of feedback about their reading, which helps them apprentice into a fairly complex skill.

    My courses tend to be structured so that themes reiterate through the term – again, this is done with an eye to students from non-traditional backgrounds, facing competing pressures: it ensures that the course isn’t entirely linear – and that being completely lost early on isn’t a situation from which students can’t recover.

    I’m sure there are better ways to do what I’m trying to do. And it is definitely not the case that all students come out of the courses fired up for more. I had an intense shock the first term I taught here, that there was a strong culture of non-attendance, and so my current quasi-coercive assessment structure has been a response to that – and attempt to work out how you counter the students’ collective expectations that they need not attend, at least for long enough that they have the chance to see whether they get something out the course.

    But yes: I get your frustration that students don’t come prepared with basics – believe me, I do. I take this for granted at this point, and just assume that this is now one of my core objectives for every course I design – and yes, it means that content is secondary, or that content becomes the excuse, as it were, for covering these basic skills. When I speak about my courses being difficult, unfortunately this is one of the reasons they are difficult: it’s not just the theoretical orientation, but the fact that students are being expected to master other skills along the way. I’ve found this to be the… material condition of possibility for fucking students up in the right way… ;-P

  8. N., Oh Great, not only do I want to poach your students, now I kind of wish I could take your courses!! What’s next?

    Regardless, know that my comments about “learning prods” (or any others) weren’t directed to you in an accusatory/judgmental sort of “I do this morally superior thing,” “you do that perverse and depraved thing” in the classroom , it’s just something I’ve been rethinking as of late.

    I hope I don’t come off as too “Oh it’s all the students, not me.” I don’t like to “blame” students because I think in general bad teachers do that, but this semester has been quite frustrating for a variety of reasons (it’s my second year here)–student related, administration related, new annoying president with goofy initiatives, patsy dept chair, blah blah blah.

    Anyway, I do agree with much of what you’ve written above. Thanks for engaging so thoughtfully. (Ironically, I was thinking about my courses for next term his afternoon and had decided on a “journal/discussion” component rather than just assigning a series of exercises/response papers that walk students through the arguments).

    Lately, I’ve been telling my students in my intro to philosophy courses that they can’t always aim for total comprehension (e.g. every sentence, every word, minute detail…try to read Derrida that way, yikes), but should instead look at the material/argument in a broader, general manner so if they are at a cocktail party where people care about this stuff they can “hang.” (I overstate a little but you know what I mean)

    It’s still shocking to me that midway through the term many of my students can’t seem to draw upon the skills they have executed in the same class earlier in the term, or learned in the logic course, and apply it each week, much of my frustration is my students’ amnesia, which sometimes seems to occur over less than a 24 hour period!

    Oh well, it’s just about pub time here which means I have to run. Enjoy the weekend.

  9. Pingback: Awesomeness of Students: Professor Zero edition « Perverse Egalitarianism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s