Andrea Kaston Tange’s post on ‘the chastising professor‘ at Curiouser and Curiouser was timely: on the very day it went up, I had started my intro class with a brief
rant pep talk about last week’s disappointing attendance and lackluster participation. It was a subdued occasion: no hissy fits, I promise! My intervention was very much along the lines of Andrea’s “Sincere and Concerned Speech on Investment in Your Own Education,” with a dose of “We’re Talking About Things That Really Matter.” We were reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, for crying out loud! This is not material to be encountered passively.
I share Andrea’s concern about whether these speeches are in fact motivating. In the moment, they are guaranteed to be downers: nobody who’s been publicly criticized is going to feel a lot like cooperating with the person who just chastised them. I thought hard over the weekend about whether to bring this negative energy into the room, but in the end I decided that it was important for me to make a public statement about expectations, and about what real success and productivity look like in a discussion-based class. It’s not like you get a lot of positive energy going anyway when people are arriving unprepared, or at any rate not prepared enough to contribute to discussion, or are putting their heads down on their arms to nap during discussion, or not showing up at all. We have been going along pretty well all year and the recent slump has been conspicuous – not for all of the students, of course, but for enough to make a significant difference in the overall class experience. I don’t know if it’s feminism causing them to disengage, or midterm exams in other classes, or what — but it seemed wrong just to press on as if nothing’s the matter, as if it’s quite OK to treat our class as a time and place when they can just show up and that will be good enough.
Things seemed a bit better yesterday. We’re working our way through A Room of One’s Own, which is not an easy text to make sense of, but I had given them a couple of specific things to think about beforehand (as I almost always do), and I also let them warm up in small groups first before we came together to talk as a class. We focused on the two college meals Woolf describes in such detail in the first chapter, working out the connections she makes, both implicitly and explicitly, between eating and writing. Then we went with her to the British Museum and considered her attempt to find “facts” — and the resulting analysis of the angry Professor she discerns behind the studies she reads. We’re reading Chapter 4 for tomorrow and I’ve asked them to focus on her comments about Austen and Brontë, especially about her idea that in great writing we are unaware of the writer’s state of mind. Since a lot of them don’t know Austen and Brontë well or at all, I suggested they think back over our course readings for examples of writers whose state of mind is or is not conspicuous in their work, and whether they agree that when we become aware of it, it deforms the writing the way she thinks Brontë’s anger deforms Jane Eyre. Martin Luther King is one of the first of our other authors that occurs to me: I’ll be interested to hear what they came up with. A follow-up question, of course, will be whether they think Woolf’s own quite discernible anger (beautifully controlled though it is) in any way diminishes the artistry of A Room of One’s Own.
In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve moved on to Lady Audley’s Secret. I was a bit petulant yesterday when my questions for discussion elicited very little response. Maybe I need to give them the “Sincere and Concerned” speech too! But actually, in that class I think I probably just need to back off a bit more than I have been doing. When I have a lot to say, student passivity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think I’ve just been too quick in the last couple of weeks to fill in when their answers weren’t forthcoming. Lady Audley’s Secret certainly gives us plenty to talk about. So for now, I’ll do my best to stay upbeat, and hope that their apparent inertness is just fallout from the hour we lost with the time change.
I also find that when I have a lot to say, they can get into a habit of silence. But I have one class that is generally great — very well prepared, thoughtful commentaries, good discussion, more hands raised than I can call on at any given moment (and there are 31 of them in the class!) — and even they were a bit off during midterms time. So I get that the quiet classes can sometimes happen and need to be redirected onto track. Sometimes I find the best thing in that case is to have one or two prompts for small group discussion before we talk as a whole class. It gets them all talking again, and that tends to carry over.
But as for the completely passive and disengaged class? I am at a loss. I have one group this term that just says nothing. Speeches, encouragement, cajoling, email invitations to check their grade progress and come see me in office hours if they aren’t happy with their grades, none of it works. They don’t do the reading. They don’t talk in class. They don’t turn in homework. They don’t ask questions. They had nothing to say about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nothing to say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a true story in which scientists experiment on a woman’s tissue without her consent). If they have nothing to say about The Book Thief at the end of term, I will not be surprised, though how one can read a novel about the Holocaust, narrated by Death, and say nothing is beyond me. All I can do is go in grimly determined every day and talk at them, ask questions, and hope that one or two will say something in the 75 minutes. It’s draining and demoralizing, but I don’t think yelling at them would help either.
That does sound demoralizing. Don’t you find that one of the mysteries of teaching is that groups have personalities in the classroom – often that don’t reflect what you find in the individual students when you meet with them one on one? I’m finally accepting (up to a point, clearly) that there’s only so much I can do about the dynamic in any given class. I know that my own personality and strategies and tone etc. are involved as well, but I don’t think I change that much from class to class, so I can’t explain or control the wildly different things that go on. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group quite as inert as what you describe! But while yelling at them won’t help, I believe that our ‘sincere and concerned’ lectures show them that we are deeply invested in what happens in the classroom, and in their experience there, and in their learning. That in itself is a good thing for them to know, right? Because teaching is not, ultimately, about us: it’s about them. I can have a grand old time lecturing away with no interaction at all (though I have a better time if there’s a lively discussion). The point is that there’s supposed to be more to it than that, and that they have to put enough in to get that other stuff out of it. I’m reminded of the gym analogy I quoted in this earlier post.
You are right that it’s not about us, but about them. I do feel that I am failing them when they are this passive — but given that it is absolutely true that my other two classes are generally deeply engaged and highly functioning, it can’t possibly be only what I’m doing (or not) that is making this third class such a struggle. And the “every class has its own personality” thing is mind-boggling, but so very true! It’s astonishing, really.
If they are that disengaged then maybe you turn the tables. Go to the room and if no-one responds to your questions just sit in silence until someone gets the point or you cd just get a book out and read.