Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Today Extravaganza paid a visit to Zenith -- dressed very spiffily in a blue tennis shirt with the collar popped, and a silk designer tie discarded unworn by his paternal unit (paisley on one side -- navy blue with white spots on the other -- can't magine why it was put aside by a grown man.) He came to my lecture class to check out the scene.

It was an ok class on my part, and we had a great book on a gay Asian community, but the participation rate was unusually low for a class not notable for its participation anyway. This is particularly difficult when the entire session was supposed to be devoted to discussion -- probably ten kids in a class of forty speaking consistently -- although queer studies classes can be like this: "We're gay -- why do the reading when we can talk about ourselves?" I had previously vowed to deal with this once the history search is over, and in a way that preserved my carefully detached, post-promotion trauma sensibility. But as we got into the last twenty minutes, conversation dried up utterly. I looked around and said, "How many people finished this book?"

Two students raised their hands. Two. I had a few words to say about that, and returned to an article we had read for Monday. In the past I might have ended class with a severe lecture and ended it in a huff ("Don't leave in a huff," says Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, "Leave in a minute and a huff.") But I just ended by saying they needed to finish the reading for next time. Whatever.

As Ex and I were walking back to my office, he confessed to horror that *college students* were so fully unprepared. The eighth grade would never dream of such a thing. "And," he said, "Did you know that one of the kids was doing email on a computer?"

No I did not. I thought the little so-and-so was taking notes. I thought people only did that kind of thing in law school. That was the final straw -- I went into full huff, if belatedly.

So upon my return home, the following email went out to the class:

"Please note that participation in class discussions is one of the
requirements of this course. Let me clarify what I mean by that.

"Participation requires completing the reading thoughtfully for the class for which it is scheduled on the syllabus.

"Participation means speaking and making a contribution to the general discussion. It means responding to your classmates as well as to me. It does not mean allowing a small number of your classmates to carry the load for you and teach you about what you have not read. In the future, if participation is as low as it was today, there will be a quiz.

"It has also been brought to my attention that at least one member of the class was checking an email account during class. I am not even going to say what I think about this. Please do not bring computers or any electronic device for use in class in the future unless it is required for a disability and we have discussed it in advance."

There are disadvantages to being too relaxed, people. No one ever said the Radical was plannng on being a pushover for the rest of her life.


Footnote: I came across this post as I was doing a careful read through on April 3, after having discovered that my blog was widely read at Zenith. I considered taking it down, and decided not to. The update is that -- for whatever reason -- snarky emails, comfort level, a good communication of expectations -- communication in the class is significantly better. And I relented on the computer when the student involved offered a gracious apology.


Lesboprof said...

My favorite huff occurred in class, when students were disrespecting a classmate who was speaking. It went something like this... "If you are filling out a grad school application, talking to your neighbor, reading for another class, or balancing a checkbook [seriously--with a calculator and everything], you need to STOP IT and pay attention to your classmate. This behavior is unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated in this classroom. We will listen attentively and provide useful feedback to one another." And so on...

And the student balancing her checkbook actually looked offended and said, "I WAS listening." And I responded, equally offended, "I am talking about ACTIVE listening. Now put it away!"

I have NEVER been so mad in my professional life. I actually apologized later for losing it, but I held firm to the essence of the message. And they towed the line for the rest of the semester.

anthony grafton said...

It's true. I hate being a grump about students nowadays, I HATE it. But participation and preparation have become problems. Almost every fall I teach a seminar on historiography for seniors in my department and a few others who find the course one way or another. It's a survey of 20th-century ways of history writing, concentrating on the post-war period, and they're supposed to read a book a week. They're great kids, really bright and really interested in history. Every one of them is writing one of our required senior theses, or will write one. Many are at the top of their class, and a number of them each year go to grad school. They write wonderful papers and offer articulate, pointed commentary in discussion. Yet often they don't finish the assigned book--even when it's a compelling read that they adore, like GAY NEW YORK, or one that really gets them arguing, like SOUL BY SOUL or THE NAME OF WAR. This limits discussion--to the point that I offer reading guides in advance and concentrate on analyzing early chapters. Worse, there are great books that I used to assign, but which I don't use any more.

Well, we're part of a culture, as Bob Herbert points out in today's TIMES, and these are some of the sadder consequences. They're hopelessly overcommitted on a gazillion fronts. The book plays a less central role in their world than it did for earlier cohorts. Most don't seem to be at home with critical reading, stripping a book down to its arguments and use of evidence. And teachers nowadays are unlikely to do what my teachers did when a class was really unprepared--tear us off a strip and then send us away, as my mentor once did to a seminar I was in, with instructions to do the reading again and be ready for the next meeting. At least I'm not likely to that. I just don't feel comfortable playing that role. But next time I run into a real problem, maybe I will emulate TR and try a BlackBoard message.

Despite the odd setback, I love teaching this course. But what will it be like in ten or fifteen years? I worry.

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