Friday, 15 March 2013

That Friday feeling

It's grey and wet outside, nobody else is in the office and I've been doing a lot of very routine admin (such as trying to get the techs to explain why they can get a documentary video running in the VLE but neither I nor any of the students can see it), so I'm not in the most exuberant of moods. 

So this probably wasn't the right moment to read this very candid and witty post about the tribulations of getting students to actually read the bloody books and say something in class. It's certainly something my colleagues and I are struggling with at the moment. Not with every class: my Milton group, for instance, won't shut up and are a delight to see. But some simply will not read the books. Quiet, shy or nervous students are fine: it takes a while to warm up, but not reading the books really bothers me. My job is to provide an environment in which every student feels comfortable asking and answering searching questions of me, themselves and each other, and this takes time and effort.

Mostly because I too was a quiet shy student as an undergraduate. My first philosophy class was a test of wills. The lecturer simply sat there, in total silence, until someone cracked. It took 20 minutes and the person who cracked was me. Why? Because despite the terror of being thought dumber than a box of hammers, I was bursting with enthusiasm and forced myself to speak having decided that vocal stupidity was better than cooler-than-thou disengagement. I went to a very bad school which discouraged questioning to the point that I forgot that my name wasn't 'Shut Up', so often was the phrase directed at me by certain teachers. University was liberation to me. That isn't to say that I read everything. I fully admit not reading all of The Faerie Queene nor the collected works of Henryson, Skelton and Dunbar (though I now regret not doing so). In my first year, we had tutorials of 4-5 people. Having realised early on that the sleazy tutor only spoke to the young women in the group, my friend and I abandoned preparation and drank spirits in the lift on the way up. We'd compete to say the most brainless and tangential things, knowing that nothing we said would elicit the slightest bit of consideration or attention. Very childish, but sort of satisfying for a while. Moving on to other tutors in the second year was a shock: they listened to us and probed what we said. Not comfortable, but much more satisfying.

Kids: if you signed up to do an English literature degree, we should be allowed to assume that you're enthusiastic about a) reading books and b) talking about books. We don't expect you to love or even understand every text, certainly not from the start. But we do expect a degree of enthusiasm and co-operative exploration. When I give you a 110 page novella, it's not unreasonable to expect you to read it by the end of the three weeks I've set aside for examining it. Seriously.

Now plenty of people online have said that reacting negatively to disengagement is Just Not On. It ignores the multiple complexities of students' lives and the hidden reasons for reluctance. In some ways, this is fair enough: many of my students have families to look after, long hours at work to pay for their studies and lives to live. But only up to a point, Lord Copper. They're here because they want to be. Nobody forces them to sign up for a degree and nobody forces them to come to class.

I don't think schools and universities have made it clear enough that higher study demands commitment and effort, in return for which the intellectual and social rewards are great. School league tables have abolished enthusiasm and encouragement there: the kids are just meat-space representatives of statistical achievements in which corner-cutting is deemed perfectly acceptable. The students turn up here with stories of 'skeleton' essays in which the teacher tells them what to put in each paragraph. They speak of rarely reading a whole novel: instead, photocopies of 'key chapters' are provided to enable model exam responses to be regurgitated. Teachers have told me of being warned against talking about complicated ideas ('they don't need that to pass') even if the students are perfectly capable.

So small wonder that some students (nowhere near all) might be feeling sullen. They've been treated like drones for years and suddenly a new load of teachers are acting all disappointed in them for not adapting quickly enough to a scarier (but also much better) educational model. The question is how to cope as a teacher. The author of Curiouser and Curiouser rejects the Angry Rant despite its promise of instantaneous satisfaction, and rightfully so. The last thing I'd want to do is turn mutual educational encounters into mutual hostility. And besides, these students are adults. They're here by choice and they can leave by choice: shouting at them makes the latter more likely. With first-year students, you've got three years of their company to look forward to: if you treat them as an undifferentiated mass of relaxed muscle, it's going to be a terrible three years.

For Curiouser and Curiouser, there's a gendered aspect to this too: her male colleagues don't get anything like the abuse she gets whenever she assays a little criticism or exhortation. That kind of thing doesn't happen here as far as I know. The vast majority of students are female in my English Lit classes, and it's pretty balanced in the Cultural Studies modules. Also, my students are nice. However annoyed they might get sometimes, confrontation and abuse just don't happen.

So how does Curiouser and Curiouser handle the disappointment?

My response has always been to give the Sincere And Concerned Speech About Investment In Your Own Education. This is a speech designed to make them see how they are selling themselves short by not being active learners. I have speeches about How To Take Notes, and How The Skills In This Class Are Transferable, and Why You Should Care About Doing Well Even Though You Don’t Like This Subject Matter
But I do not have a speech about How You Are A Lazy Ass Who Needs To Just Do The Assignment Already.
I think this is wise. My response is to make light-hearted references to the joys of reading, then progressively less light-hearted but not angry appeals to their better nature. More This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You disappointment speeches, and One Day You'll Thank Me For Getting You To Read This speeches (I exempt The Faerie Queene and comic Dickens from this routine) and persuading them that An Informed Opinion Makes Reading A Book A Richer Experience Than Just 'Reckoning' Something About It, Really. I also deliver the Everybody Keeps Quiet Because They Think Their Question Will Sound Stupid When Everybody Else Is Thinking The Same Thing And This Isn't A Judgemental Space Anyway speech with some regularity. Oh, and the Lectures Are When I Talk A Lot, Seminars Are Specially Designed For Your Voices one. That's a classic. My colleague likes giving the I've Got Four Degrees Already, The Question Is Whether You Want To Get This One. I have, once or twice, cancelled a class when it became apparent that virtually nobody had read the text. Not angrily, but disappointedly and matter-of-factly. Do it often and it becomes a pose, but when you have a reputation for being friendly and suddenly take extreme measures like this, there's often a good response because it's clear that you really mean it.

What's most annoying is that my disappointment is based on the students' refusal to grab hold of every opportunity going, which is a function of getting old. When I was 18, a three year degree seemed like forever. There was no hurry. Now I'm 37 and entire months disappear in the blink of an eye (along with my hair and waistline). I know that those three years are precious: never again will they have the luxury of just sitting around reading and talking about things without some arse in slip-on shoes and attention-seeking glasses demanding a spreadsheet NOW!

I also try to make my own enthusiasm for a text apparent. A couple of weeks ago I found myself slipping off my shoes in the lecture (still have no idea why) and wandering around the room talking about post-modernist versions of Romanticism without notes. It felt good, and hopefully my passion persuaded them that the texts were worth reading and talking about.

Other things I do relate to the choice of text. I happen to like a lot of the traditional canon, but it doesn't deliver an element of surprise. So I choose texts for first-years according to what I think will make them talk. Bad books work well: ones where the plotting, characterisation or narrative are so ham-fisted that the students feel compelled to critique them. It's always easier to point out a text's flaws, and it's a good way of quickly identifying technique, particularly with novels. Also, students are happier tearing into an author unknown to them than they are having a go at what they've always been told is Great Literature. 'Why Doesn't This Shakespeare Scene Work Very Well?' is not going to go down very well with nervous neophytes.

But like Curiouser and Curiouser, I feel there's a balance to be struck. I'm inspired by the '68 generation of students who took control of their universities and their learning. I didn't quite manage that as an undergraduate, but I want my students to do it. I want them to be more demanding, to push me and each other. At the same time, do I worry so much about the power inherent in being a teacher that I'm too nice to the students? A teacher who wants to be everybody's friend is liable to be disappointed (especially when grading time rolls around) and the object of scorn: the students have enough, cooler friends than you). Is a bit of discomfort and pressure educationally fruitful?

The next obvious stage is to find out how the students feel in these situations - without putting them on the spot. I shall give it some thought.

Update: @KateMfD points out that I'm perhaps overestimating the students' agency: have they really made a positive choice to go to university? Certainly to some (including to me), it was scary but automatic: like going up a class in school. I never sat down and thought about why I was going, or what else was out there. 'English' doesn't sound much different from 'English' at school level, so it may be a 'default' choice for people who feel like they've been railroaded into the institution. Another question to ask the students…

Anyway, enough of this serious soul-searching. Have some bubblegum pop to start the weekend. It's Mott The Hoople's 'Take The Skinheads Bowling' – another way of motivating the reluctant! I particularly love the call and response lines.

Mostly today I've been listening to Prokofiev Piano Concertos, a collection of Peter Philips' Renaissance choral music and the new Faustus album, Broken Down Gentlemen: folk-tastic fun. In complete contrast, I'm off to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman tomorrow: my first live Wagner, then honouring the ancestors by celebrating St. Patrick's Day at the Birmingham parade. Have a good weekend.


Andrea Kaston Tange said...

The one thing we struggle with here that you do not is that we have "general education" courses that are required for everyone in the first two years before specializing in a major -- so EVERYONE takes math, sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, etc., courses before choosing a major in which to focus. This makes it much harder when teaching these 1st & 2nd yr courses to make the courses a "sell" on the ground that they chose this so ought to be invested in it. And I do deeply think that lack of preparation, privilege, etc., plays a huge role in how well they can do at first (or even in how well they know WHAT to do at first). But, at a fundamental level, even if university is a presumed next step they haven't much considered, the apathy that leaves them doing no work at all is incomprehensible to me: even if you hate the class, why would you do so little work that you will fail it if passing it is required to get your degree??? This I cannot understand.

matt said...

I'm not sure how you choose, at The Hegemon, which students to offer places to, but if, like other universities, you make offers based on grades and/or UCAS points then I'm doing your potential student a disservice if I pass up the opportunity to take a few shortcuts on the way to setting them up for the grade that will allow them access to three years of just sitting around reading and talking about things. If and when you invite prospective students over for a day or two spent in deep and meaningful discussion, at the end of which you feel confident enough of who are the truly engaged and committed ones, to make unconditional offers, then those of us in the lower tiers will be only too happy to spend more of our time talking about complicated ideas that the students don't need to pass. I appreciate that you are not a fan of the direction the DfE etc. has taken over the last few decades and that your comment is not directed at me but "the kids are just meat-space representatives of statistical achievements" is offensive - teachers in schools and 6th form colleges balance the pressure of floor targets, minimum levels of achievement, league tables, and data-driven evaluation against the needs of the students, and most make a pretty decent job of it. I know I'm taking offence at something you probably didn't mean but maybe tread more lightly over other people's work next time.

On a separate note, can I suggest that your "Sincere and Concerned Speech..." might be a symptom of the problem rather than appropriate medication. Occasionally telling people why they should see things your way works, but mostly it doesn't. Remember that you love just sitting around reading and talking about things so much that you have dedicated your life to it, and it just won't be that fundamentally important to most of your students, which is why they will go off and get jobs in administration, buy a house and a Mondeo and have a family, or whatever. So don't tell them what they should be like, start at the beginning by asking them what they want to get out of the course, what they think they need to do to achieve this, and what you can do to support them. They may tell you they want you to write a short precis of each text and then be assessed on whether they can learn it, but I doubt it. Once they have told you they want to have a good old root through a load of books old and new - Welsh even - and they want you to pick interesting and varied texts, and be enthusiastic, and ask them interesting questions, then it becomes a lot easier for you all to agree on some ground rules for the process, like reading the bloody books. And maybe they will want a joker to play when some other aspect of their lives goes tits up, or maybe they will have a different idea to you about how much reading they can actually do each week, but compromise on the bits you decide can be compromised on and use your veto on the unacceptable stuff. Now get all the students to sign up to the code you've agreed (blood is good) and then, when they don't read the books, it's their contract they are breaking, not just your speeches they are ignoring, and you won't be stuck lecturing them about how your point of view should also be theirs. We meat-space manipulators know a thing or two about working with the reluctant and unco-operative. And of course, you also have to love them all, even the bad ones.


The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Matt. Thanks for your comment. There's lots to think about. Firstly though, I should apologise, as I've clearly given the impression that I'm blaming teachers for what's happening in schools. In my clumsy way, I was trying to satirically suggest that teachers are being forced by school management and government policy to treat their pupils as statistical units, against their will. Lots of my friends are teachers and they tell me how hard it is to care for pupils' developments individually while the structures don't allow for this.

So I completely accept your point that 'shortcuts' are needed to get students through: but my objection is to a system which requires shortcuts and thinks in terms of getting students through. It's anti-educational: grades and tests shouldn't be the point of education, they should be indicators, no more. All the things you say teachers have to balance should be tools rather than targets.

On the second part of your comment, I agree up to a point. Perhaps we don't make the purpose of, say, an English degree clear. It's all about appreciating the opportunity to examine literature's engagement with life and big ideas. I genuinely don't think that anyone should be on the course if they don't want to do this. It must be the most important motivation. Yes, it would be nice if an English degree lead to a house/Mondeo/job, but these shouldn't be the driving motivations of the literature student.

As to your strategic advice: thanks. I will try them.