Monday, 14 November 2011

No Particular Interest

Like one of the commenters on yesterday's post, I too was interested in this part of Grafton's NYRB essay, and in fact had planned to write about this today:

.. vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

There seem to be data to support the existence of these "vast numbers", although I think that reality is (of course) a bit more complicated. That is, it is possible for there to be students who want to have Classic College Experiences (of the non-academic sort) and for these same students to have some, but varying, levels of interest in their classes. They might be taking my intro-level Science class because the university forces them to take a Science class and, despite my best efforts, they will not develop a lasting interest in Science, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in any of their other classes. It is the challenge for all of us who teach to try to interest as many students as possible in our classes -- not by playing fun little games and handing out A's -- but by engaging their intellects, which, despite popular opinion, do in fact exist.

For the sake of discussion, let's be cynical (or realistic?) and assume that the data are correct: most students in college don't care about academics. They just want to hang out with their friends (in person or via social networking), go to the gym, watch their favorite TV shows, and do just enough studying so that they can go to their professors and whine about how they deserve an A because they worked really really hard.

What are we supposed to do about that? In the context of a discussion about Our Failing Universities, is this something we can fix? Or is this an intractable problem that we inherit from Our Failing K-12 Schools, which might be inheriting it to some extent from Our Failing Families and a national culture of anti-intellectualism? I am only sort of being serious here, but there is a real question: What can universities and colleges, administrators and faculty, do?

As an all-powerful but somehow, at the same time, powerless professor, here is the awesome array of tools I have, as an individual, for attempting to influence the academic interest-level of my students:

- I can try as hard as possible to make my courses as interesting and relevant to students, making connections to their lives, explaining complex concepts in a clear way, and providing stimulating examples and questions that make them think, even after the class is over.

- I can give them homework, reading, and other assignments that are specifically designed to enhance the course materials and provide for a deeper understanding and time for reflection outside the lecture hall. (In theory -- some universities specify how much homework can be given, tying the amount to the number of credits each course is worth; for example, a 3-credit course can only have 3 hours of homework assigned each week, keeping in mind that "hours" of homework is a malleable concept for each individual).

- I can encourage students to seek research opportunities, with me or with other professors, explaining why this might be interesting and useful, but mostly just making students aware of the possibilities.

- I can try to get to know as many of my students as possible, even in a large class, so that I am not just a talking head in front of a classroom, but a real person who knows their name and who clearly wants to engage them in a shared teaching-learning experience.

- I can keep track of how my students are doing, identifying any problems early and trying to help students learn strategies for succeeding with academic work.

- I can participate in teaching workshops to try to improve my teaching and to get new ideas from colleagues for ways to present difficult course material or to teach large classes in a more effective way.

What else? That's already quite a lot, and I think many of us at least attempt to do some or all of those things, with varying levels of success depending on some factors that are within our control and some that are not. And we can be particularly effective at some or all of those things if we are only teaching 1 (maybe 2) courses at a time and can really focus on them.

But is it enough? Now let's assume that we are all super-teachers and can do all those things (well) in every single class, no matter how many classes and students we are teaching, and get our other work done (a bit of research and advising and service here and there) and maybe see our families once in a while. Would our universities stop failing? Can professors reverse the trend? Can we overcome disinterest, disconnection, and sloth? Can we forget salary freezes, inadequate classrooms, the ever-increasing number of administrators asking us to fill out new forms adding up how we spend our time, and scandals involving highly-paid athletic coaches? Can teaching well save the institution?

__ This isn't preschool happy time. If students don't want to learn, that's their problem, not mine.
__ No, I wish we could help, but there are too many obstacles that are beyond our control.
__ Maybe, probably not, but we should try anyway.
__ Yes, it would fix a lot of problems if most professors were excellent teachers.

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