Monday, April 15, 2013

Was Socrates Fun? Tina From Timbuktu Wonders and Ruminates, and I think We Should Help Her.

What are we doing?
Why are we here?
How many times
has this graphic been
used when Cal
couldn't make a new one?
While attending a workshop on teaching effectiveness, I heard the argument that we need to make our classes "fun." In short, we need to entertain our students, because they can't sit through a 45 minute lecture. They are so used to being entertained with facebook quips, twitter tweets, video games, and such that they can't be amused by a thinker explaining ideas and guiding them to new ways of combining ideas. We need to show them videos, make jokes, stop lecturing and so on. Learning isn't worthwhile unless we can make them think it is game? fun? What the heck does fun mean, anyway?

Since then, I have been thinking. What happens when they go to work? If they can't sit through a 45 minute class, then how will they sit through a 2 -3 hour meeting or client presentation or just an 8 hour work day? ( I recall my first job out of college working in an office. I finished my work too quickly, and I spent my free time writing poems. I was so bored. I remember counting down the hours starting on Monday! But I never expected to have 'fun.' )

I have also been thinking that if the students are allowed to only have fun, then maybe so should we!

Is teaching "fun"? I have spent all weekend writing exams and grading papers and plotting, I mean planning my classes for the week. It is Spring. I look out at families packing cars with picnic gear, and children playing games. I am doing the most boring part of my job: grading and writing exams. But if I only did the fun' part, then what would my classes be like?


  1. Fun for me would be showing films and demanding an intellectual discussion afterwards. This sort of describes one class I do teach, and boy during those semesters I really love my job...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Remember how impressionable you were at that age? For many students, the amount of "fun" they have is a reflection of your passion, dedication, and ability. I think if you are passionate about the subject matter you teach and you genuinely enjoy helping others learn, then that is evident to the students and makes the class more enjoyable for them.

    1. Agreed. They also appreciate being spoken to, rather than spoken at.

  4. I think the workshop leader (or whoever said that) was making the same mistake people make when they set "being happy" as a goal for themselves (or their children). Fun, happiness, etc. don't make good goals, but they're pretty good byproducts of experiences that are engaging, fascinating, awe-inspiring, satisfying, etc. Of course, I'm also a bit skeptical of the idea that we can somehow magically create student "engagement," but that strikes me as, at least, a better goal, and more achievable, though students won't always like the approaches that actually work, which probably include severely limiting electronic distractions, and finding ways -- in-class writing, group work, reading quizzes or similar homework checks if/when necessary to assure the necessary preconditions for the success of such exercise -- to get them to grapple closely and at length with the material at hand. At the end of such a session (or a few such sessions, when concentrating on the material for extended periods of time, working through frustration, coming up with new questions, etc. is beginning to feel a bit more familiar/natural), they may well feel a sense of satisfaction. Now and then, a few students who particular like the material at hand may even find the process fun. That's great. But trying to manufacture fun directly is a mistake (and, incidentally, will turn off students with temperaments like mine -- the ones who don't much like a lot of senseless noise and jumping around, and have a highly-developed ability to notice when an activity or presentation seems to be all bells and whistles, with no actual useful content).

    So, maybe our job is to work toward recalibrating their sense of what is fun -- or at least satisfying/worthwhile/pleasurable in a mild sort of way? Or maybe I'm just projecting, and want to turn them all into intellectually-oriented introverts. Given how far our culture has gone in the opposite direction, I'm willing to argue that at least a bit of pressure in that direction wouldn't be a bad thing.

    1. First paragraph: yes, yes, yes, yes.

      Second paragraph: yes, no, yes.

  5. Sorry, I have to sit down ... I'm dizzy.

    We are simultaneously criticized for our classes not being "relevant" (READ: conveying a skill for which an employer will - at minimum - offer a high five-figure starting salary) and we are supposed to make them xBox level fun?

    Some are trying to strike a happy medium by suggesting a focus on enlightening the little dears on how learning can actually be sorta fun in a "eat your vegetables, you'll be healthier" kinda of way.

    Sorry ... I can't play that anymore

    The make it fun crowd needs to be told the STFU and get real.
    Please, go you to your "real" job and tell your boss you won't work anymore until things are made fun and tailored to your personal concept of fun. Report back how well that is received.

    I never though myself as militant, but let's take the military model.
    Who's telling drill instructors they need to protect the dears self-of-steam? Has basic training bent over backward to make things appealing?

    But, recruits sign up for military service.
    Yes, but so do college students!

    It has gotten to the point where anxiety over how to craft feedback about poor performance has paralyzed me from continuing my work. I have stripped away any pretense of emotion, using a "just the facts, ma'am" approach. Still, I get angry student messages that I am "mean" and "cruel."

    A particular irony is that I have determined that 90% of students don't even READ the feedback. I am tying myself up in knots so I do not anger 10% of my students who, it has become clear, do not want to learn they simply want to be congratulated for their pre-ordained overflowing awesomeness.

    Don't you dare ask me to make this fun.

    1. To hear my dad tell it, drill instructors are a lot softer now than when he joined up.

  6. From a long-ago thread on how to make classes more inviting:

    FREE BEER! Learn how to ace your classes without having to lift a finger! Learn how to impress members of the opposite/same sex! Free video game cheats! Disc golf training advice! FREE BEER!

    It would be a lot more fun if we could charge the keg for each class to the college.

  7. When I started my teaching position, I attended some in-service sessions for a few days before lectures began. I was told by the HR people who ran them that it my job was to make sure that my students didn't have a "negative learning experience" which, of course, was never defined. The actual teaching of new concepts or capabilities seemed to be of little importance.

    Over the years, I was often criticized for not making my courses "fun". I gathered that it meant things like:

    - I made my students work.

    - I didn't give out high marks like candy.

    - I had excessively high standards.

    - I didn't confirm the overwhelming genius they all so obviously possessed.

    - I expected them to earn their marks by working for them--just showing up was not enough.

    - I expected them to address me as either "Sir" or "Mr.", changing that to "Sir" or "Dr." later, which didn't mean calling me by my first name because I was their instructor, not their pal.

    - I treated them like sub-ordinates and future employees, not as "equal" partners.

    - I expected them to behave like disciplined and mature professional adults.

    - I expected them to arrive at my lectures or lab sessions on time and leave only when I dismissed them.

    - I expected their work to be neat, tidy, and comprehensible.

    - I expected their work to be submitted punctually.

    - I expected them to use my lecture or lab time for the intended purpose, which didn't include working on assignments for other courses, reading newspapers, looking at pornographic websites, chewing the rag with their in-class buddies, or chatting on their cellphones.

    - I expected them to pay attention to me when I lectured, which meant I was the only person speaking unless someone was asking me a proper question or was answering one.

    Needless to say, I incurred the wrath of many of my students as well as whichever administrators I had to answer to. Even a former president of our institution's staff association thought I was too much like a drill sergeant.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. A class can be engaging *and* require discipline and rigor; those aren't mutually exclusive.

      NLAA, I don't know what your former HR people considered a "negative learning experience," but I've had plenty, including classes where the proffie paid the most attention to the young, attractive women. There were also the smelly classroom with the randomly banging radiators, and the frigid classroom where we had to wear gloves and could see our breath. And I bet we've all had the professor who spoke in a monotone while addressing a spot in the room where two walls met the ceiling. Yep, "negative learning experience" covers all those situations and more.

      I'm not one of the popular proffies, and plenty of students flunk my classes. But the ones who pass generally seem to respect me and recommend my classes to their friends and siblings. Also, five colleagues and a dean have sent their kids to me.

      As for expectations, I do all the things you list, NLAA, with consequences spelled out in the syllabus, except that I don't *expect* the Little Dears "to behave like disciplined and mature professional adults." I expect them to behave like the immature late adolescents most of them are. Not that I tell them this, but I accept that they're going to be flaky and thus get to be pleasantly surprised when they're not.

      Maybe it's because I've had a couple of teenagers. They can be infuriating and unreliable, but they'll turn out okay with steady guidance. (Sometimes I have to repeat that like a mantra, and certainly there are days I turn to the darkest of chocolates.)

      Maybe it's because my discipline reminds me that the older generation has been saying the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket for the entire 5,000 years of written history. Yet somehow civilization has survived.

      Whatever its roots, this attitude of forbearance helps me to get through my days and to actually like the Little Dears sometimes, even as I shake my head in wonderment. I wonder if that's the attitude that your students and colleagues felt was missing. Maybe they expected professors to understand human foibles, sigh, and get on with teaching like the humanists we profess to be.

  8. This has been going on for forty years, and TV is partly to blame.

    We started out in the 50's with shows like "Mr. Wizard," where they actually learned something. Then came "Captain Kangaroo" and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," both of which were low-key.

    Then "Sesame Street" arrived with "The Electric Company" following, in glorious color instead of breath-taking black-and-white. About five years later I saw stories about elementary school teachers reporting they were having trouble keeping their students' attention because they weren't as entertaining as Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and the rest. Those children grew up and had kids of their own, which they parked in front of the TV to keep them quiet.

    Now we've had two generations raised on TV, and the problem's been compounded by a lack of nutrition, specifically sugar-laden snacks, juices, and artificial dyes which just make them more hyper, so the parents park them in front of the TV/video console to keep them quiet, since today's parents have never learned how to be a parent to their snowflakes.

    Do not blame yourself. We can only hope that sooner or later administrations will see that the people they're letting in are 'learning-resistant' and will stop trying to run a university like a department store.

    1. Unfortunately, there are too many people inside the academic system who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

      About 20 years ago, the government in my part of the country decreed that academic departments would receive a basic amount of funding. But, in order to get the "gravy" money, each department had to have certain performance indicators. To determine those values, satisfaction surveys of graduating students were conducted and the results were used for the calculations. Whichever departments scored the highest got the most of that extra funding, so there's a financial incentive for keeping things the way they are.

      But those numbers were also used as a basis of comparison for attracting applications from prospective students. At the same time, certain administrators staked their careers on those performance indicators. My last department head wanted to use them as a demonstration of his leadership abilities and, thereby, proved he was worthy of promotion.

  9. I have nothing to add to what Contingent Cassandra and Aware & Scared have said. But because I'm an academic, I had to add that I had nothing to add.

    1. I totally agree with Wylodmayer.

      But to add . . . I pride myself on being pretty energetic in my delivery style, and I do try to bring in material that will both illustrate the concepts and connect with the students. But at some point, we have to do some actual work, like readings that don't concern sparkly vampires. My students seem to think that the only point of reading is entertainment.

      I teach a class in which upper-year students do presentations on articles (drawn from scholarly and higher quality mainstream journals (e.g. The New Yorker)). Some seem to engage with the material, but a depressingly large number include comments like "It was really dry" and "I found it really boring" or "It was too long."

      Years ago, I had a friend who taught math to Engineers. He'd say, "Give it five years, and then just stay away from bridges." I'm now offering the same advice to anyone involved in the economy.

  10. I think the last question in the post was rhetorical. I mean, the sweat and boring bits of our teaching are what make our classes so full of life and 'fun.' A class of just fun couldn't exist. And wouldn't be a class!

    Plus, I teach film. There is the whole history of how film has been used here and other places to teach the masses Ideology that makes me wary of thinking that it is a proper tool for learning.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.