Monday, October 19, 2015

"How to Engage with Sullen Students"

I believe we've got a few British participants here at CM (as well as a few Canadians, and others hailing from assorted spots, Anglophone and not, around the globe), but for the most part we're American. So I was intrigued to come across this article from what I believe is the British equivalent of our (not always) beloved Crampicle, Times Higher Ed, on a subject that sounds pretty familiar.  The range of responses from professors, from cheerful suggestions for how to combat sullenness (5 minutes of music, with dancing, at the beginning!) to a suggestion that "perhaps we might want to embrace a little sullenness. It reminds us of the acceptance of difficulty that gives our work its character" (coupled with the diagnosis that the sullenness may stem in part from high rents, low student support, and the need to make up the difference: "If you’re pulling pints in a Brixton boozer till 3am to pay the rent, then you probably will feel a bit taciturn when faced with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the next morning") sounds pretty familiar.  Even the range of comments sounds  familiar.  There does seem to be a somewhat greater emphasis on rigor as a possible cure, and there's one thing I don't think we'd see in the Crampicle, a dig at American textbooks in particular and the "textbookification of higher education" in general:
The textbookification of higher education has paid a dire dividend to teaching and learning. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book Academically Adrift, captured the consequences of low level and minimal reading and basic assessment items on a student’s motivation to excel, transform and achieve.
As I walked into the gladiator pit of a lecture theatre, I could see Arum and Roksa’s argument come to life. Something was wrong. I always play music five minutes before the start of my lecture. We have a dance and a sing and it orients students into a learning experience.
This lecture was different. Looking at this group of students – row upon row upon row – I was confronted by a large wall of faces that resembled big blocks of ice. I received nothing – no energy, no interest, no feeling – from 300 students. They were robots, automated by too many models, flow charts and an inept, generalised and low-level American textbook.
For the first time in my career, it felt as if my energy, passion and excitement were bouncing off a transparent wall separating me from the students. No emotion, light, heat or thought passed through the barricade.
I worked hard – really hard – to cut through the wall. I felt a constant trickle of sweat down my back, confirming the exertion and stress. The content was of quality, the media selection was considered and the pacing of ideas and the theoretical rigour were strong. But the students had stopped caring about ideas and scholarship many weeks before my session.
A poor textbook, careless teaching and a dated discipline for the digital age had closed the minds of these students. Only by the final five minutes of the lecture had the ice wall melted. Students revealed a shard of light, thinking, interpretation and questioning. The students had not built this ice wall. Low-level reading and even lower intellectual expectations crushed a passion for ideas and a motivation to learn.


  1. I need to read that linked article again when I have more time. It seems like it has a lot to offer.

    I've had that lecture, too. Some combination of all that had happened to everybody in the room up to that point in the day and who knows what else led to a sense that the boulder started at the bottom of the hill and could never be pushed high enough to pick up any speed on the way down.

    Another excerpt: Students are consumers, paying to be in our lecture seminar rooms, and a sullen cohort is unlikely to be a satisfied one. Even the occasional sullen individual can dampen down the buzz of any lecture or seminar – the phrase “trying to stir treacle” springs to mind.

  2. I staple their dicks to the floor. That way, they have something real to be sullen about.