Friday, May 13, 2016

An Open Question from Oliver in Opa-Locka

This one's going out to my two students in a class of 12 who have the good fortune to have 10 highly engaged, erudite, genuinely original thinkers and reflective, respectful discussants for classmates:

You have spent the whole term not paying attention, looking at me disapprovingly and as though I am speaking in tongues, taking bathroom breaks at times other than during the halftime break, staring into space, dropping things on the floor loudly as if you are zoo animals or toddlers playing with your sippy cups, and, it goes without saying, not having a writing implement at the ready.

Why is it -- and how is it even possible given the laws of probability -- that not a single idea from a single one of our readings or discussions on a single day has at least lit an infinitesimal kernel of your potential interest? It simply does not seem statistically probable, let alone possible. We are making connections with a range of historical, social, cultural, anthropological, musical, artistic, and geographic concerns and other realms of human endeavor. Can it be that there is really zip, zero, zilch interest (or even heartbeat) on your part for, like, anything at all?

I know you, and I know your level of ability. It is not that you do not, or cannot, understand the material, or do not have ideas of your own. It is that you have chosen not to have any thoughts. On one level, I can understand your decision. You are adults and you should do what you choose. What I do not understand is how it is possible, given our extraordinarily productive and positive classroom atmosphere, your generous and highly motivated peers, and your game discussion leader (moi), that you cannot experience one single moment of engagement that might snap you out of your chosen apathy. If not among such likeable peers in a firecracker of a class like this one, when? Whatever will become of you?

You are embarrassing me -- but only in front of myself and in my own mind, since your 10 classmates are so taken with one another's ideas that they do not even notice your vaguely humanlike sloth.


  1. Many students go to college for an education. Others, like your two, just want a certificate. When they were in third grade, they probably thought their participation trophies in soccer were the best things ever.

  2. I had a pair of students in a class of 15 who were similar, except that they were open in their disdain for me and for the course material. They whispered constantly (while I was talking), despite polite reminders not to. They were transfer students who thought they were superior; that they knew everything. They were ahead in regard to knowing some of the technology; they were behind in regard to understanding concepts.

    Several years later...

    One of these students came to me, asking for a recommendation. We could discuss it over the phone or in person, whatever my preference s/he told me. Well... rarely does one get the opportunity to unload, so I said... oh let's meet in person. And when we did, I proceeded to read hir the riot act, telling hir how s/he disrupted not only hir own learning but everyone else's. I went on for about 20 minutes. So, I said. Why are things any different now?

    I grew up, s/he said. Well he had. He came in a suit and tie and was well mannered and respectful. I gave him his recommendation.

    S/he got the job at the university and about a year later, I happened to be sitting in on a workshop s/he was teaching to a group of faculty unfamiliar with a certain technology. Hands shot up asking for explanations. S/he floundered a bit, reaching for ways to explain. S/he handled hirself well under the circumstances. But it was kind of sweet to watch.

    1. She-he came from Miami, F.L.A.
      Wispered hir way across the U.S.A.
      Grew up somewhat on the way
      Wore a suit and then s/he was a he
      He says, "Hey, babe,
      Take a seat in my workshop."

  3. Oh, this was ALL semester for an entire class. I finally understood, deeply, viscerally, the line about dead horses and flogging: You get exhausted, and the horse stays dead. So this line hit me right in the gut:

    "Why is it -- and how is it even possible given the laws of probability -- that not a single idea from a single one of our readings or discussions on a single day has at least lit an infinitesimal kernel of your potential interest?"

    Going to our graduation ceremony in about an hour. A few make it!

    @Academanic: Great story.