Monday, March 28, 2011

Dragon Ate My Mojo

I dismissed a class early today. I regretted it as soon as the words left my mouth, but there they were, and Silent Sam and Sullen Sheila were out the door before I could even finish the sentence. While Quizzical Quentin and Querying Qwenda came forward to ask, all sorry-eyed, if we would ever discuss the reading we skipped.

My righteous anger faded, replaced by guilt, even though I remain suspicious of whether or not they actually did the damn readings. If they had done the readings, why did they spend the first hour and a half of lecture with their heads down, scribbling abstract art in their notebooks as I tried with flagging spirits to get a reaction from them? Any kind of reaction. Some flicker of engagement!

But regardless of how dull the class was, regardless of how disengaged and bored they seemed, it's my job to teach. And I didn't. I feel like I reached the bottom of my bag of tricks, and threw in the towel. That's it. I'm done.


  1. In default mode, you can always engage the content, and the students can either engage the content, or not.

    It isn't your job to get the students to engage the content - that's their job.

    Your job is to properly present, narrate, demonstrate, yada yada yada.

    You're not some mama bird with chicks pecking the spot on your beak, prompting you to regurgitate the pre-digested food.

  2. Oh, and you should be the dragon, they should be the frightened villagers with the burninnated thatched huts.

  3. It happens sometimes. And if you'd planned for both lecture and discussion, and they refused to participate in discussion, then ending class early seems like a reasonable solution. You'd done your part; they didn't do theirs; thus class was shortened. Maybe it will shock them into better behavior.

    I'd certainly begin the next class with either a pop reading quiz or a collected in-class writing on the reading (including the reading you *didn't* discuss today; they're still responsible for it, right?). If you want to bend over backwards to be fair, you could send an email reminding them that they are responsible for all the readings, and perhaps including a question or two to think about while doing the reading, maybe one that connects last class session's reading to that for the coming class session. At least one of the questions would then show up on the quiz/in-class writing.

    I'm not sure displays of righteous anger are necessary (though they're understandable, and excusable, under the circumstances). But some kind of response that puts the responsibility for preparation, including critical thought about the readings before they come to class, squarely back on their shoulders *is* needed. How draconian it needs to be depends on whether today was a fluke, or a worsening of an existing pattern of disengagement.

  4. I've become a big fan of the in-class study hall when it becomes clear that students haven't read. I don't like letting them out early because it seems like a reward of sorts - especially if "free time" seems to be at a premium.

    So, we sit, and I watch as people read and take notes. When they have notes that are sufficient for passing a quiz or some other measure that I deem appropriate, they may leave.

    Is it discussion? No. Is it interactive? No. Does it work? Yes. I've never had to do it more than twice in a single class.

  5. I do open review days before each test - I warn them explicitly that they drive those sessions. A few students bring relevant items for diagnostic review, the rest, ... they were warned.

    Engage the students who engage the material - failing that, continue to present the content, indicating in a clinical, dispassionate way their responsibilities in learning said material.

    At some point, you must stop spoon feeding them.

  6. I've got a class this semester who WILL NOT talk during discussions. Every week it's like pulling teeth and so painful for everyone. I've come close to sending them away many times, but, like vietcong, fear they would see that as a reward.

    I like the idea of making them take notes, though. Will have to keep that in reserve for the future...

  7. Replace the "discussions" with quizzes, score them on an (announced) random basis - when the "discussions" fall short. Terror begets compliance. Only do this if discussion is essential to the process.

  8. This is I require students to bring a written response to the readings -- to every class -. I just ask some students to read what they wrote about the readings and a discussion has begun. Students who do not have a written response when called on are counted as absent.

  9. I taught my first class today and was pleasantly surprised at the amount and level of engagement. Perhaps I will not have the misery?

  10. @Frogulator -- The misery will soon catch up to you. In the meantime, though, enjoy the feeling of batting 1.000.

  11. @Frog, I know, right?! We started a new quarter today. I LOVED my classes today. Everyone was wonderfully engaged and participating. "THIS IS WHY I TEACH," I gleefully sang to myself. Tomorrow I expect their heads will be on their desks drooling onto their textbooks in true Day 2 bi-polar fashion. They don't call me "cynical" for no reason.

    I am SO going to do an in-class Study Hall from now on! THANK YOU for that suggestion!

  12. Ah, cerberus--was that a homestarrunner reference I saw up there? SO GOOD!

  13. One of my creative colleagues requires students to come to class with a question based on the reading, and it can't be just a definition question. She starts each class by tossing a Nerf globe to someone, who then has to ask the question. She answers it, and the student tosses the globe to someone else, etc.

    I tried this for one semester with a Nerf brain. The questions were fascinating and observant, but often were about side issues. They took so much time to answer that there was less time for my planned lectures and activities.

    Still, maybe with a time limit, it's a very useful, playful way to get the students to crack the book and come in prepared to open their mouths.

  14. I have 2 classes like this one. I cannot get myself motivated to teach them. One class is coming around because the material is now very interesting to them. They other class? Crickets. Zombies. Bumps on logs. I'm playing a video today, having a guest speaker Friday, and giving a test Monday. I deserve a break after weeks of misery!

  15. @Mrs.C.

    Yep, Trogdor.

    The solution (if there is one) is to focus on the content. Fuck style, fuck the students, fuck the department culture, fuck it all. The content, properly addressed will serve the course well - pay attention to the content.

    Students will engage or not engage on their own initiative. Holding yourself hostage to, or accountable for, their attention (or lack of it) reverses the responsibility for course success on you, not the students.

    Students are responsible for their (dis)engagement of the course. Your job is to ensure the quality of the content and the integrity of the assessment process.


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