Monday, October 24, 2016

The Back Row Boys

Dr. Amelia's merry band of freshpersons is ticking along as such things usually do, and she is generally enjoying the semester, thankyouverymuch

However, she has a puzzling subculture within the merry band - the Back Row Boys. This group of future fraternity brothers is just not as on top of things as the rest of the students. Other gentle ladies and men take notes. They participate. When the Amazing Amelia throws out questions, they sincerely think about answers. The Back Row Boys come it exactly on time, sit and stare (except the one who texts under his desk the entire class) and pack up early, packing up meaning replacing the baseball cap on the head.

They are not generally troublesome, they are just there. They are very nearly all finance majors, and even when Dr. Amelia has modified class plans to try to speak to their interests, nothing. Their grades are mixed - some do well, some do quite poorly, but this is true of the others as well. They are just there.


  1. I have more of these placid and pleasant back row boys than at any time in the past three decades. Their midterm grades went in last week, all Ds and Fs, and they all were just as comfortable and quiet as before.

    I'm always reminded of the first principle.

  2. What Compound Cal said--on crack. My early class is so like this. I've sometimes posed good, provocative questions and had to wait in TOTAL silence for minutes before anyone ventures a timid response. I just sit there and stare right back at 'em. What a fun bunch!

  3. None of us can reach all of them, no matter how hard we try. At least they aren't disruptive and some of them are doing well. And they're there. It'd be easier for them to blow you off than show up (even if showing up is all they do). You're probably doing better with them than you're giving yourself credit for doing.

  4. This mostly raises questions for me (as well as, yes, sounding familiar -- which is why I'm almost glad I have few chances to teach classes is the predominant in-class activity):

    --Can you tell them apart? This is exactly the category of students for whom I have great trouble learning names (it doesn't help that mine don't remove their caps in class. Do students some places do that?)

    --I wonder why they're so good about attendance. Are they accountable for that to someone (future/current fraternity bros? coach? parents?). If so, why for attendance but not for grades?

    --Have they learned somewhere along the way that showing up is enough to pass (and haven't yet unlearned that for college)?

    --How in the world do we teach the art of discussion? It feels like those of us who went to school and/or began teaching during the era when feminist students and faculty were trying to figure out how to get women an equal voice in the classroom would have some tips and tricks ready to pull out of our sleeves, but most of the techniques I learned in that era were designed to more equitably distribute airtime among students who were all eager to talk (and/or encourage participation by a few shyer/quieter students in a class that had a good proportion of students who already wanted to talk). It seems like the current nearly-universal reluctance to participate requires different approaches (and no, I don't think telling the quiet guys that they're acting like a '70s/'80s female student is the way to go; as a girl whose father -- who was generally somewhat egalitarian but had absorbed the sports culture of his all-male prep school -- once told her not to run like one, I recognize that there are all kinds of problems with that approach).

    Group work + report out approaches do work, but it seems like they've become a necessity rather than an occasional approach to be used on a difficult day, with a difficult class, and/or as "training wheels" for students learning to participate in a more free-wheeling, self-generating discussion. Discussion is still not only taught, but required, in a few places (e.g. Phillips Exeter), but both class size and student (self-)selection presumably have a lot to do with its success).

    I find myself wondering how the students would cope if we asked them each to *lead* discussion one day? That's another pretty old technique, but I suspect they'd be flummoxed by the assignment (far more so than by an oral-report assignment), and doubt they'd get much cooperation from their peers. I suspect many of them simply don't have a model of how it should work (of course, if the rest of your merry band are participating, then this isn't true of your back-row boys, but, like Cal and Gog, I've had a few classes where the student who's willing to talk is the exception).

    1. Your Phillips Exeter example makes me wonder how much this is really the effect of shifting times, and how much of it is a class divide. I get the impression that a lot of my current students are flummoxed by class discussion, in part, because their K-12 education trained them to sit still, be respectful, and do well on standardized tests. (This was the complete opposite of my own public high school experience, where lively and sometimes contentious class discussion was the norm -- but I went to high school in Fairfax County, VA, back in the 1990s before the test was king, and most of my students are from small towns in the deep South.) I expect most wealthy and upper-middle-class parents expect more from their children's schools, and know how to get more.

    2. One of my professors in undergrad had students take turns leading discussion in an upper-division class. At the time I thought it was a weasel technique for skipping lesson planning, but now I realize how much material I remember from that class. The discussions weren't free-form; each group of two or three students had to present a 10-minute summary of one of the textbook chapters and then ask specific discussion questions. The professor expected the rest of the students to have read the and understood the chapter before class. We never sat in silence. In fact, the professor had to shut down the discussion at the end of the class period so she could go home.

      I often wish my gen-ed students would ask more questions, but this semester's bunch are particularly silent. Still, I gave an exam last week and I overheard a boy in the front say, "Two months ago I didn't know anything about astronomy. Now I feel like I know a lot about astronomy. That's pretty cool." Without overhearing his comment I would not have guessed he was so interested in the subject. Sometimes they like the class even if they don't broadcast their feelings.

      I also remember landing in a class for seniors when I was a junior in high school. The material was fascinating, and I had lots of questions I was dying to ask, but I was so shy of the seniors that I held my tongue for six weeks. After I finally worked up the nerve to ask my first question I became a good discussion participant, but it took time.

  5. The question is almost, but not quite, a thing of the past.

    My experience is that students are far more likely to ask questions by e-mail than face-to-face.


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