Essay on teaching students who seem unengaged

On the Fence
Teaching Generation Z
January 16, 2013

"We like it when there’s a movie we can watch, along with the assigned reading for the course; otherwise, how can we be sure that what we’re picturing in our mind is right? Or I guess you can just tell us. That would be even easier."

A freshman spoke these words to me earlier this semester during a rare office-hours visit. I say rare because so few of my undergraduate students bother to talk to me in person, unless the interaction occurs directly after class, as I’m packing up to leave. Although my office hours are listed on the syllabus, and I repeatedly dole out detailed how-to-find-me instructions in class, the vast majority of my students, whether freshmen or juniors and seniors, have absolutely no idea where my office is located.

Instead of dropping by to ask questions or discuss their progress in a course, most students at our large state university send urgent e-mails at 2 a.m. or minutes before class. Or not at all. I think they find interacting in person with another human, not to mention a human in a position of (relatively minimal) authority, both intimidating and awkward. Only pure desperation drives them to my office. I will step out to use the bathroom and find them wondering, zombie-like, around the department, trying in vain to find my "secret" lair.

And I’m not the only one. Although our building sits directly adjacent to the university’s student center and central library, departmental colleagues report receiving frantic student e-mails that sound something like this:

hey professor, i can’t find your office!! where should I turn in my paper? I now its late but its not my fault bc your office is too hard to find! which building is it? tell me what to do ASAP!! Im really freaking out right now. Please help!!!!!!

Yikes. Despite all of the navigational apps in the world, it’s apparently still incredibly difficult for students to find a humanities department, let alone a particular professor’s cramped office. The same rule applies to reading the syllabus or buying the required books for the course. It really doesn’t matter if I hand out a hard copy of the syllabus, post it on Blackboard, and blitz every student in the class with multiple e-mails containing the contents of the syllabus distilled for their reading pleasure, a large portion of the class will claim to have no idea what they’re supposed to be reading, when assignments are due, or how many points they’ll lose for submitting a late paper or skipping class. Multiple students will simply fail to submit assignments because they "didn’t have a copy of the book" — and this occurs 11 weeks into the semester.  

I’ve also become accustomed, oddly, to walking into large lecture halls packed with students sitting in near-total silence. The first time it happened I was really taken aback. Are they poised eagerly over their notebooks, ready to begin learning? Unfortunately, no. Some are just sitting there. Most are intimately engaged with their personal technology, be it an iPhone, iPad, iPod, i-book, what have you, blissfully unaware of either their surroundings or other students. Quite a few are caught up in online shopping, at Target, Amazon, Gap. It takes real effort on my part to get some of them to unplug, or at least to minimize whatever distracting screen they’re looking at, and pay attention for the duration of class.

This is not always the case, of course. Students do talk to one another on occasion and focus on the material presented in lecture. But, in general, I find that many of the undergraduates with whom I interact are zoned out, as disengaged from reality as they are from their college courses. At least a few this semester attended class while noticeably under the influence of something ... and it wasn’t caffeine.

I ask them why they enrolled in my course; they shrug their shoulders and admit they don’t even know what the class is called or what it’s about, only that it’s required and the 2 p.m. time slot fit their schedule (except for those occasions when they overslept, took their mother to the airport in another state, or rushed their overheated pet chinchilla to the vet). I ask them about the assigned readings, lecture material, or films and documentaries we’ve viewed together; they respond with blank stares and complete silence. It makes me feel like I’m standing in line at the DMV or on hold with a Verizon operator. I ask them to discuss the readings or lecture material briefly in small groups and a bunch of them, particularly the 18-year-old males, simply sit there, arms folded across their chests, gazing defiantly at the wall or ceiling; others text their friends, watch YouTube videos, doodle, shop online, or listen to music.

Switching tactics, I’ll throw out a reference to a current event or a popular movie or TV show, trying to pique their curiosity, but most have no idea what I’m talking about. They say they don’t see the point in voting, have never heard of any of the films that have just been released on DVD, and couldn’t care less if NASA sends a manned mission to Mars. But the worst by far is this: I’ll spend weeks discussing specific topics at length — vagrancy in medieval Europe, gallows executions, and penal colonies, for example — only to find, during the exam, that over half the class has no idea what "vagrancy," "gallows" or "penal" means.

How is this possible? Am I a bad instructor? Am I failing my students? Perhaps. It certainly feels like it some days. But then, at the end of the semester, (after bracing myself for comments akin to, "If there’s a village somewhere missing an idiot, we’ve found her!") I read my course evaluations. To my shock and bewilderment, I find the majority of students describing my classes as "amazing," "great," "fantastic" and "the best ever," despite their apparent lack of interest, enthusiasm, or sobriety. Sure, there are a couple of negative comments, but they’re related to the size of the classroom or the length of one of the textbooks and not to my teaching style.

Do positive evaluations make me feel like all is right in the world after all? Honestly, no. So much work remains to be done. There are times, like the office visit I opened this piece with, when I realize that vital aspects of the creative process — A) the ability to analyze information and B) the ability to think independently — are missing from many of my students’ brains. Never has a young person told me, until now, that they dislike reading, not because it’s boring but because they fear the images conjured in their mind might be incorrect or misleading in some way. Have we entered Orwell’s 1984? Is vacuity the primary, lasting result of the No Child Left Behind Act, with its "revolutionary" motto: "every child can learn"?

All of this may sound overly harsh and, to be fair, there are plenty of engaged and thoughtful undergraduates out there attending state universities. A few of them are enrolled in my courses. But it seems to me that a disturbing tendency to zone out has become the norm among undergraduates. No wonder video games featuring zombie apocalypses are so popular.



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