Who Is Fellini?

When teaching undergraduates, it's important to remember what they don't know and to offer cues, writes Rob Weir.

July 6, 2015
Federico Fellini

"Professor X never explains things or tells us what he wants."

Anyone who has ever read student course evaluations has seen such a comment. Mostly such remarks come from low achievers and mean either: (a) "The professor actually expected me to problem solve on my own!" or (b) "I didn't bother to look at the three pages of instructions that were posted to the course website."

It's important, though, not to dismiss such remarks out of hand. It would probably benefit all of us to assume far fewer things than we do -- a lesson driven home in a recent conference experience.

I found myself chairing a particularly eclectic panel on sports and popular culture in which papers were presented on topics such as gender representation, marketing athletes and using sports films as teaching tools. More intriguing still, our audience was a potage of senior scholars, junior faculty, graduate students and undergraduates -- baby boomers, Generation X, and older and younger millennials if you will (though intellectually I scorn such generational labels).

The fun started when one presenter called Mia Hamm the "Michael Jordan of female athletes." In my comments I suggested dialing back the hyperbole and offered Martina Navratilova as an example of a female athlete who reshaped tennis more than Hamm changed soccer. My intention was to spark a conversation about how Hamm's straight whiteness made her more marketable and exaggerated her skill, whereas Navratilova's lesbianism delayed appreciation of her prowess. I dared hope we might even deal with race and how Jordan and the Williams sisters negotiate that terrain. Several whip-smart undergrads sandbagged my agenda and diverted it elsewhere.

My evocation of Navratilova gained knowing nods from academics and a mild rebuttal from the recently minted presenter, but the first question from an undergraduate was: "Who is Mia Hamm?" I had the presence of mind to ask if she knew of Martina Navratilova. The response: "I've heard the name, but I don't know why she was so famous." Thankfully all the panelists were sufficiently attuned (stunned?) to take our sports panel in a different direction.

"OK," I asked, "who would you younger folks cite as a role model for today's female athletes?" They waffled between swimmer Missy Franklin and gymnast Gabby Douglas, neither of whom many of the academics had ever heard. This provided the context for a fascinating discussion about marketing in which one of the takeaway points was -- business professors take note! -- that younger folks are more attuned to advertising that draws upon fame of the moment than enduring icons such as Michael Jordan. I then asked, "Do a lot of you think of advertising the same way that you might think of pop music hits?" In more respectful terms the response was something akin to "Well, duh!"

Much the same kind of discussion took place around sports films -- some resonate deeply and some are too dated. Then came the kicker. A very polite junior film studies major chimed in with this, which I tried to record verbatim: "I love film studies and I watch hundreds of movies every year, but sometimes it frustrates me because I don't know what I'm supposed to see. I watch Fellini and I know he's famous because you all tell me he's famous, but I don't know why. I see film techniques that I've studied and have seen elsewhere and I think maybe Fellini's famous because he's the first to use some of them, but I don't know if that's true because no one bothers to tell me."

You know what? He's right! My mind began to race and I wondered how many names I drop in my history classes. Can I assume that Alexander Hamilton is anything more than a picture on a $10 bill? Probably not. I recall students who have thanked me for "explaining" the Vietnam War. Why should they know anything about a war that ended two decades before they were born? I sort of felt that way about World War II when I was an undergrad.

My own battle against assumptions is a work in progress for which I'd like to thank undergraduate students. Here are a few preliminary thoughts. Please add more in the comments section.

1. Give more verbal cues and clues when name-dropping. I now say, "Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury and an important promoter of the U.S. Constitution." I also define words that may not be part of everyday discourse.

2. More worksheets and assignments. One undergraduate conference attendee admitted that she "hates" doing them, but finds them "incredibly useful." I learned long ago that a reading assignment without an attached assignment means "Nothing to read" for (too) many undergrads.

3. Info time-outs. Why not take advantage of the tech our students are packing? I sometimes take time-outs and ask, "Who doesn't know about topic X?" If any hands go up, I say, "Let's Google it." I then ask a phone-wielding student to summarize.

4. Ask for analogies and links. Connecting the unknown to the known is one of the oldest teaching tools in the book, so take some time to ask students to make analogies and connections to other ideas. If inappropriate ones come back at you, it's a signal that your explanation isn't as clear as you had hoped.

5. "So what?" questions. One way around the importance question is to ask. When you present material, ask your students why they think it's significant enough to be mentioned. I sometimes present a piece of information and say, "I've just told you about Topic Y. So what? Why should you know about it?" I don't move on until I get something meaty.

6. Keep on posting instructions and expectations. The halt and lame won't read them and will continue to write nasty stuff on evaluations, but good students will avail themselves. Plus, you'll be able to do something the whiners can't: document the falsehood to any dean or chair that asks.  


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