I got around to reading the Times forum where professors like Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish gave advice to college freshmen. I enjoyed it and agreed with pretty much everything that was written, although it was a bit odd that the professors, some of them emeritus, were all four, five or even six decades older than said freshman. Gigi pointed out to me that another oddity was the lack of mention of any aspect of college life other than the classroom.
Anyway, what really caught my eye was this paragraph of counsel from Carol Berkin (“teaching since 1972”):
During class, do not: a) beat out a cadence on your desk while the teacher is lecturing; b) sigh audibly more than three or four times during a class period; c) check your watch more than twice during the hour. Do: a) practice a look of genuine interest in the lecture or discussion; b) nod in agreement frequently; c) laugh at all (or at least most) of the professor’s jokes.
I feel her pain. Never had the cadence-beating problem, but I have had a frequent-sigher. And so many students stare stonily at my jokes that I take heart at the rare chucklers.
Generally speaking, the most surprising, and challenging, thing I encountered when started teaching (in 1992—just yesterday) was an air of passivity among students. Some seemed profoundly uninterested in being there. The majority sat their with their arms virtually folded, clearly viewing themselves as consumers of learning, rather than participants in the process. Then there are always a few who really are interested.
The woeful ration is a problem, to be sure, yet I can’t help feeling that Prof. Berkin (who’s admittedly joshing) is taking the wrong tack. Yes, a respectful attitude is a good thing, and students would certainly do well to follow her advice, especially if they want to ingratiate themselves with the profs. But on the whole, the bad vibes she identifies as are really a challenge for professors more than students.
I’ve certainly taken it as such. I feel it’s important, first, to make it clear to students the classroom environment I expect. So I’ll call on them, ask a question of a student who seems to be zoning out, ask a texting student to cease and desist. Beyond that, I try to engage them in the subject matter, while never pandering or dumbing it down.
It’s a tough order, but I can honestly say that I still find it an invigorating one, and sometimes even fun.