On and Off

A couple of weeks ago I was signed up to visit an English Composition class to talk about peer review. The instructor is a good friend of mine, and I’ve been developing this lesson for the last few years, so I was feeling pretty good about things. Then, the morning of the class, I learned that the instructor had had an emergency, and rather than cancel the session, asked that I teach on my own (which I was happy to do).

Later that morning, as the attendance sheet went around the room and I was introducing myself, I watched as a student signed in, picked up his backpack, and walked out the door. Although I didn’t get a chance to ask him, I’m assuming he didn’t have an emergency or a prior engagement- he just really didn’t want to sit and listen to a librarian for the next hour, especially if the person giving him a grade for the class wasn’t going to be in the room. And, in a way, I can appreciate that he walked out. If he’s not interested in being a part of the class, and isn’t willing to give me even a full minute to change his mind, it’s probably better for everyone that he not sit in his chair counting down the hour.

At the same time, he had made the effort to be in class on time. He had done the hard part! Most discussions about retention on my campus, and around the country, center on topics like recruitment, academic advising, and financial aid. And as the husband of someone who works in student support, I absolutely appreciate the effort and commitment it takes, both from students and staff, to get a student accepted, enrolled, advised, registered, and funded. So here was a student who had done all of those tedious and complicated tasks, and had stuck with it long enough to be in a classroom at 9 a.m. on a Monday- in the tenth week of the semester no less. In terms of academic support, he’s a success. He is where he needs to be.

The only issue was that he wasn’t coming to class to learn, but rather perform a task and get out of there as soon as possible. When extrapolated across higher education, this leads to the “student as customer” or “learning as transaction” model. In this paradigm, students are paying tuition and coming to class to get a degree, which will then get them a job after graduation. Any learning which might take place is tangential, and anything that isn’t for a grade doesn’t really “count”. This is a model in which motivation has been externalized, and assessment is built around numbers like enrollment, graduation, and retention.

I don’t like this model for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it makes limited attempts to engage students in a meaningful way. I’m fairly convinced that learning comes from engagement (this study has its limitations, but it’s still interesting), and I try my best to keep that in mind whenever I’m in a class.

So why wasn’t the student in my class engaged? Why didn’t he want to be a part of the discussion? As both a student and a teacher, I’ve encountered an alarmingly high number of people who were enrolled in school, but had no interest in learning, and said things like “I’m just here to get my piece of paper” (meaning their diploma).

This leads me to one of the biggest questions I ask of myself, my profession, and the world: have these people not yet been turned “on”? Or have they been systematically turned “off”? My best guess is that it’s a combination of both, and that they each require different solutions.

When it comes to turning learners “on”, the lynchpin has to be the classroom. Students need to be engaged, challenged, and, most importantly, involved in the instruction from the beginning. Teachers need to be responsive, open, and authentic. For my part, I try to be funny, self-deprecating, and sincere (Eamon Tewell has written about this). Likewise, I try to separate myself and the instruction from “just another database demo” in an effort not to bore students to tears (Nicole Pagowsky has nailed this point). I hardly ever speak for more than ten minutes, and do my best to let the students drive the discussion and establish agency in their learning.

But I also struggle with the realization that no matter how well things go in the classroom, many people will be turned “off” long before they make it to college. And, even if we can get them into the classroom, they’ll still feel alienated by a system that hasn’t, and doesn’t, respond to them. This issue is a lot harder to address, because it goes to very root of education in this country and requires a much bigger solution than just “teachers should do better in class.”

Contemplating what that solution might be is where I am now. I find myself saying things in meetings like “the problem is THE SYSTEM!”, and even I have to roll my eyes at the cliché. (I recently realized my political rhetoric has come full circle, and I now say things alarmingly similar to what I said at age 19.) My point is that I’m still at a relatively early stage in my career, and I’m trying to anticipate what comes next for higher education. I honestly have no idea. I’ve often thought a status quo was unsustainable, only to watch things get worse.

With that in mind, I’m also getting to a point in my career where I do have some agency. I’ve been privileged with a relatively stable job and a supportive group of colleagues, and I don’t want to waste it. I want to make things better. I think I’m getting better at turning learners “on,” but I really want to get in the game and make sure we stop turning students “off.” If only for selfish reasons, I really want students to stop thinking it’s worth it to walk out of class.