I was going to comment on an Inside Higher Ed blog post by “Eliza Woolf” (cute pseudonym–get it? Alternative: Virginia Dolittle) because of its tag line, “Eliza Woolf wonders what to make of students who seem disengaged from class and then give her great evaluations.” This has happened to me over the past few years, and I wondered if it was also happening to some of you.
But the blog post turned out to be extremely depressing in its portrait of an undergraduate population totally disengaged with college and even with one another. (Go read it yourself–I don’t have the heart to quote even a little of the most depressing parts here.) I’ve never had the experiences she describes to anywhere near the extent that she reports, although I think the point she makes about walking into a classroom or a lecture hall that’s completely quiet is an interesting one:
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 has started to happen in my classes–I walk into a silent room instead of a classroom happily chatting. But I think this is less a generational phenomenon than an accidental phenomenon. Students will be consulting their smart phones silently if there’s no one in the class who greets them and engages them–I do that when I walk in, but I’ve noticed that in some classes, I walk into a “warmup act” already in progress.
Who is my warmup act? It can be anyone, but usually it’s a socially confident male student with a very outgoing personality. (I’ve noticed too that it often is a returning student–someone in his later 20s rather than his early 20s–so maybe Eliza’s point that this may be a Gen Z phenomenon has some merit. But age and work experience also gives these guys more social confidence about initiating a conversation and being ready to keep it going, so I’m thinking it has to do more with life experience rather than generation.) I was fortunate enough to have two young men of this description in a class I taught last spring semester and still another one in a lower-division class, so that I always walked into a classroom or lecture hall full of lively chatter. This was pleasant, but I thin it also served a pedagogical purpose, in that my Mr. Warmups led the rest of the class into better discussions of the reading and lecture material because they were breaking the ice among strangers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning before I even got to class.
I thought about my Mr. Warmups a lot over the summer, and even moreso when I walked into the undergraduate lecture course I taught last fall semester to a totally silent classroom. I decided that I’d have to be my own warmup act. I knew some of the students from previous semesters as they had enrolled in some of my classes before, and one of them was an advisee, so I started out by talking with them, and quickly moved on to ask everyone about their weekends, their holiday plans, their reactions to something in the news with everyone in the class, or at least anyone who wanted to talk back.
My evaluations for both the spring class with my Mr. Warmups and my quieter fall class were all fantastic. (They have been since I turned 40; I think I get better and better in the classroom and I’m always working to improve, but I did that in my 30s, too. I also think age and seniority matter a great deal. In any case, I don’t take them too seriously.) But it’s led me to think that maybe the first step in getting students to put down their phones and make the transition to class time isn’t forbidding them on the syllabus or calling out secret texters during lecture, but rather it’s engaging them in a little conversation outside of official class time. This seems like such an obvious realization that I think I must be the last one to make it, but there you go. Thanks to all of the Mr. and Ms. Warmups out there for helping us out!
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Age before beauty: One more thing about my evaluations: My evals, unlike those of most of my women colleagues, have never, ever commented on my personal appearance, but for the first time this past fall, an evaluation said “you are beautiful.” Now I am at an age to find this silly but also kind of cute, instead of disturbing or concerning as I would have when I started teaching at age 27.