Hats off to Mr. Warmup

We salute you!

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!

*        *        *        *        *        *

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.

17 thoughts on “Hats off to Mr. Warmup

  1. Eliza Woolf must teach at OPU. Seriously, this is an uncannily accurate description of the general student population here. Of course, she is focussing on the general feel of a classroom: there always are some wonderful exceptions. But the general operating assumptions she identifies — that large numbers of students will never read the syllabus, come to class, come to office hours, or even purchase the books — is exactly the situation here. As is the silent classroom, each one lost in texting when I enter.

    Things have begun to improve considerably since I moved my classes to the evening. Few students wish to stay on campus in the evening hours, so the classes are smaller, and it is therefore easier to get them engaged. Having taught mainly 70-person lectures for years, and now seeing numbers more like 20 because of the time slot, I am amazed by how much difference it makes. It is like entering a totally different profession.


  2. Wow. In part because I live at such a distance, I’ve never taught a class past 4 p., although I imagine that I will sometime in the future (in order to serve our students better and in order to share the burden of evening classes with other faculty.)

    I’m sorry to hear that your daytime classes look so similar to Woolf’s!


  3. timely post for me, since this very thing has struck me for the first time this quarter. This despite the fact that for the first time, too, I’m teaching a large-ish class on film, in English. And yet there is total silence when I walk into the classroom. I naively assumed that the visual media, the course content in general (recent, accessible, fun films), and my attempts to engage them with pre-class assignments and discussions, would make for a more lively classroom environment. But no, they start silent and it doesn’t get much better from there (and our classes last 2 hours each!) They seem to resent being asked to discuss questions in small groups, too. Partly I see it as information that I need as a teacher – I must be in some way responsible for the lack of affect in the classroom, and need to think of ways to better engage them – but it surely also has something to do with the culture of mobile devices.


  4. I have friends who teach film studies, and they report getting a LOT of students who think that the course will be just sitting in class watching movies, rather than watching them outside of class, reading scholarship on the films, and discussing everything in class. (My best film scholar friend is continually exasperated by this expectation, telling her students that this would be like reading novels or whatever during English class time!)

    So, maybe expectations are part of what you’re battling, loumac. Good luck getting them motivated.


  5. Susan, I saw that study earlier this week. I’m completely unsurprised. It reflects my own observations and experiences 25 years ago, and now.

    I think that it’s optimal that students have some kind of work and limits on their time and $$$–it’s something like 10 to 15 hours of work per week. More than that means that students are less effective in their studies, and less means that students screw around and get drunk or high with their discretionary time, rather than learning how to balance their work and school obligations.

    Although I was cheesed at the time, I think my parents did the right thing by expecting me to pay in part (through grants, loans, and part-time school year/full-time summer work) for my own education. I was envious of the women I went to school with who had no idea what they’d do with their summers–they’d ask in a bored fashion, “should I go back to Europe, this summer, or should I try somewhere else?” I couldn’t believe anyone lived like that.


  6. I wonder if that study controlled for scholarships (as that’s an obvious omitted variable linked to both grades and how much a student pays) or composition of who goes to each type of school (for example, someone with connections at a non-elite school may be lower quality than those at non-elite schools without connections). I don’t wonder enough to look up the original study though.


  7. When I was teaching in the pre-personal device era (not that long ago!), I noticed that it really helped if there was a critical mass of engaged students – I usually thought it required more than one student, but I can imagine that one Warmup student could work. Once I taught similar courses at two different campuses in the same quarter. Though one was at a small liberal arts college and the other at a large public university, both classes were small, around 20 students, and had very similar organization, topics, etc. One was like pulling teeth, to use an old cliche, it just never gelled; the students just stared at me and remained mute. The other was lively and informed, students totally engaged with the material, and fortunately rebuilt my damaged self-esteem from the other course. I felt it was a bit random, and just depended on which students ended up in a classroom. Too bad you can’t seed a class with engaged and outgoing students when you need them!
    And, oh yes, the lively class was at the large uni, despite ideas that the small college would be more collegial and the uni more impersonal.


  8. I walk into a lot of resoundingly silent classes too, but these are especially large sections of students who are with us courtesy of the curricular bayonet. They tend to be early-on in their college careers and don’t know each other. The eerier part is *dark* classrooms. Even if you don’t expect to chat with strangers, I would think somebody would flip the lights on, but typically they don’t. These are mostly windowed classrooms, but they are still very dim a lot of the time. When I flip the lights some students visibly startle. Some of them are also squinting at screens, but not all that many. When I teach twice consecutively in the same room, I leave the doc cam on, with a hopefully disruptively non-relevant image from the last class beaming out for the curious to wonder about.

    A lot of students also come very early, and we have 15 rather than fifteen minute intervals between classes. Commuters come early and sit in their cars at the ends of filled rows of parking spaces waiting for openings, so when there are gaps between scheduled classes, some of them might sit in the classrooms for a half hour or more for want of the imagination or energy to seek out anywhere else on campus to wait. That may somewhat promote their silence, since if you do strike up a chat with a stranger you might have to be ready to maintain engaged for longer than you want to. Who knows? But I like the idea of the warmup personna; and think maybe I’ll have to try some more things to get attentions engaged. I can’t say that I remember incredible pre-class conversations from my own college days, when the only social media available were the willingness to break the ice. Maybe some enterprising undergraduates should form a dramaturgic club to “ambush” silent classes with skits and get them revved up as a contribution to “service learning.” With all the talk about “mindfulness mediation” going around these days, though, somebody would probably file a complaint with the Cosmic World Court.


  9. What EW describes is foreign to my experience. Instead, I find students frequently taking classes with friends and using the immediate pre-class minutes to catch up or other chat, and these sometimes draw in other students in their immediate area. I also wonder if students from rural areas are more willing to engage with strangers than those from urban ones. The adults certainly are in other public venues.


  10. Teaching a population of mostly English majors in Utah has challenges and frustrations of its own, but lack of engagement is rarely one of them; I find them usually quite eager to engage, in fact. But since returning from sabbatical last fall, I have walked into a room full of silent students (never more than 30 in my classes) quite a few times. I don’t remember it happening much before, and I confess to finding it unsettling.


  11. Shane: how long was your sabbatical? I took one for all of 2007-08, and among the undergraduates, it was as if I was a new faculty member all over again when I returned. That is, their institutional memory is so collapsed that if you don’t teach your classes for one year, they and you are new all over again. That’s how it worked for me, and I wonder if that’s maybe part of what you’re experiencing now.


  12. Shane and H-Ann – good point about the post-sabbatical reinsertion! I was in fact on leave for all of last year, and even though this class is populated with non-majors and freshpeople, the fact that I wasn’t teaching last year means that I wasn’t a known quantity that students were talking about as they were advising each other about classes. It’s even more pronounced among our majors – there are core classes I usually teach which were covered by someone else, so it’s as if they don’t know me at all!


  13. This is all so sad! It is one of the reasons I don’t let students use computers in class; if they aren’t engaged with me, making eye contact, asking questions, laughing at my jokes, examining the images on my powerpoint, I am terrible. I tell them that, and explain that whatever they think they might be missing in “information” by having to take notes by hands, they are more than gaining something in terms of class discussion and a better class performance from me. Not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep computers out of the class room, but I once allowed them, and had just this sort of experience, all hidden behind their screens, shopping, texting, playing solitaire. It was terrible for all of us. So far the blow back from students hasn’t been too severe, and most appreciate that I am engaged with them.


  14. Maybe my discipline lends itself to the warm-up chat. I use the minutes while students are still filing in and I am taking roll (via seating chart, for classes up to 80) to talk about current events, campus issues, etc. That tends to wake up enough students to keep the class lively.

    I admit to engineering my class on occasion. I’ve allowed students who I know to be engaged discussion starters to a full class. Grading one more student’s work was worth the saved effort in “pulling teeth”.


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