Monday, November 14, 2005

Extreme Apathy

Last week, my frustration level reached a boiling point in my two pre-credit (developmental/basic) composition classes. Though I've taught such classes before, I had not taught at this particular school, and I have been discouraged by how difficult it has been to engage the students. Even with tried and true assignments and activities, I felt myself digging a hole of apathy on the part of the students and righteous anger on my part. I talked to other instructors, who echoed my sentiments about the students in this particular class, but none had any suggestions for change.

Finally, after having two students complain (independently and unprovoked by me or the assignment) about their classmates' apathy and having an unusually unproductive workshop, I opted to go to an extreme and change the schedule for the rest of the semester to incorporate a new paper into the class.

This final paper was where I felt like I needed to do something different. I thought about all of the writing assignments I have ever given and knew none would work: I have already given these students opportunities to write about various personally significant aspects of their lives, I've done the "you and your world" assignments to get them thinking about their place in the world, I did some traditional modes assignments, and I did fun, creative assignments. Students did them. Whatever.

Instead, I wanted to light a little fire. Be a little controversial. See what would happen if I called them on my perception of their attitude.

I printed out a copy of an article called "My Experience Teaching Apathetic Students at a School with Open Admissions" by a history professor named Thomas Reeves. I don't agree with every point the man makes, but complete agreement isn't my goal. Because he describes behaviors I have come to associate with many of my students, I wanted to see how students would react to seeing these behaviors described--and condemned--in print. Then, for their final essay assignment, I would ask them to write a paper where they discuss the degree to which they agree with Reeves using a couple of sources and anecdotal evidence. Part of the paper would also entail discussing whether perceptions of student apathy matter and why.

Today, I introduced the new schedule and assignment. I then read most of Reeves' article out loud and asked students to respond in writing to the article. It was an amazing day in class: both classes took off into discussions that went completely different directions. One class agreed completely with Reeves and heatedly discussed how they noticed such apathy in themselves. In fact, they had long recognized the problematic nature of what they felt were low expectations from others but did not want to say or do anything to change those situations--"Who wants to do more work?" one student said. My second class ran far and wide with their discussion, condemning Reeves, the education system, policy-makers, and American culture on many counts. When pressed with conflicting views and questions, these same students had difficulty seeing themselves as agents within these systems who could act in addition to being acted upon.

I feel guilty saying that I feel overjoyed about the results; after all, this tactic is tantamount to passive-aggressive name-calling on my part. However, the students seemed to realize this. They knew I was unhappy with class last week, my unhappiness created tension, this article brought this tension and conflict into open discussion, and students reacted. Now, I'm hoping they'll be at least a little more engaged in the writing, as they seem to have something to gain, something to critique: how others interpret them. As much as I know I took liberties with my power over students by reading this article in class, I feel like it may be worth it in the end because perhaps, they will feel motivated to empower themselves through their writing . . . I don't know, though. In a way, I feel like I had to call students' identify into question--even label them negatively--to engage them, and I don't feel completely comfortable with that. I would very be interested in feedback of all kinds.


At 10:18 AM, Anonymous joanna said...

Well, this is one of those "context" moments, where watching you and your class over the span of the semester would be great. That said, it doesn't sound like you were beating them or abusing them--instead, you were bringing up the problem and dealing with it--getting their ideas. I think you something very useful.
What you did was to open up the discussion to include them, and you had them read and discuss another instructor's perception of students like them, which includes them in a larger group than than they may have realized.
How this paper will translate into their self-awareness beyond your course will vary, depending on each student. But I would be interested in hearing about them and how their spring semester went.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger spiral said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Styles said...

I think you've marked with Tom Reeves — an acquantance from many years ago — something of America's contemporary student ethos. You might appreciate Lack of Curiosity is Curious, here suggesting, righly, I think, that the phenomenon isn't lack of intelligence.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger middlebrow said...

I feel like I should have a handful of students from one of my sections of intermediate writing read this article and respond to it. I find student apathy incredibly frustrating, and I'm not sure I deal with it as well as you have here.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger macncheese said...

I appreciate all of the comments so far; I worry about being the teacher in the lounge who injects bad vibes into the room and makes everyone cringe at the obvious slips of tongue that she makes. The reference to the "Lack of Curiosity" piece is especially helpful because it is so important to get across that intelligence is not the issue, a distinction that I will definitely attempt to make clear.

I'm still deciding what to think about all of this, as I always promised myself I would never be "one of those" teachers who is always boo-hooing about students who just don't "get it." I'm feeling a tear developing in my teacher identity, a tear that I think may be quite natural, considering how green I am. With only three semesters of experience outside of grad school, some of my frustrations may come with the passing of time that is distancing me from student culture. Perhaps. Even as I say that, I feel as if I'm parrotting what well-meaning, more experienced people tell me. Part of me always wants to say (in a whiny voice, of course), "But I didn't like apathy any better when I was a student! And I didn't feel like this last year. Why this semester?"

Going back the other direction, I can't even convince myself to chaulk it all up to "a rough semester." Even if I could, something tells me the frustration heap of this semester will still be there, waiting to be built upon, next semester. And the next semester. And such building frustration just seems unhealthy for all involved.

To add to all of it, I think much of the problem for me is some personal insecurity that drives me to want those students to care about what I care about. Idealistic? Sure. Naive? Of course. Whatever bad rhetorical techniques I use to discuss this (potential?) need, it's there.

I feel like the article has worked to bring out these issues with my students and I, has turned into productive discussion for all involved, and (more selfishly) has perhaps thrwarted the building of a mountain-o-frustration for me--at least, temporarily. In particular, one student who reacted very negatively to the Reeves' article has already made this experiment rewarding. In an attempt to get the student to clarify his ideas about the article, I kept questioning what the student meant during the initial class discussion of the article. I tried hard not to make him feel singled out and defensive, and he continued to be the main student who was talking.

As the discussion continued, he became defensive enough at one point to make a comment about how I was a bad teacher like his high school English teachers. The comment was made while many students were talking, and I let it go, realizing that I needed to take the heat off of this student. I ended the class by saying how much I appreciated the discussion and especially this student's contribution.

Despite this attempt to let the student know I do appreciate his ideas, I was worried the student might not return to class. Although I did not time the article discussion this way, the discussion came the day before final withdrawal for classes.

I was extremely happy to see the student not only came back to class; he was extremely participative. He had already gone to the library and gotten a book to help him research his point. Already researched. By getting a book.

However, there were three people missing from the other class who usually attend. Over the semester, these three had written and talked about not being particularly sure if they would continue with college, and they were the only quiet students who sat listening to their classmates as they agreed with Reeves. I'm not sure if the article discussion or the increased homework turned them from class. For all I know, their absence had nothing to do with the article, but it's hard for me not to draw correlations. In the case of these students, I worry I've cancelled out the benefits.

I've written half a book, so I'll stop there and see if anyone else chimes in.

At 11:11 PM, Anonymous joanna said...

It's hard not to jump to conclusions, but wait until the next class. Sometimes grandparents really do die, and people do get sick, and students do run away from class for a day.
The lesson that I keep learning in developmental teaching is that the motivation is there, and I tap it by giving assignments in smaller increments and by explaining why we're doing something, that is, how it connects to credit-level college.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger middlebrow said...

I understand your idealism--wanting students to be as excited about the material as your are. I'm only a few years into teaching now, and I have (and want to sustain) some of that idealism. But I do find it coming up against reality at times. And it's defnitely not an issue of intelligence with my students. I taught as a graduate student at the University of Utah before getting a full-time gig here at Salt Lake Community College. I see no substantive difference between the U of U students and my SLCC students, other than the unfortunate fact that my SLCC students are more financially strapped. It might even be less an issue of apathy with them than an issue of support. They work, have families, go to school, etc. They're often just tired, too tired to be the students I know they can be.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger shannon said...

I googled "apathetic students" the other day, out of frustration with my own students, and with my friend's son, who "wants" to go to college but shows no sign of wanting to do any academic work. I found Tom Reeve's piece, and I read all the comments about it. His description of his students could have been written about mine: the sullen silence during lectures, the sleeping in class, the refusal to do any reading. the whining about bad grades. I could add more: some students deliberately sit where they can't see what I write on the white board, and they can't see the slides I am projecting; some listen to ipods during class; some talk and laugh in the back row the whole class; a great many routinely skip class. Many refuse to take notes no matter how often I tell them that it is necessary.

I think this attitude is partly just passivity, the result of having been entertained by television and games all their lives. They have never had to exert themselves in any way. Also, I think they are very cynical about the adult world that they are about to enter, and they are delaying that entry as long as possible. If they can borrow money at a low interest rate and spend a fraction of it on their tuition, they're happy to take advantage of the offer, never really believing they will have to pay back their student loans.

I have very little sympathy for them. About a third of them usually fail.

I have some very admirable students who work very hard, but most are new immigrants. Students who have been born here seem almost universally very lazy, regardless of their economic class.

At 3:58 AM, Blogger Mr. K English (Fall 07) said...

Reeves' article left me bereft, of course, because it was all very true, delightfully cynical, brutishly honest. Jonathan Swift would have been deliciously indignant about Reeves' savage indignation over student and teacher and administrative apathy.

A good exercise might be to remove the latter half of the essay and make students generate their own solution paragraphs.

Here at my school, some instructors are experimenting with methodologies that ask the students to investigate and analyze their majors and career choices, so that there is always a goal or a big picture item in mind rather than short-term goals.

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