Visions of Students Today

I ran across this YouTube video: A Vision of Students Today (found via It’s All Good). It came out of an intro anthropology class at Kansas State University. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn from it. Based on a collaborative semi-survey, students hold up signs talking about their lives, with the overall point (I think) that university education isn’t “relevant” to their lives. Students have been chanting that mantra since at least the 1960s, but now the education is irrelevant in different ways.

It seems to me that one of the biggest criticisms is of the large lecture format, and I couldn’t agree more. One student holds up a sign saying her average class size is 115 students, and another that 18% of her teachers knows her name. It’s no wonder that students get discouraged in this environment. I’ve never taught a lecture class, but I did used to TA for one on early British literature, and it was deadly (except for my discussion sections, which of course were delightful). Right now I teach 12 students, and know all of their names, but I know that even here some of the students have very large lectures and grow bored in them. The large lecture format should probably die, but there never seem to be enough teachers and money to teach everyone in small seminars.

Some of the other criticisms seem more like whining and less like constructive criticism. One student sign reads “I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me.” What are we to make of this? Lots of students don’t read course materials. Lots of students also don’t make good grades. How is that the fault of anyone but the student? Or is she saying that the professors assign readings irrelevant to the subject? That could be a problem. But she then follows that sign with another saying “only 26% are relevant to my life.” To which I would want to respond, so what? Is a university there to teach only classes relevant to the lives of late teens, or there to broaden the knowledge and understanding of those teens by trying to educate them?

Another students signs that she “will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages & 1281 Facebook profiles.” Does that mean that professors should no longer assign books, but instead teach the content of Facebook?

Another signs that she will “write 42 pages for class this semester but over 500 pages of email.” I teach writing, but don’t see the relevance. Those 500 pages of email have no obligation to be clear, thoughtful, and coherent. They don’t necessarily teach you to order your thoughts about a complex subject and make a compelling argument. I don’t know what kind of writing there is for this course, but writing 40 pages of argumentative prose is very different from writing a lot of emails, unless you write long emails arguing difficult questions with lots of citations and careful analysis and use of evidence.

Several students hold up signs saying how much time they spend on various activities each day: 2 hours on the phone, 1.5 hours watching TV, 2 hours eating, 3 hours listening to music, 3.5 hours online, 7 hours sleeping, etc. It adds up to 26.5 hours, and there’s not even any mention of drinking or hooking up. Another sign reads, “I’m a multitasker,” then “I have to be.” But one doesn’t have to talk on the phone for 2 hours or watch TV at all, and I’m not sure listening to music while surfing the web should count as multi-tasking anyway. Still, I agree that educational methods that encourage students to sit in a lecture hall while IMing and listening to music are problematic. The solution is smaller classes that engage students in the content of the course, but also students who want to learn. (Based on my experience, I don’t think online classes are any answer. I had to take one in library school because no one on campus would teach gov docs. The fact that I could eat my dinner, play my guitar, and still participate in class didn’t impress me with the format much.)

Another signs about having a job after graduation that probably won’t exist today, leading another student to hold up what I think is a Scantron sheet with writing on the back saying, “Filling out this won’t help me get there.” In some ways I sympathize with the student. Filling out bubbles on a test sheet won’t get the student a job. I would be more concerned, though, that it won’t help the student get an education. I balk at the notion that the goal of a university is strictly to get people jobs. That seems to be a common factor with many students, but the failure isn’t that of the education, but of their understanding of the purpose of that education. The students frustrated that not all the readings are relevant to their lives and not all the classes will help them get jobs might be more happy with vocational training. No wonder they’re bored out of their minds in these classes. Colleges need to engage students more, but students need to want to learn. Both are necessary for the best college experience.

If they’re so bored, and if so much is so irrelevant to their concerns, then why are they there? Why don’t they quit and do something else? I know why they don’t, because they believe that a college degree is necessary to get a job that will allow them to almost have a decent middle class lifestyle these days. I think they’re right, but it’s not the presence of the degree that will fit them for challenging and constantly changing knowledge economy, but the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that come with learning.

13 thoughts on “Visions of Students Today

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for voicing this so eloquently. I watched the video yesterday and had a vague thought along the lines of, “So?” Your post answered that thought perfectly.
    I just finished my first semester (compressed schedule, cohort-style) of teaching 12 students “Knowledge Management”. I am pretty darned sure they all read 85% or more of the readings, because I required them to post a well-written, thoughtful response to the readings before class. It seemed to work pretty well, and I like to think that they actually did learn something. (Of course, it takes a lot more work to grade that way, but I’ll take the grading if it comes with engaged students any day.)
    Thanks again.

  2. Engaging students is a lot of work, and I try hard at it. I have 12 students in a writing seminar. They have responses due for every reading, which I dutifully read. I don’t lecture. The class is all discussion. There are no tests. 95% of the grade is based on their essays. I make the effort to engage them, and find that most of the time they reciprocate. It has to go both ways, though.

  3. Wow. You interpreted the video almost completely differently than I did. I thought the point was engagement–how do we engage these multi-taskers in the classroom? I thought it was a snapshot of reality. I work at a high school, and we strictly control the use of cell phones (forbidden during the day) and other technologies. Students *can’t* go to Facebook or MySpace, play video games, and engage in the activities that college students do. We restrict their freedom, in part with the theory that if they have too much of it, they won’t bother learning. The best teacher I ever had taught us in a conventional classroom, using the lecture format (in advanced level Spanish), but each lecture was engaging. He did the best job of anyone I’ve encountered at integrating philosophy, art, music, science, and history with Spanish literature. He didn’t use *any* technology, but he was an amazing teacher. Is it possible now to do the same thing? I’d still be sitting enthralled in his class, but would a modern student feel the same way, or would they be reading Facebook profiles. Have students changed because of technology? How much time did we spend doodling during boring lectures, even in grad school?

  4. Just a quick “right on.” I thought the video was muddled at best. I would have rather heard some in-depth interviews with a few students about what they fond unsatisfactory in their education.

  5. Perhaps I did misinterpret some. I had very mixed feelings about the video. How to engage these students is an important question, and one I wrestle with. I’m just not sure we can engage students by becoming more relevant to their lives or teaching to get them a job, which were the parts of the video that bothered me the most.
    I remember how painfully dull I found several of my classes over the years, and how easy it was to tune out completely. But those classes were ones without much intellectual engagement, where, for example, one could skip all the lectures, read the textbook the night before the exam, and ace the tests.
    Still, the commitment has to be mutual. It’s a teacher’s job to engage students, not to entertain them if they’re bored. It seems to me that a lot of students don’t want to learn, and if that’s the case then they can’t be taught. If we’ve made a good faith effort to engage students in a subject, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if they’re still bored.

  6. Thanks, Steve. I agree. I realize it was a quick video designed to get us thinking about something, I’m just not sure what that something is.

  7. Thank you for a succinct and relevant commentary on one of the many things some in higher ed and librarianship think we are supposed to slavishly adopt as some sort of radical mantra about how the world is different now.
    Or much shorter, “Amen!”

  8. May I third Steve and Mark? I wasn’t sure what to say about that video…and you’ve said it much better than I ever could.
    I’m inclined to apply your recent phrase to several of this group’s videos:
    “I realize it was a quick video designed to get us thinking about something, I’m just not sure what that something is.”

  9. Wayne,
    I just want to congratulate you on two excellent back-to-back posts. This, along with the “guitar hero” post are a great 1-2 punch.
    My wife and I have been reading about classical education lately (I am amazed by this woman named Marva Collins), as our eldest is around kindergarden age. Let’s just say that when I consider my own not-so-shabby education, I feel robbed (there is so much that I could have learned…)
    In any case, it sounds like what you do in your classes is Socratic dialogue, and boy oh boy, do we need more of that these days.
    Anyways, great posts. Thanks for doing what you do.
    Let us know when that piece on the AL is coming out too…

  10. Thanks, Nathan. Pity you’re not in NJ (not that I’d generally wish that on anyone), because my daughter goes to an interesting classical school that I’ve considered blogging about, the Princeton Latin Academy. They start learning Latin and Greek in the first grade and by eighth grade are learning rhetoric and philosophy. The curriculum for her third grade class is Greek, Latin, history, literature, geography, and mathematics. Lest it seem like all work, the school is also on the grounds of a summer day camp, and the students spend a lot of time playing in the forest, where they all have pseudo-property deeds to various trees, which they trade and combine. In the Spring, the lower school students write and perform an opera based on a classic work of literature. It’s a strange but fascinating environment.
    And yes, my classes are more or less Socratic. I think the best education (at least in the humanities) comes from reading difficult works and discussing them in small groups to try to understand them.

  11. Oh, and the piece on the AL should be coming out as a special issue of a journal early next year. I’m sure she’ll be trumpeting it on her blog, since she’s the object of the special issue. I probably shouldn’t say much more. I’ve asked her if I can publish an interview with her on my blog when it comes out, but I just got a “we’ll see.”

  12. Well said. I said much the same thing, worse. Somebody pointed me to this.
    http://www.librarything.com/thingology/2007/10/shirkyweinberger-movie.php
    I think I disagree with you on email. I think that praticing any form of textual communication helps. People who write boring, poorly-strutured emails get feedback, one way or another. What’s true with email is twice as true with bloggering. Blogs aren’t long-form scholarly argument either, but they’re teaching a lot of people how to write.

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