Relating to Students

Watching the vision of students video last week got me thinking about ways to engage students. This led me to consider as well ways in which I don’t think we should try to engage students. Here I’m thinking mostly of engaging students in the classroom by trying to identify with them as kids in some way or to show them that we’re on their level somehow, to show them that we’re fun or relevant, to treat scholarship and learning like a bitter pill that needs a coating of fun to make it palatable.

Some ways to make ourselves fun I see as completely inappropriate. One comical way in which librarians sometimes try to be “fun” is by engaging in pop culture references allegedly appropriate to teenagers. If the librarian is young enough, this might work for a while, but inevitably the pop culture references date too quickly. What I might remember as a recent hit song might have been a hit when a student was 9. And how likely is it that any of us watch the same movies as teenagers today? I would probably have better luck making pop culture reference appropriate for someone twice my age than half my age. This might make it seem like only I would be ridiculous making pop culture references, but unless one has a teenager around the house how likely is it that teen pop culture references come to hand easily?

Another comical way is to try to talk like the kids do today, using their slang. Perhaps it works for you, but it would never work for me, because I don’t know the slang and I rarely use slang anyway, especially with students. Slang is a great way for a cohort to communicate amongst itself, but outside of that context is often hinders communication. Regardless, slang is so quickly out of date and teen historical memories are so short. Just today in class a student was referring to some slang term I’d never heard. I said, “you kids today, with all your slang. I just can’t keep up. Everything’s the bee’s knees or groovy or whatever.” Another student asked if that was slang from my day, and I don’t think he was kidding.

I can’t relate to the teens as teens, and I would never try. I try to be witty and clever and even funny sometimes, but being funny is different from being funny in the same ways their friends would be funny. I want to show them that being a scholar isn’t the same as being a grind, but it’s also different from being their buddy.

Other librarians and teachers try to be relevant in different ways, but this can also backfire, because we’re not always sure what is relevant to teenagers, and our job isn’t to be relevant to where they are now, but to show them how anything can be relevant or interesting if approached from the right perspective. (On a semi-related note, read this article in the Chronicle on teaching a course at UMass about the Grateful Dead. Here I think it’s not the professor trying to be relevant, but a critic of the professor demonstrating how out of touch he is. The course about the Grateful Dead is criticized “as the latest example of modern higher education pandering to consumers.” Is the Grateful Dead what college students are pandering for these days?)

I want to engage students not by going to them but by bringing them to me. It’s no use me trying to find out what interests them, because it will never work. I’m not a teenager or a college student, and my memories of what it was like to be one are necessarily partial and limited by my own experience. But that’s okay, because it doesn’t matter what interests them now; what matters is whether I can make what I’m doing interesting to them. Admittedly this is more difficult for me in a library instruction session than in the ordinary classroom. I can make political philosophy interesting more easily than database searching, but I still try to make library sessions interesting. Research is a problem to be solved, and we engage students by showing how the problem presents interesting challenges, how it’s not just searching Google or searching the catalog or searching a subject specific index. Research is a complex endeavor that many enjoy for its own sake. Finding sources, relating sources, solving problems, answering questions, creating new questions, entering into a scholarly conversation about a subject and the give and take of debate–these are worthy and intellectually challenging activities. If we’re trying to train scholars, even junior scholars, we don’t need to go to their world. We need to bring them into our world.

Are we trying to become like students, or make the students become like scholars? The classroom is a stage, and like it or not we’re performers. Teaching is a performance, and we should carefully consider the personas we create. Do we create a persona of a teacher who desperately wants to be relevant to student life? I fear that way disappointment lies. Instead, we should create the persona we want students to model. We should show them a world beyond their world, a world of intelligent and educated and even witty people who are thoughtful and like to learn, who question the world and who take scholarship seriously. People with the historical and moral imagination that makes learning about the wider world an invigorating challenge. We don’t need to make scholarship or learning fun or relevant to them now. We need to mold them into people who instead find enjoyment in scholarship and learning.