Monthly Archives: September 2012

What I Learned from the Back of the Room

I am teaching Critical Literacy, our re-mediated “remedial” course, for the first time this semester.  Thankfully, my incredible colleagues are just a Skype chat away and they give me all kinds of experiments to conduct in the classroom. We’ve just finished a selection from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and to illustrate Pablo Freire’s banking and problem-solving concepts of education, Jennifer Buckner goes in the classroom and sits in the back. She stays there for a while, chatting, looking at her phone, and waiting for class to start. So that’s what I did today.

I walked into the dark classroom and didn’t turn on the lights. I sat in the back, propped up my feet, chatted with students around me a bit.  “Are you sitting back here today?” and “I can’t get my assignment uploaded to Blackboard.” they said. Then they chatted for a bit among themselves.  A student who came in a couple of minutes late, sat down, opened his laptop, looked around, then said, “If she’s not here in 10 minutes, we can leave.” (I think it’s 15 minutes for a PhD, but whatev.) The other students started laughing. “What?” he demanded. “She’s right behind you, dude.” He looked around, saw me, and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was you. You’re sitting in the back.”

My transition from back in the class to up front was a bit awkward, but I did turn on the lights and the computer and start class.  I asked what they would have done if I had continued sitting in the back.  “Watched Netflix,” one said from behind her iPad. “Gone back to the room,” one said from behind his laptop. I pulled up our class wiki and we started listing terms associated with their expectations of teachers and students. ( A screenshot of their lists is below.)  My role, from the ten minutes in which I didn’t fulfill it, apparently is to turn on the lights, stand in the front and be Keeper of the Computer, Keeper of Knowledge.

We then looked watched a clip from Declining by Degrees, a documentary on college fail, and a section of Freire on passivity.  “So,” I said, “let’s revisit the list.” We went back to the wiki. The Teacher section included action verbs — teach, educate, make, tell. The Student section contained passive verbs and language of derision — apathy, hate, don’t know, too hard, boring. The students in the 240 seat lecture class in the video were disengaged. The fifteen students sitting with me were disengaged, absorbed by phones and iPads and laptops and their daydreams. “Why are you disengaged?” A few answers while eyes were on screens.  I kept prodding. I went meta and pointed out they were disengaged while we were discussing disengagement.

Finally I told them I didn’t believe them. I don’t believe they are apathetic or lazy or stupid. I don’t believe their list of themselves. I don’t know how to lead them to epiphanies and I’m not sure how much they are learning, but they sure are teaching me.


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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


So Your Class is Engaging But They Aren’t Engaged: Now What?

I desperately hope someone will answer the question I pose in the title of this post. Yesterday was a terrible teaching day. Last summer, after some teaching epiphanies, I revamped my teaching, made multimodality my creed, and committed myself to active learning. To being the “guide on the side” as one mentor says. And it worked. My composition classes were fantastic.  For the first time, I really loved teaching comp. So I bounced into the classroom this fall, ready and excited for a similar experience.

The first assignment for my Comp 101 is based on bits of Walden. We discuss the idea of simplicity, how this is supposed to lead to an awakening and to action based on that awakening. To explore these ideas, we embark on a week-long simplicity experiment, giving up something that complicates our lives for one week.  Last year, some students made some really brave decisions and their insights led to amazing discussions.  It was a transformative week.  This year…well, maybe I just had really high expectations. Or maybe they’ve already simplified. Whatever the case, the whole experiment is just meh. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to share. One student is excited — she’s given up makeup and suddenly has thirty extra minutes a day, and she is now reflecting on larger concepts of beauty and standards for women. For her, the experiment has worked exactly as I had hoped. But she’s one of fifteen, and I want more.

In all my general ed classes, I use lots of teaching methods — daybooks, group work, discussions, Wordles, projects, PollEverywhere, Socrative, gallery crawls, audio collages, podcasts, videos, experiments, even walks in the woods.  I get giddy with the excitement of doing and learning. I make jokes and I listen. I learn something in class every day. But when students don’t reciprocate, when they aren’t willing to meet me at least halfway, much less buy into the class, I don’t know what else I can do. I want us to suck the marrow out of education, to back it into a corner and know it by experience, to discover what is Story and Writing and Knowing.  I don’t want to practice resignation, and I don’t want my students to either.*

But when they stare and don’t participate. When they are supposed to be writing in daybooks and they aren’t. When they sigh and mutter audible comments about how pointless this all is, it makes me feel that perhaps, perhaps it is pointless.  If they want a straight lecture about Achilles rather than a discussion of heroes in cultural contexts, perhaps I should give it to them. That’s way easier anyway. Or if they feel composition is just writing essay after essay, I should give up on discussions of self and Story and writing that selfStory and just give them what they expect. 

But I can’t. 

So, dear people, what do you do when you are pouring your heart and your energy and your self into your classes every day, and that outpouring isn’t reciprocated?  What do you do when you get frustrated and confused and tired and it’s only the second week of classes? How do you keep going?

Now what?


*Been reading a lot of Walden. Sue me.


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Uncategorized