ESPABILATION SKILLS, OR HOW TO MOTIVATE PASSIVE STUDENTS (part 2)

This is a regular teaching day for me this semester: 8:30-10:00, 20th Century Literature (compulsory), I face my sleepy-eyed, unmotivated first year students: 50% attendance, of those in class 50% don’t take notes (apparently they don’t even bring paper to class) and 50% don’t even bother to conceal their boredom (the ones not taking notes are not necessarily the bored ones). I’ve had, at the last count, three serious incidents with students deciding that class is up before I finish, having breakfast in class or –this one is new– kissing as I lecture. Second class: 13:00-14:30, Contemporary British Drama, an elective. Yes, attendance is also only 50% (but at least it’s the same students) and few take notes, but this is because they’re actively following what happens in class, particularly the amazing performances by their classmates. All seem highly motivated (I grant a few seemed less enthusiastic, I wouldn’t say bored) and class discussion must often be cut short for lack of time. I’m the same teacher in both classes.

If I consider what Joan Simón said in his seminar I’m doing things right only at 13:00: a) I’m bringing a collection of guests for my students’ benefit (5, which costs the Dept. some extra money – thanks!); b) I’m asking students to produce something on which they can invest their creative energies (a short play, which I’m not quite sure how to assess); c) they feel in charge of their learning, as shown in their performance of the selected scenes. Yes, the subject works beautifully and I’m enjoying it, particularly because I can relax for part of each session. More or less. I’m still shaking remembering how intense was the performance of parts of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking this week.

Precisely, what I wondered when I saw the scenes was what could possibly motivate students to work so well, much above my wildest dreams. The marks? Certainly not. My ‘espabilation skills’? Ha, ha… I was really scared when I prepared the subject that students would not go along with the experiment and that the sessions would fall flat. I am no longer worried but whenever students thank me for the subject (sorry to sound appallingly smug) I insist it is not my merit at all: it is theirs. I am just VERY LUCKY.

I asked the students playing Ravenhill so brilliantly why they’d gone to such pains –literally– and they told me that it was something different: it was fun. Such fun, that I actually received two guests, friends of students in my class to see them… This worries me, for it shows that students’ motivation is not primarily learning but enjoyment. Of course, plays are perfect for mixing pleasure and learning, as students are discovering to my relief, but there is plenty of Literature less amenable to that reading methodology. Some texts must simply be endured –yes, endured– for the sake of learning about the History of Literature and I’m beginning to feel guilty that my British Drama class may be doing things harder for other Literature teachers. Even for myself in other classes.

Generally speaking, life is not fun and learning, even for the highly self-motivated, can often be mortally boring, a pain in the ass. We’ve become university teachers by spending many gruelling hours tied to literary texts we hated, breathing in deeply, and using whatever carrot and stick we had at hand. We are all Victorians for, as George Eliot wrote, we believe that “Conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course.”

In contrast, our students belong to a generation fixated on their right to have fun. This was, to my surprise, formally acknowledged as a fundamental human right by the 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child but, somehow, it has spread beyond childhood to clash badly with adult duty, as adulthood is delayed and teenagehood prolonged (into the university classroom in what is called ‘bachillerización’).

Most of our students, particularly in the third and fourth years, are dutiful people, I know, but a significant minority still must learn that an adult is, simply, someone who must do his/her duty and have fun only once that is done. These are a worrying percentage of the ones we battle with on the front lines of the first and second years. And we must motivate them… Tell me how.

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