CHANGING PATTERNS IN STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE: RESISTING CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION

In my post of 10 October last year I discussed the problems connected with using a methodology based on close reading to teach long texts. The main concern I expressed was that a pedagogy developed to train students into producing literary criticism of poetry might be inadequate for dealing with prose, particularly complete volumes. I spoke then of the challenge of trying to acquire total recall of the nuances of very long novels (any Victorian three-decker) or even novel series (like The Hunger Games).

To be honest, the post was trying to process a deeply-set anxiety that has plagued me this semester and that has to do with the changing patterns in students’ performance, specifically their resistance to engaging in class participation.

Now that I’m practically done marking the corresponding papers I can say that this has not been an easy semester for me as a teacher. Let me acknowledge that I have often felt uncomfortable in class, unable to find my feet, as the saying goes, and to understand what I was doing. Unusually, then, the posts for the last four months carry practically no comments on my teaching practice and read, rather, as a series of independent essays mostly on Gender Studies (this is what I have been teaching, together with Victorian Literature).

The remarkable quality of the papers I have just read (and some kind words from students) tell, however, a story quite different from what I thought was unfolding in class, this is why I am finally writing this post. I have been at some points truly distressed in class and if I have managed to keep my cool (mostly), if you allow me to use the expression, this has been thanks to a handful of extraordinarily participative students, two of whom have received my warmest thanks in the shape of an A with honours. Thank you, Carla and Marc. And Neele, Alicia, Albert, indeed.

I must grant that the anxiety-inducing political climate in Catalonia has been a major obstacle to keep going as a teacher last Autumn. Not only my own personal worries but also the students’ have had an impact in class, for when the future looks so uncertain education takes on part of that uncertainty. You might think that students were enthusiastic about the project of a possible new republic but I have seen mostly long faces in class, expressing a deep concern that the near future might be even more difficult than it already is for the millennials. There have been no direct political discussions in class but, even so, this has been a heavily politicized semester. At one point I asked my Erasmus students whether they wanted to stay in view of the (perhaps unsafe) turn that the situation was taking and they responded no, as the situation seemed ‘interesting’ for them. This, of course, reminded me of the Chinese curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’… You need peace of mind to teach well, and this has been lacking for the whole past semester.

Now, to the specifics of the case, which, I’m sure will be familiar to any teacher but to which I need to add some very odd factors like… my smelly classroom (a classic in my blog). My Facultat has a peculiar corridor which seems to be built on a swamp (I’m told it is actually built on sandy soil that doesn’t drain well). Our first action on entering the classroom has been every day the same one: opening the windows as wide as they would go. Even so we, students and teacher, have been forced to associate Victorian Literature with a bad odour–which possibly is what Victorian themselves were used to in their dirty streets but not what we need to focus on intellectual work.

Add to this the fact that the classroom was too big, which resulted in a strange seating pattern, with students basically forming a diagonal from the first row of benches to the back row, instead of sitting close in just a few rows. There were moments when I didn’t know where to place my gaze; and, then, when I did, what I saw was not very reassuring: students texting, or lounging as if on their sofa… not taking notes at all… talking to each other but not to me… I’m amazed that so many days I had to ask for silence to lecture and, then, when I asked for comments the chatterers kept silent.

Here is what every student should understand (or at least my students): a teacher’s performance depends on the students’ attention. If this attention wavers or is never available, the teacher falters, hesitates, starts waffling instead of properly lecturing, and the discourse collapses in the worst case. That was the day when I stopped and told my students that since they were not interested in what I had to say, I was perfectly willing to go to my office where I had tons of work to do. You can’t begin to imagine how foolish I felt, and how hard it was to return to my topic.

By the way, I have also noticed another symptom of bad teaching: linguistic accuracy vanishes. My English simply starts evaporating, the sentences don’t flow, the mistakes are unbelievably basic. When a class goes well, however, the solidity of the use of language increases tenfold and the brain seems to go on a faster gear, which is why I love teaching: this is when I do my best thinking.

I finally came out of my bleak cocoon to speak to some of my students and some of my colleagues about what was missing in class, and it turned out that the impression that my teaching was not working was not shared by the students (um, at least the ones that spoke to me). It was, however, shared by my colleagues, not because they think I’m a lousy teacher but because they were in a similar situation regarding their own classes. And I don’t mean my Department colleagues only, but others teaching English in Britain, which shows this is not a local case. Somebody, then, should produce an academic study of why, plainly, students are very clearly showing with their attitude in class that they prefer lecturing to participative-style teaching. For this is it: my discomfort has to do with realizing that basic truth.

Students’ resistance to class participation manifests itself, to begin with, by their not reading the books we discuss in advance. We publish the syllabus in early July for them to read the texts over summer but this has never ever worked–yet, we persist. I told my students that in order to succeed in their degree the main trick is acquiring good time-management skills. This means planning ahead and preparing all tasks with sufficient time, both to avoid failure and stress. Since very few do that in spite of our efforts to inform them of the content of courses, I must conclude that they need to be told that this expected of them.

It occurs to me that, possibly, our problems have to do with our different perception of the situation: we teachers believe that students understand what their role involves, and students believe that it’s our duty to point out at each step what they need to do. My syllabi, then, will include from next year onward a warning in bold, red type that a) books need to have been read at least two weeks before their class discussion begins; b) time-management is essential and c) class participation… inevitable.

For the last six years, we have invited students to participate in class in the following way. The first novel in the course (second-year Victorian Literature, remember) is entirely in the hands of the teacher, who produces plenty of close reading to set an example. Then, we distribute the chapters of the second novel among students and in each session a maximum of about 8 contribute a comment based on a passage. Then for the third and fourth novels students need to contribute a passage from a secondary source. Well, this is the first time when the method has not worked at all, as some students have chosen to ignore that this is a compulsory activity. In some sessions only 1 or 2 of the students were present–some, indeed, had a valid excuse for their absence but they were a minority. I did ask my class whether there was a boycott afoot, which they denied, a bit surprised at my paranoia… But then I do know that some students take our invitation to participate as a form of coercion, and it appears that, whereas in previous years they made an effort to comply, this year they have resisted the obligation to speak in class.

I don’t wish to give you the impression that the whole thing has been a disaster – not at all. Very few students have failed and these were the ones that did not complete assessment. What I’m trying to say is that this resistance to engaging in a participative-style of teaching benefits nobody. I’ll say again this: when I taught Harry Potter back in 2013-14, every lecture was a most enjoyable party, not because of the text itself but of students’ eagerness. I refuse to believe that only Harry Potter produces that effect… I’ll add that I expected something similar regarding our newest addition to the Victorian syllabus: Dracula. Instead, attendance was at its lowest.

The students that speak to us, teachers, are, of course, the keener ones. It is then only partially useful to ask them why their peers are not so keen. A factor that emerges in conversation, anyway, is that the university entry system in Spain forces students into degrees that were only their second or third choice. I will not go into the shortcomings of our secondary education, nor into the problem of how the social media are negatively impacting the attention span of young people (even their ability to think in silence and with no interruptions). There is, however, something else at work: a generational pragmatism which rejects all unnecessary extras. Since my students’ performance has, on the whole, been quite good, I need to reach the conclusion that the lectures (classes, sessions, whatever) are beginning to be seen as superfluous activities, which they eschew, rather than as what they should be: an occasion to engage in high-level intellectual dialogue.

I was for sixteen years a teacher at the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and I am, therefore, familiar with a pedagogical model that does not rely on classroom interaction. My students at UOC did very well but at the back of my mind there was always the question of whether they would do even better in class. As happens, one of them did become my presential student and even my BA dissertation tutoree and this convinced me that we do need direct personal contact in lectures. Now I’m not so sure and I wonder whether the millennials’ pragmatic ways will, in the end, force us either to return to traditional lecturing or to abandon the classroom altogether.

We’ll see.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

4 thoughts on “CHANGING PATTERNS IN STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE: RESISTING CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION

  1. Low class participation is something that has always baffled me, especially in literature classes. The whole point of going to class is, precisely, engage in conversation and discuss what you find most interesting/shocking about the books you’ve previously read and see how other students see things, or point to you things you might have missed. Now that I won’t be attending classes anymore (at least, for the moment) I kind of miss being in class and interacting with others, it was one of the things that made me love my degree. It’s sad that participation is so low – I hope it does get better.

  2. Thank you, Laura, that is precisely the point: speaking with an ex-student a few days ago he told me that he only realizes now what he missed at the time – the years spent studying should be an enjoyable opportunity for discussion, not a burden, as they seem to be… Thanks!

  3. This makes me sad. When I started the degree, I thought literature was not my thing. It was passionate teachers like you and enriching literature class conversations which allowed me to remove the blindfold and see beyond what I thought literature was. That’s when the hobby became a passion, when I understood that there was much more than a simple story to be read. As Laura says above, after a couple of years I miss those conversations. I miss “the joys of being taught literature”. Reading for monologues is definitely not as fun…

    I never would’ve learned how to love literature if it hadn’t been for class conversation. For literary debates where I had the freedom to express my interpretation of a text, as long as I could justify it. This was not an easy process for me (and that’s what might be happening to some of your students), but as I lost my fear of mistakes and learned how to make my arguments strong, it became extremely enjoyable. Maybe they need more time to be confident enough to believe themselves worthy of being heard.

    In my opinion, and as you mention in your post, there may no be a blindfold to remove from your students because they might just be blind to literature. If there’s no interest not only towards your class, but towards the degree as a whole, I don’t really think it’s up to you.

    I truly hope your next semester will be more enjoyable! Classroom interaction can’t disappear. At least, not until I go back to university for more literature coversations to indulge myself with…

  4. Thank you Ramon for your wonderful message. This is exactly what I meant: the university years are a rare chance to engage in enriching dialogue and once they’re over, that is also over unless you’re very, very lucky. Not even we, teachers, spend our time discussing books (it’s mostly bureaucracy). And as you can see, I use my blog for monologuing about what I read, hoping someone like you is listening.
    I’ll certainly bear in mind, as you remind me, that “Maybe they need more time to be confident enough to believe themselves worthy of being heard” and will work on this from day one.
    This semester I’m not teaching, but I have a lot of tutoring to do (BA, MA, PhD) which is great because I do enjoy one-to-one teacher/student interaction.
    I hope all is well with you. Thanks!
    Sara

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