Monday, 21 November 2011

"I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed…"*

I am actually feeling pretty low right now. Despite having a lovely weekend and a very successful run in the President's Cup fencing competition (won 5-1, 5-1, 5-0, 5-0, 5-2 and lost one 5-2), one bad class has left me very gloomy indeed. First up was my 2 hours on social class and literature: pretty one-sided, but I think it went OK. But it was followed by seminar on media and the political economy which was utterly disastrous. Even the regularly talkative bright ones didn't know how the BBC and Sky were funded, hadn't heard about the phone-hacking, didn't care about concepts like the 'public sphere'. They don't watch news or documentaries. They're consumers of entertainment, and have absolutely no interest in being citizens. These are media students who by and large (there are exceptions) don't watch, read or listen to news.

I often write here about my students in fairly idealistic terms, and I'm usually right, but this is one of the those times in which I feel old and weird. They're not individually responsible for this state of consumerist apathy: it's exactly what hegemonic elites want from the populace.

The political class has won: the majority of my students either think government is something distantly done to them, or - as several have said to me - are content to assume that governments basically do the right thing and should be left alone by us and by the media. The idea that there's an Occupy generation radicalised by student fees, environmental degradation or the depression is fantasy.

So I'm feeling gloomy. I try hard to be enthusiastic and non-judgemental in my seminars, but when you're faced with total silence and blankness every time you pose a question or raise an idea, you have to know when you're beaten. If I'd thought they hadn't understood the lecture, we'd have had something to work with. Impenetrable indifference can't be beaten. Any tips? I gave up and sent them away after 45 minutes instead of 2 hours. The department will be penalised for not using or releasing the room, some of the students will feel short-changed, and I feel defeated, but it's better than a 2-hour hostage (lack of) drama.

*quoting Marvin the Paranoid Android. Most of my personality is a melange of Marvin, Arthur Dent, Jim Hacker and Mole.


Incandescent Llama said...

Well, PV, I wouldn't broadcast the 45 minutes short change too widely. I'd take a leaf out of a colleague's book, be inventive and show that you can cut muster with your students. Take Charge, On Guard! To carry your fencing references. The students have to experience what it is you're talking/lecturing about so introduce a game so that they may experience the frustration of being, e.g. powerless. They have to feel this themselves for it to be SENSIBLE to them, they have to engage with their senses, otherwise it is sensless for them. And it may be helpful if you weren't apologetic in the sense of disclosing your emotions in a blog. Now personally I feel that you are trying to locate the problem you've experienced 'out there'. You're trying to locate it elsewhere. While you may be happy with the ideas, the learners may not. So give it a go, bring them in a bit to hear what they think/feel - what they sense about it all. Remember, the journey that you have taken to be where you are is considerably longer than the journey the students have been on so far.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks for that, Incandescent. Oddly enough, over the past 11 years of teaching professionally, I'm quite familiar with those ideas.

Ending a session when things aren't working is something I won't give up, just as I'm happy to keep a session going over time when it's going well. Many psychiatrists understand that the set time can become a bar to effective therapy: unexpected endings can jolt the patient positively, and help to reduce institutionalised responses, so I'm pedagogically happy with what I did.

Sadly, yesterday's session was beyond redemption. I explored the issues to the best of my ability - and I'm very enthusiastic in class - but the response wasn't incomprehension (which is relatively easy to dispel), but indifference.

oldgirlatuni said...

I am slightly nervous about making this comment - you are clearly a very experienced teacher - but, for what it's worth, I had a salutary experience a couple of weeks ago sitting at the back of what I thought was a class full of similarly diffident students.

I sit in on a module taught by my secondary supervisor (19th Century murder cases - fab). It is taught in a two hour block - for the first hour he gives a short talk, and then the time is turned over to the students who do presentations, which he interrupts all the time. From my position at the edge of the seminar room, I saw what appeared to be blank faces, not wanting to engage with what was going on. But, man, how wrong I was. Some of the students taking part were in my seminar groups last year, and we chatted at the end of one of the sessions. In fact, they love the course, and are fascinated by the topic, and the depth of his knowledge.

So, I had completely misinterpreted the silence, and the blank faces - a very important lesson for someone hoping to be a university teacher. If I'd been at the front of that class, I would have been so discouraged - and, I would have been wrong.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks, Oldgirl - that does hearten me slightly. There are always going to by shy, nervous students who desperately hope to get away without saying anything. I was one myself, until I decided to force myself to join in.

I usually counter the lines of blank faces problem by rearranging the tables into a square so there's nowhere to hide and no architectural implication of linear transmission - but it just didn't work this time.

Partly, the subject was a problem. The theme was the political economy and media ownership: they just don't conceive of media studies as encompassing such things. I tried my best to explain how important it is, but they weren't convinced.

Anonymous said...

Many working-class people have very little knowledge about governments and politics. Admittedly I was one of those people until quite recently.

I mean ask the seminar group how many of them have ever bought a newspaper that wasn't the Sun or who the minister for education is.

These things don't tend to interest a generation (and class) of people who enjoy watching so-called 'Reality TV' and soap operas. Even those who don't, choose to spend their time watching inane videos on Youtube and vegetating on Facebook.

I know this seems like stereotyping but it's generally true for many of the young people I know. I understand that (clearly) some of us aren't like that, but depressingly enough plenty are.

Generally Media is engaging and interesting but when a subject such as politics is involved, it seems too distant a subject. Many of us young people see politics as something that does not usually directly affect us. When it does register that affects us, we tend to dismiss it as something we do not have the power to change.

I know this won't make you feel any better, and for that I apologise :P

Bad Ambassador said...

I think this is the first time in blogosphere history that I'm on your side Vole.

Although as experienced educators we are both aware that reflection and new approaches are always to be encouraged I would dispute much of what else has been said in the comments here.

Anyone who has ever set-foot in a classroom will at one time or another have experienced what Vole has in his blogpost. This would have been followed with a prolonged moment of painful, ultimately fruitless introspection, in which many of the noble suggestions here will have been considered, and probably discarded. Thankfully the great thing about the teaching profession is that the next day another class will make you feel the reverse.

As for Old Girl's comments regarding vacant appearing students who "chatted about it after" and who suddenly appeared "fascinated" by the topic that had been discussed, I find this approach far from heartening. The seminar/lesson is a precious moment in which learning can take place collectively, not individually or in friendship cliques. The opportunity to seriously challenge one another and the lecturer/teacher themselves rather than merely "chat" should not be discarded so casually.

You did exactly what you should have done Vole and hopefully the message will be clear. Learning is a two-way process and the one thing you cannot teach is curiosity.

Anonymous, as someone with experience of both state and private education who has taught in comprehensive schools for many years, I do not know where to start with your "analysis" of "working-class people". So I won't.

(Sym)patheticAnon said...

Oh Bad Ambassador put your claws away! I don't think they were making a general statement about "the working-class". One can only assume Anonymous meant young people they know from a similar background to their own. If they did not, then I agree with your dismissal completely. Be gentle: not everyone expresses their opinion as skilfully as necessary. I tend to read blogs without commenting but Vole you now have the pleasure of my very first ever blog comment. Huzzah!

Anonymous said...

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Question: tell me more about copyrighting of names as say the fictitious Wrottesley Polytechnic?
Hoping you are well! Ludlow Lllama