Clicks and Whirs

A number of years ago I had a very strange dream in which my language gradually changed from English to porpoise. I knew what I was saying. It made perfect sense to me, but all my listeners heard were a baffling series of glottal clicks and whirs. This dream has become a personal metaphor for teaching. Indeed, I often stare out at the blank, wide-eyed faces of my students and think 'Oh dear, I'm doing it again. I'm speaking porpoise.'

I certainly felt that way yesterday in my Humanities course. We were just starting Dante's Inferno (Cantos I-IV), and I was asking them about the placement of certain figures in hell like the opportunists and virtuous pagans. I would ask a question and there would be an awkward silence that stretched for what seemed like 30-40 seconds. I know there are professors who will wait the students out, but I'm not one of them.

So I back up and come at the question again from a new angle. More silence. Now when I do this a few times and get nowhere, I usually just start talking. I know, I know, there's this whole school of thought about teaching with your mouth shut. I wish I could be that professor, but I can't. I blab. One student even wrote on my course evaluations that taking a class with me was like being locked in a room with a chatty maniac.

Anyway, when a class goes badly like yesterday's Humanities section, I become morose and think I'm just a lousy prof. It didn't help that yesterday's USA Today also included an article about how "unengaged" students are in college. According to the article, 25 percent of freshmen come to class without having completed the readings. Furthermore, the article quoted Alexander McCormick, the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement,

The purpose here is not to dump on faculty, but when a substantial chunk of students come to class unprepared, it suggests that they can get away with it.
In other words, it's probably my fault the students are unprepared. I haven't structured the course in such a way that they need to be prepared. Either that, or the course is so "unengaging" that they are not motivated to learn. About all I am doing is cornering them in my classroom and speaking porpoise for 16 weeks. Like I said, I get a bit morose when class does not go well.

Then last night I started to grade the latest batch of papers and the clouds began to part. They were much better than the first round of papers. Here are a few of the opening paragraphs:

According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, we must always act on convictions we have reasoned to be correct and we must never knowingly do evil. St. Augustine has different beliefs, however; he believes it may not be so simple... This paper will examine Augustine's understanding of how we may choose to do the wrong thing even when we know it is wrong.
And here's another

Petronius' Satyricon exposes a side of ancient Roman society that is neither prosperous or glamorous, but rather pathetic and greedy. Through this tale, Petronius reveals the Romans'... materialistic side, but the freed-slave Trimalchio's displays of unnecessary purchases and activities are not exclusive to the Roman era; these displays can be seen in modern day America.
Okay, we are not talking E.B. White here, but you really should have seen that first round of papers. These at least had clear theses, forecasting statements, a sense of organization, and better still they were using ancient texts to make arguments about contemporary society or the student's own experience. So my class may be unengaged and I may be speaking porpoise, but every now and then the students start to click and whir back (and I think to myself that I will keep doing this a bit longer).


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