"pent 'mid cloisters dim"

Grumbling about students who don't prepare for class is nothing new.  Whenever one of my colleagues complains about it, I always think to myself  "Why are you surprised by this?"  Indeed, a few years back the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) surveyed 380,000 randomly selected freshmen and senior students about their class preparation habits.  The results?  A quarter of all freshmen and 20 percent of seniors say they frequently come to class without having completed the readings.

This particular study didn't probe the reasons for poor preparation, but I don't buy the facile notion that today's students are lazier than those in the past or that their attention spans have been warped by video games, text-messaging and Facebook.  I do think some of it results from the hectic nature of their lives.  Just this semester, for example, I've had five students give birth, three go through messy divorces, two who missed class due to court dates, one whose child ran away, another whose boyfriend was arrested, and still another whose fiancee has been in a coma.   This is to say nothing of the half dozen who each semester lose a grandmother.  College has always been hard on grandmother mortality rates.

So, yeah, they're busy.  I get that.

Even so, I suspect the main reasons students don't do the reading is that it's not necessary to pass the class.  In fact, the NSSE study found that 36 percent of those who routinely didn't do the reading earned mostly As.  I've tried to combat under-preparation by moving a lot of work inside the classroom.  It's the only way I can assure that they will actually engage the ideas in the texts we read.  Sometimes I give them analysis tasks that they write on individually in class and sometimes as a team, but they have to read, write and discuss the material in class. 

For a while this approach seemed to be working.  Our discussions were deeper and the students said they appreciated the quiet time in class to wrestle with the texts.  This semester, however, my scheme has come undone.  I am really struggling to get my students to engage meaningfully with the ideas in the readings.  They show up to class without the text (despite knowing it's an expectation), show no guilt over not having done any reading beforehand, and express a kind of vague resentment that I expect them to read.  More than one had not bought a text by midterm despite my reminding them several times. 

I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but I am--not by the behavior, but by the lack of shame in the behavior.  The same thing seems to be true with texting in class.  They simply can't stop doing it no matter how many times I remind them to put that Satanic device away.  One study conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 80 percent of students said they send at least one text message in each of their classes.  On the bright side, a majority of those did say they felt guilty about it.


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