James Lang has a penetrating article over at The Chronicle of Higher Education this week exploring contemporary student culture outside of the classroom. Beginning, as many of us do, with fond memories of those late-night discussions of the grand meaning of it all when we were undergraduates--and how naively ambitious those discussions were!--he takes stock of where those discussions might be found today. It can be a depressing, if not altogether surprising, conclusion:
(...) most students do not have a curious and thriving intellectual life outside of their courses. The late-night discussions that I imagined my students having in their dorm rooms about the meaning of life, according to Small, are simply not happening.
And lest we vainly imagine that this reflects the class boundaries in higher education, Lang brings in Susan D. Blum's My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell, 2009) to show that this lack of intellectual engagement outside the classroom and--what's worse for many of us--the endemic moral ambivalence of plagiarism amongst today's students are to be found at the top of the ladder, too. Though in our arrogance, we delight to think that the provincial students of a Northern Arizona University just don't match up to our halcyon days at the nation's top (and most expensive) universities, it turns out that Blum's account is from one of those supposedly top schools, the University of Notre Dame.
Now, having done graduate work at Notre Dame, I can perhaps speak to part of that. The grassroots football culture at Notre Dame overpowers any attempt at intellectual inquiry outside the classroom (a fact that the New York Times finally realized in a January, 2012 look at How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life). I feared to be in the library on home football Saturdays lest I be accosted by drunken fans wanting to see the view from behind "Touchdown Jesus". The faculty labored most often in vain to combat this; and the University should get credit for trying to combine football and intellect with its Saturday Scholar series. But as anyone who has attended those lectures can attest, the several dozen or, if they're lucky, hundred people in the lecture hall are dwarfed by the roving hoards of thousands drinking themselves to oblivion and fed by the greasy drippings of the grill.
But I digress. After the depressing realization that our students are not the peripatetics we had always dreamt they could be, Lang does offer some rays of hope. As Blum recounts, the dashing of the ideal at least offers the solace of the real:
Knowing what college life is like now for many students at residential colleges explained a lot about my experience with students, and it has ended my tendency to get upset when students didn't seem to be focusing as much attention on their coursework as I thought appropriate. I think my expectations are much more realistic now, so the entire experience of teaching is less depressing than it was when I couldn't understand why I couldn't motivate students to be absorbed in their work.
And for those of us who still desire to cling to our ideals, there are still kernels of curiosity that can bloom, if we only learn to water them properly:
I have seen students get excited about things they are learning in their classes, whether it is a project they are working on or just a new way of thinking about the world. But I think we have to make the case for each subject. It can't just be fulfilling requirements, if we want it to matter to students. And we are bound to miss a number of them. We are kidding ourselves if we think that all students are likely to become intellectuals. But there are many ways to become moral, productive, contributing human beings besides through the life of academic pursuits.
I find that one of the more effective teaching methods for engaging the curiosity of the vast majority of students who aren't innately driven to live in the Ivory Tower is to tell stories. Story telling is the oldest form of human communication that connects both to the barest of lives and to the highest levels of intellectual inquiry. It's not for nothing that we still turn to Homer as much as to Heidegger.
By conceiving of the teaching profession as a common exploration with my students of the human story, I can exploit these human tendencies to craft narrative out of disparate details. Narrative gives meaning far more effectively than most any other form of presentation. Thus, I find that students are for more interested, for example, in the ideology of the Crusades when they can explore that through the concrete stories of men on armed pilgrimage, awash in blood at one moment and humbly bowed in worship the next. The conflicts and crises, joys and triumphs, of today echo anxieties and reliefs faced by countless generations before. If we can cast those stories in the vivid recounting of the poet rather than the dry and anemic prose of the tweed-encased academic, we can engage our students and enliven their curiosity.