The Enigma of Education

I recently gave a wonderful talk on the tradition of science fiction dystopias in conjunction with the Tulsa County Library's wonderful series, Novel Talk: Smart Conversations for Serious Readers.  Despite a cold Wednesday night (a church night in Oklahoma!), we had an impressive audience, along with a large group of high school students.  My talk was cobbled together from various works I've taught over the years--The Time Machine, 2001, Planet of the Apes, even More's Utopia--as well as my time-honored notions of science fiction in general.  The audience followed with interest, laughing, nodding, and even asking questions now and then.  My talk lasted about 40 minutes, and with each minute I felt more and more excited to explore this topic, and reading my audience, I could tell most of them were with me, some even taking notes.  Afterwards, many people came up to chat with me, asking some really fascinating questions and astonishing me with how much they cared about the subject (even if, as some suggested, they didn't care for science fiction in general).  In short, it was a wonderful evening and I felt completed validated as an educator: I shared my knowledge in a way that was visible--I could see people responding right before my eyes.  That is, they listened and wanted to do something with the information themselves--read the books, discuss the ideas with me and others in the room, etc.

So here's my question: why does this so rarely happen in the classroom?  Don't get me wrong, I've had some amazing classroom discussions, and I've learned so much from my students--at times, more than most of my graduate education.  But between those moments there are long stretches of texting, sleeping, sighing, and general indifference.  Honestly, I took a good chunk of my talk on 2001 from a class I taught a year ago, the same ideas and passages.  It went over okay in class, but about half the class was tuned out; they didn't care about a robot who develops guilt and has to overcome his programming to lie, or how space/the future is a metaphor for our own place in time.  Some students didn't even hear a word of our discussion, as they pounded out texts blissfully in the back of the classroom.  My initial impression was, "okay, I didn't reach them correctly--I must have been too brainy, too boring."  I tried different approaches in subsequent classes with much the same result: 10 students participated and listened, with about 15 on the fence, and 5-6 in an out-of-body experience.  Is it me?  The material?  Or the sheer drudgery of taking class after class for 16 weeks in a typical semester?

Granted, the people who came to the Wednesday night talk did so of their own free will.  No grades or class attendance was involved.  It was a one-time thing, chosen largely out of interest or a pleasant way to spend an evening.  And yet, wouldn't students who did have a stake in the class--their academic futures, their very educations--care more than the casual audience?  Everything we discussed formed future papers they would write for class (it was a Freshman Composition II course), as well as shorter, more focused daily responses. Yet glancing over the back row, there was no recognition that this was vital, or even interesting, material.  Little intellectual curiosity, just an impatience sense that the class hurry up and end so they could race off to lunch, to jobs, to their boyfriend/girlfriend's dorm.  Aren't college students here to learn?  Granted, few of the students in class were English/Humanities majors, but the material was very approachable (science fiction!), and my approach, which combined a close reading of the text, connections to our own society and concerns, and a touch of humor, connected tellingly with the Novel Talk audience.  And yet the response was night and day.  Applause followed my talk in Tulsa...backpacks zipping up 10 minutes before class even ended was my 'applause' in most classes.  Honestly, some of these students are poised to leave the second they sit down, not even removing their backpacks, or taking out a book lest that slow down their hasty retreat to the door.

If so many of our students sleepwalk through college, read Facebook instead of 2001 (for example), and always think of what they're going to do an hour from now, what kind of degrees are they getting?  How can I teach students who simply don't want to learn?  If they're not curious and have no real interest in learning new ideas, books, etc., then I am gloriously ineffective as an educator.  The talk the other night really impressed this upon me as I drove back home: given a halfway responsive audience, I was on fire, the ideas came to life.  Without that vital ingredient, student interest, I'm just yammering away like the proverbial idiot full of sound and fury.  Obviously setting and routine play a large role in this, and I don't mean to discount them.  But there are several students in all my classes who are just like the Wednesday night audience: they come on time, take out their books, listen intently, and 'applaud' me with their attention and nods.  Why are they able to find the crucial connection between their lives and their education--what makes them unique?  I don't seek gratification, mind you, but I do want to see that there's a conversation going on.  I need to talk to the audience and they need to respond.  Otherwise, I'm just another You Tube video which someone listens to for half a minute before skipping to the next one.  

I love teaching and nothing makes me happier than sharing new ideas and works with my students.  I so look forward to what they do with them, and some of them really surprise me; there's no hyperbole when I say I actually learn to read these works anew after teaching them in class.  So I can only imagine what would happen if every student said to themselves, well, I'm here, I've paid good money, and every job out there wants me to have a college education, so why not get one?  My class is just one small step in that direction, but if they can't even read a book or consider the implications of the most popular genre in literature and film, how are they going to tackle the most challenging aspects of their lives and careers?  Let's see what happens next week..