Blog Archives

Students across the spectrum

This is the time of year when teachers and lecturers are faced with hundreds (more or less, depending on a whole range of factors) of new faces and names to acquaint themselves with. We wonder how best to engage our young and not so young changes, how to present material in an interesting way, how to get the brain cogs oiled and ready for new thoughts, ideas, facts, options, views, perspectives, terms and theories.  Hours spent on preparation are finally realised in the classroom.

Nothing kills this more than the half hearted “missed class the other day, but ah sure I didn’t miss anything” from the absent student.

Tom Weyman from Utoronto has put this cringing attitude to absenteeism into poetry:

Did I Miss Anything?

Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

Ok, this takes both ends of the spectrum to extremes. Every class isn’t going to provide a sackful of inspired nuggets of heavenly proportions.  Similarly a class that is devoid of an meaning or usefulness at all is highly unlikely.

It’s a case of degree, more or less.

I look after 3 masters levels programs. As part of the taught element of the course progresses over the year I constantly remind and encourage students to be on the lookout for that spark, that interesting little idea or fact that will point them in the direction of a dissertation topic that they can base their masters qualification on.

This  spark will be different for different students. For example, student A who is attracted by the psychology of human online behaviour might not be taken by the finer points of financial accounting. Similarly, student B who is attracted by inter-cultural differences in managing new product launches might be bored to tears by the manufacturing logistics in the development of that new product.

But what if student A misses the classes on online buyer behaviour, and student B misses the classes on international differences on launching new products – because they figured ah but sure nothing interesting’ll happen in that class today so I might as well not bother going in.

The more classes missed, the more opportunities that are missed to query and examine and ponder. Why do students (or their parents) pay good money only to not bother taking up these opportunities that are being offered to them on a plate?

Of course, not all students fit this bracket. Some (thankfully) lap up every opportunity that comes their way.

I never cease to query and ponder why some students in a class are so divergent – some answering “everything” to the question while others answer “nothing”.

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Attention – there’s a tension!

Quote from todays Guardian – “There’s a tension between teaching a love of literature and skilling them up for life”.

Apparently, learning outcomes, mission statements, class room objectives, targets, measurements, assessment range / variety / breadth, etc are all more important than the content of all the learning. The joy of a good story has been replaced by analysing the grammar structures in it.

Have we gone too far? Is learning now so structured and rigid that it’s all about ticking boxes and the joy of discovery and creativity and exploration is dying?

On the one hand, yes, there are now a lot of boxes to be ticked in order to ensure the appropriate quality control is taking place.  Making sure all the boxes are ticked is a full time job in itself. As for interpreting the boxes……. Asking  a representative sample of academics from across a number of colleges / universities what they understand by “students are capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas”. While there might be broad agreement on the generalities, there are likely to be as many answers as numbers in the sample.

On the other hand, guess who’s celebrating his 70th birthday today. There’s a reason why Seamus Heaney is our most celebrated poets here in Ireland. His works are represented on the school curriculum for a reason. Here’s an interesting interpretation .  All commenters have an opinion. Yes, some are more supported and insightful than others but there’s no denying the range of viewpoints and opinions on the meaning of the poem.

Poetry is a form of written expression that’s particularly interesting.  The meaning of the words is intricately bound up how they are presented. Meter and rhyme are as critical as the words and both are mutually interactive.

There is a happy medium. Discovering and exploring the works of the great poets, dramatists and novelists requires an honest connection with both the words and their structure. Isn’t that balance what English teachers should be aiming for.? Isn’t it?