Saturday, November 04, 2006

My Daunting Assignment, Should I Choose to Accept It

In the comments of my previous post, Tony, in his gentle and tactful way, basically told me to quit complaining and investigate why I continue to feel frustrated by my students' choice of paper topics. He, in essence, gave me my own writing assignment--identify a problem and solve it.

So, as the good student, I submit my essay.

As a writing teacher who likes to keep up with what is going on in the world, even if I don’t necessarily understand it all, I am continually frustrated by my college students’ lack of interest in topics beyond their normal circle of everyday movement. The issues that typically trouble the average college student—judging from their paper topics—are campus parking, dating, sex, sports, music, celebrities, beer, and marijuana. Every semester it seems, my students are less and less inclined to talk about larger national or world issues. Oh sure, they will engage in a conversation about, say, capital punishment, but their minds are made up on the issue. Invariably, a small handful of students in the classroom will offer the standard, trite arguments against capital punishment, while the majority of the class will regurgitate the same old tired diatribe in favor of executing criminals. The same holds true for hot topics of the day such as illegal immigration, or a few years ago, gun control. It seems that students make up their minds based on the standard tag lines that the media feed them (or that they hear from their parents), and they feel no need to further research the issue for themselves—unless they are forced to write a paper about it, and then they typically ignore sources that are contrary to their sensibilities.

More and more, in order to ensure a lively classroom discussion, I find that I must put myself into the shoes of an eighteen to twenty-year-old and learn what topics interest them and then bring those topics to class. However, this is a tiresome undertaking. I have about as much interest in MySpace and Facebook and music downloads as they have in political scandals or the wars of words that the United States engages in with other countries. Even when I try to bring up issues that I think they will realize will have an effect on them, such as privacy of their Internet searches, they dismiss them with an attitude along the lines of, “As long as it catches terrorists, I don’t see a problem.” Unless they can clearly see how an issue will directly impact their sphere of existence today, that issue is of little or no importance.

Most college students today do not have the imagination to envision how seemingly unrelated, unimportant events can, when viewed at the same time, come to affect their small world. They need to realize that the things that are happening in Washington and the events that are occurring half a world away in a place they will likely never visit will eventually come to touch their lives. Because my students have grown up with a cell phone attached to one ear and an iPod earbud in the other, with their hands busy at the keyboard while their eyes are glued to MTV, they have become numb to anything but the adolescent drama of their, and their friends’, lives. Events in another country might as well be taking place on another planet for as much as these young people are concerned. Until today’s college students either experience directly or can vividly imagine just how much discomfort today’s world events can bring to their lives, they will continue to remain isolated in their own little electronic worlds with their hormone-fueled, reality show existences.

And until I can figure out a way to prod some imaginative thinking, I'll continue to be frustrated at having to meet the teenage mind exclusively in its teenage world.

Tony, my essay is turned in well ahead of the deadline and contains 287 more words than the 300 word minimum that you imposed. I have also given you a shameless plug. I expect extra credit.


m said...

First of all, I completely understand your frustration... not that I have students, but I see the same problems facing the majority of eligible voters in America. As I see it, for you to overcome this issue with your students, you must break down two very fundamental problems. One should be much easier (although, probably not easy at all) than the other to accomplish.
1) What your students are lacking is experience. They don't see the relevance in any other issues outside of their daily bubbles, because they have no experience to show them how these outside issues DO eventually come back to haunt them. They were in high school, where typically all of their needs were met by parents, and their only real concerns were completing their classes successfully and or other extra-curricular activities that were school-related. Most likely, their parents also stressed these concerns with them and even promoted not getting too involved in outside issues.

The key to getting past this is through diligent research and talking with them about what outside issues may have affected them in the past. Or find other "smaller", perhaps non-international, issues that would affect them today. Here in Ohio, we have two issues getting voted on today about smoking in public establishments. I'm serious. After tonight, it could very well be illegal to smoke in a bar! Insanity. Complete insanity. I can't believe that any veteran would even stand for that issue being on a ballot... but enough of my opinions. Anyways, I'm sure many of your students would be up in arms about that.

2) The bigger problem facing ALL Americans is globalization. And what I mean by that, is the fact that, because of technology, and the internet, the world is getting very small. There is no "nook or granny" (haha) that is unreachable anymore. Anyone with a computer can find out pretty much anything about anyone anywhere. No one in history has had it so easy, and thus had to deal with with such widespread information. They don't realize that a butterfly farting in Jakarta is going to cause them to get the flu two weeks down the road causing them to feel crappy and end up with a D on their midterm because they weren't in optimal condition. Nobody realizes it here. And why would we? We have no basis for comparison. It's never been like this before. If you figure out how to overcome this second. please let me know; the world needs to know.

These kids are out on their own for the first times in their lives. They are enjoying it, or trying to. You need to figure out what hot buttons they do have. The ones that you mentioned before are somewhat important to them, but I'm sure if you dig a little deeper, there are other, more appropriate (in your view) issues that they are concerned about.

However, honestly, things like capital punishment are such far off issues for pretty much everyone. I mean, when is this going to have a direct impact on more than .0000000000001% of Americans? It's not. I think illegal immigration is a better topic, however, it's easy as a younger person (or even as an older person) to become disinterested and disenchanted when you see what the officials elected by the last batch of voters have done. It goes all the way to the top. Our current government will not face or even allude to most real issues, and the ones that they do mention are smothered in spin. And from the barrage of political ads on TV the past few weeks... well, I too have been feeling a burning desire to curl up in the fetal position, get stoned, and fall into a TV coma. You're asking these kids to care when the majority of Americans (including their parents) are content to worry only about the big three: Gasoline, Taxes, Jobs.

Hit these kids where their parents get hit... in their pockets?

I guess there are never any easy answers.

Thank you for caring enough to teach though.

JMG said...

Thanks for your great comments, M. I think one thing I have to do is force myself to get into their shoes more. I'm going to have to remember back to the time before I had very few responsibilities other than school and a part time job. I'm going to have to exercise my imagination and try to relate to the types of problems that they face. If I can show them that I'm willing to get into their shoes, then maybe they will be enticed to get into others' shoes and think farther than themselves.

Tony Arnold said...

Did I ever mention that I am an Edward Deming disciple and I believe ranking and grading are detrimental to learning?

So no grade. Excellent illumination of the problem, no rework required.

I think you should publish this on your class site. Reading this may provide your students insight into your process and heart for teaching. It might just be the prod that gets them to think a little deeper.

Hope it was therapeutic for you to communicate your frustrations. I think most of us share this frustration.

Thanks for the shameless plug, but now I have to go write something.

They don't know it JMG, but your students are very blessed. I wish I had English teachers like yourself.


JMG said...

But, but, but, without a grade, I won't feel validated!

Thanks for the encouraging words, Tony.

Justin said...

Did you ever post any faux paus from my papers in your blog?

Wait... I'm pretty sure I got straight A's.... nevermind.

I thoroughly enjoyed your class. However, I can empathize a bit with your frustration. Peer editing was one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever done. I would pick up a classmate's paper and I had no response for what they needed to correct besides ripping it up and starting over. I never corrected grammar mistakes because there were so many, I didn't want them to think I was a know-it-all. I even had a couple kids in that class ask if I was planning on majoring in journalism. I had to laugh.

JMG said...

Justin, you had a few grammar errors yourself! :-)

Actually, you always did write good content--that's what earned you an A. It would have been interesting to have you in my 1020 class to see what you had to say about controversial issues. But I guess I can read your blog for that.

And no, I don't think I was blogging at the time, so I didn't post any of your funny sentences.

Justin said...

I'm really bad at using commas correctly. I never learned the right way in middle school. I'm trying to do better, but I tend to put commas where they aren't needed or not put them where they are needed.

On one of my old blogs, I believe I posted my prostitute story, but I can't seem to find it anywhere.

I'm sorry I didn't come to class more. Taking comp 1 for the second time (when I should have clepped out of it anyway) was tough.

JMG said...

I just looked in my files, and I don't have that one either. However, I still have your movie review of Ladder 49.

Ayatollah Mugsy said...

I saw a survey awhile back that said a majority of teens think the press should be censored by the government. I fear for the future of the youth of this country. And I am only 5 years old.

Justin said...

that was like my worst paper.

darn it. And the computer I used that year has gone kaput.

too bad