I teach a sophomore level critical thinking and writing class—basic argumentative writing and research. It is one of my preferred courses since my specialty other than writing is research, and in these days where the Fourth Estate is more often dissed than referenced, I like to show the students the path toward accuracy.
The other course on my schedule right now is basic Freshman Comp, which unlike many of my colleagues in the past thirty-three years at three colleges, I truly enjoy teaching. Of course, I start the course by explaining it might be the most boring course they are going to take, but I quickly justify it by adding it is also the most important because of writing being the communication skill most necessary to succeed to college.
This semester on the first day I planned to give my standard lectures for the first day, about the psychology of writing, the motivational tools necessary for even the most advanced writers, and the steps necessary to get through the brainstorming stage to rough draft. I was going to remind them to stop treating me like a professor who “has” to read the paper and think of me like an editor who “may or may not” read the paper, and their writing will improve immediately.
I had the normal three-decade-old bag of tricks.
I arrived early and watched students walk in quietly, masked, heads down, silent. We had about five minutes. Out of nineteen students, one said hello. The rest sat looking down, some at phones, most at the laps, like schoolchildren waiting to be told what to do.
I asked how they were doing. Nothing.
I asked one person directly how she liked ODU so far. Fine.
I asked another what his major is. Shrug. Undecided? I guess, he said.
Back Story: Over the course of thirty years I’ve seen classroom chatter pre-lecture go from boisterous to casually friendly to non-existent. This, of course, is in direct proportion to the introduction of technology, but I have also noted that even without the phones or laptops—for example, this class, where only one student was looking at his phone—the concept of communication with unknown peers seemed non-existent, as if they have spent their entire lives only communicating by text, and, yes, they have.
It isn’t a matter of poor social skills; these are today’s social skills. Since most of these students are freshman, asking them to put the phone away, or indicating that they should be taking notes, generally receives a positive response. But any question is answered with as few words and as little eye contact as possible. This has been slowly coming on for some years now. In early spring of 2020, it was a bit easier to get them to respond with more than a grunt or a monosyllabic answer, but then Covid came and extracted whatever scattering of manners was left when gathering among others.
I asked one young woman where she was from. NOVA. What town? Alexandria. Why did you choose ODU? There are some great schools up there and in DC. Shrug.
I asked one whom I know is an athlete with absence accommodations what his major is. Mechanical engineering. What made you choose that? Shrug.
Time came to start class. I stood up and they sat up, the one put his phone away, a few took out notebooks, but most did not—people stopped taking notes some time ago, expecting me to post them on Blackboard (a program to communicate with students).
Well, we are here to learn to separate accurate and verifiable information from the tons of crap that cover it up, distract you, trick you into believing what they have to say is true and real and essential when it is simply, well, crap. We’re going to learn to know who the true experts are and who present themselves as experts but are simply loud personalities. And then we’re going to learn how to write about it. Let’s start with this: How many people here would rather class be online during this Omicron surge and return to face to face when it settles down?
I asked the athlete. Shrug.
I asked the woman from NOVA. Shrug.
What the fuck are you people doing here???!!! I thought.
What am I doing here?!?! I thought further.
I sighed, pulled my chair to the front center of the classroom, and sat down. Outside, a full-grown magnolia stood in all its majesty, reaching against the windows on this second floor, and in the distance a deep blue sky. I wondered if the herons and buffleheads were at the river. I thought about how the cold feels on my neck when walking on trails. Or the heat.
I thought about Spain.
I smiled at a woman in the front row who accidentally made eye contact. I asked and she said she is from Fredericksburg. She decided on here instead of Mary Washington University in her hometown, but it seemed too much of a subject to approach at the moment. A crow landed on the magnolia then took off. I could see this but none of the students could. I wondered if the classroom had been reversed with the windows behind me instead of them, would they still have not seen it.
“So…” I said…
If you weren’t in college, where would you be right now? I mean, I know it is hard to say, but use your imagination, be idealistic for a moment and imagine you left high school and instead of college you and a friend decided to….what?
And one guy mentioned probably the military.
And another said working for his father who owns a store in Richmond.
I said I’d take off. Get a job in Florida or Martinique or Ireland for the summer—tend bar, wait tables, not make up my mind about what the next sixty years it going to be like while my head is still spinning from high school where I was still friends with the same people I knew before my voice changed. They laughed, some sat up.
Guy in the back row said he wanted to drive across the country and live with his brother in San Diego but his father insisted on college. Another said she is the first one in her family to go to college and she wants to make them proud. Another said he had nothing better to do so might as well work toward something instead of wasting time wasting time. People laughed. I nodded toward him and said, “You’re going to do well.” He thought I was joking, so I said it again. “Really.”
We talked for a half an hour, laughing, I told a few quick stories about college, a few about classes I had taught in the past, my first one as a professor and how terrified I was, almost the same age as my students, having no clue as to what the hell I was talking about.
They talked about their decisions about going to college, about their majors, about being away from home for the first time. We talked about the impending football game that night for the National Championship; we talked about social media, we talked about which place was best to eat in the neighboring Ghent area of Norfolk , which lead to some funny conversations about types of food.
We agreed we eat out too much, we drink too much coffee, we don’t spend enough time outside, and we are too attached to technology. Even the Computer Science major said this.
I stood up and wrote on the board: What has it been like to be in college so far? 500 words.
I don’t want you to do this, I said, but if I did ask you to, could you?
All said yes.
I mean, you’ve been speaking English for almost two decades now; certainly you can string some thoughts together about this, right? They laughed and agreed.
Then I said, “If you did this but I said the five people whose work really caught my attention will automatically get A’s on their first essay, would you do a bit better? They laughed—we were used to laughing now which made answering questions in front of others so much easier—and agreed they would. Then this—I’ve written about this before in this blog and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but it works so I use it when I can, but the timing must be right or they’ll call BS on me, and the timing was just right: Okay, if you guys, that includes you I said to the one who preferred pizza from 711 over the good pizza place in town, and everyone laughed, if you guys were to do this assignment but I had told you the top five get a thousand dollars each right on the spot, would your work be better?
They all laughed almost in unison and responded in various degrees of “hell yeah!”
I sat back down. The crow came back to the magnolia, and I thought about the crows at home and how they often keep the hawks away but not the eagles, and not the finches who despite their size have got some serious food-gathering game. The crow lifted and left again.
“So look at you now,” I said. They remained silent. “You just admitted it to me.”
“You always could do better. You just couldn’t be bothered.”
Maybe if I paid you, then you’d put more of an effort in. Otherwise, whatever. You just presented to me the proof of why you aren’t doing as well as you could be—you can, you just admitted it—you just don’t bother.
I get it, I told them. In my example, the reward is clear, is obvious, and is immediate. But in a freshman college class the reward is vague, distant, and seemingly irrelevant, but in this class in particular, it’s worth way more than the grand you were going to work for. We are so caught up on immediate satisfaction and reward we have lost the art of sacrificing now for benefits later.
A couple of people still knew who Billy Joel is so I told them how when asked what it was like growing up he said the worst part was the piano lessons, how he could never understand why his mother made him practice three hours a day while his friends were outside playing. Then he was asked what was the best part of growing up back then, and he said the piano lessons and how his mother made him practice three hours a day.
We talked more about football and pizza.
Don’t come here because it is “required,” I told them. Don’t show up next time because you don’t want to lose points for being absent. Come because you just met some new people to hang out with, new voices to listen to and talk at. Come because I am going to constantly remind you that being here is worth way more than you know right now, and I need you to trust me. Come because that crow keeps coming back to the magnolia and I can’t figure out why.
And everyone turned around and laughed and we spent the last few minutes speculating about what the bird could possibly be doing out there.