Like many of my colleagues, I have been increasingly aware of the small things my students do which bug me. Most strikingly, my ENG 100 students seem to have an attitude problem that even Freud would be hard pressed to describe and define. Sure, they come to class, but they are unprepared, they refuse to participate in discussions, they complain that they are tired (the class is at 11am), they outright ask me if they can go home early, the text while I lecture, they talk to one another, and every time I give an assignment I get an immediate barrage of heated “whys” and grumbles reminiscent of May thundershowers. This is not a good learning environment.
I made my plan very carefully. On Friday of last week I actually put that plan into action. I went into class and without my usual smile. I usually ask how everyone is and take a few moments to listen to complaints and comments, but on this day I just set my stuff down and looked at my students. Without my prompting, a few offered up some suggestions like; “Can we go home, it’s Friday” and “I’m tired.” To which I shortly responded “No and get more sleep.” The students looked confused and a little hurt. The tired student said, “Well, I would if work didn’t keep me so late.” My reply? “Not my problem. Now, get into your groups from Wednesday and get started on your projects.” The students began to grumble and nobody moved. I looked up again and said, “That includes movement. We don’t have all day. Hop to it.” The class slowly and grudgingly began to move.
As the class began to work on the project I had assigned, I took out my papers for ENG 110 and started grading! Of course these were fake papers and I wasn’t really grading, but listening to EVERYTHING the students said. As the class progressed I began to make more comments. “Guys, I hear what you did this weekend when I need to hear about your projects.” When a student asked if spelling counted I looked at him blankly for a moment, took out my cell phone and pretended to text, snapped the phone closed and said, “What did you want?” He again repeated his inquiry. I paused and then said, “Of course, when did you think it wouldn’t?”
Another student came up and asked me what I wanted him to write as the function of the body in an essay and I said, “We had this conversation, you and me, the exact same one on Wednesday, did you not write it down?” The student went back to his group and a small murmur arose. The entire class had heard me and a few people started to jump to this student’s defense. I cut them off frankly, “How about you do your stuff and do it quietly so we can get it done and go home? Then we can all be happy.” I was pretty sure I was going to experience a coup, but nothing happened, just a few whispered “what’s her problem?”
The students had had enough. One looked at me for a moment and then pointedly drew a smiley face on the board. I looked up, straight faced, and then turned away to begin grading again. Another student tried to get a response from me by touching the coat in the chair beside me and saying, “That’s a pretty coat…” My only reply was, “Projects are what you need to be doing and don’t touch my stuff, please.” The class began to do more things to get me involved and laughing or at the very least responding. Some made jokes about the class or other classes, others tried to compliment my hair, blazer, jeans, handwriting, shoes and even glasses in order to elicit any kind of response. They were working extra hard to get me just to say something, but the harder they worked the more resistant I became.
Class ended and I felt horrible. I spent all weekend worrying about losing students and fretting that I had just made them afraid of me. I wanted to take it all back and tell them right then and there that it was all an act and that there was a point to what I was doing, but I decided against it. I just let my students leave without saying anything.