A young man suggests a table’s boring and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Here at the community college, one of the assumptions a good portion of my students have is that their disengagement is the fault of the environment. All experiences fall on a spectrum between two poles: the boring and the entertaining. You have to make things exciting because the default state of mind is near or total boredom.
This is true for most students but especially for young men. Sometimes I speak before classrooms so disengaged that they seem on the verge of sleep. Young men mope around campus while fondling their phones, or they slump over at computers where music videos or soccer highlights stream. Compared to the college environment I experienced as an undergrad, it’s rare to see anyone sitting around campus reading a book or engaged in political argument.
An instuctor charged with teaching our students proper English sytnax or how to solve for x faces a challenge. When an entire classroom believes reality is generally boring without an MMA bout or Lady Gaga performance, syntax and algebraic variables can’t really compete. The word compete is not inaccurate. If you want students to take classes like physics, you have to make it interesting, they’ll write in their papers. If current events news were more fun, maybe somebody would read it.
When I started over a decade ago, I used to try handling this problem by speaking in a dynamic style and selecting provocative reading material. Of course, the effect was limited—a majority of students simply won’t do the reading, so the dynamic discussion is mostly meaningless. Even when I speak about something other than texts, the discussions toil away through periods of downward stares and dead silence.
From one point of view, it’s exhausting. From another, it’s fascinating. Sometimes they are silent out of self-consciousness and fear of “being wrong”. But other times I’ll be talking about something like an article covering artificial intelligence. We’ve read it together. Half the room will take turns yawning in my face and stretching their necks. There’s always someone who tries sneaking texts under the table, even when class is ten minutes from dismissal.
About a year ago, I adopted a new approach in some of my classes. I can’t tell if it’s more effective, and I must admit that part of my motivation was just to shake things up for myself. I now begin class from the position that boredom is a choice. I actually give a Zen inspired lecture on it. The students’ must in the first few weeks either accept this position or find a way to prove me wrong in an essay.
Few students choose to fight with me. On occasion, a light seems to go off for some. However, I do get the obligatory challenge, almost always from a man. The most common argument is sadly transparent.
Let’s call this a conversation between me and Joe:
Joe: You can’t expect someone to be interested in everything no matter what.
Gint: Why not?
Joe: Because some things are just plain boring.
Gint: Like what?
Joe: For example, a table. You can’t get interested in a table. It’s just a table.
Gint: Where does the table come from?
Joe: A factory.
Gint: Okay, where does a factory come from, and why does it make tables?
Joe: Fine. A person created it. I see your point. But just because somebody makes something doesn’t mean they’re interested in it.
Gint: You think the people who own table factories are bored by their own business?
Joe: They’re interested in money and they would make or sell anything. You have to make money some way. They just happen to sell tables.
Gint: Ok. But who made the decision to sell tables?
Joe: It might have been convenient. They might have stumbled on the chance, or the factory might have belonged to the family. You don’t know if they’re interested in tables more than they’re interested in money.
Gint: I don’t. That’s true. But I find it hard to believe a person would decide to sell something they’ve no interest in. It seems tedious.
Joe: People will do anything for money.
Gint: You included?
Gint: Why not?
Joe: Because. I’m not that kind of person. I just want to get a job like anybody else.
Gint: Let’s pretend someone offered you a job making tables. Would you take it?
Joe: That depends. What’s the salary? What are the conditions?
Gint: Let’s say someone comes in and asks you to build them four tables. And they’re willing to pay you $10,000 for each one. Would you do it?
Joe: Not if I don’t know how to build a table.
Gint: You couldn’t learn how? For $40,000?
Joe: Who would teach me in time. It takes a long time to learn how to do something like that. And there’s already somebody out there who knows how to do it.
Gint: Yes. Almost certainly. But how did they learn?
Joe: You’re really good at word tricks. Just because you’re learning something doesn’t mean you’re interested in it. Schools force us to learn by threatening us with failure. No one cares if you succeed. They just want you to pass. That’s why we’re bored. Anyway, this doesn’t matter because nobody would ever offer me so much money just to make tables.
Gint: Yeah, it’s theoretical. Just a thought exercise.
Joe: Exactly. In reality, some things are just boring no matter what you do. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Gint: Wish I could tell you you’re wrong. But if you believe that, you’re right.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
Photo by zoetnet/Flickr
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