A lesson in apathy

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

For the first semester ever, I think I have an entire class that hates me.

But I suppose I shouldn’t generalize like that. There have been good students in one of my sections of an upper division writing class. Excellent students. One student is working on a project right now that I think would actually make a great grant proposal and it is a proposal she should submit and bring to a school district to assist with special needs children in that district. So yes, I do have some wonderful students with great ideas and who do good work.

I also have a number of not so wonderful students. Students who don’t seem to want to be there. Students who seem to resent being in college. Students whose body language has told me, and even guest speakers, that they are not interested.

When class first started, things were ok. I noticed some students in both corners of the room not being very active in class, but everyone else seemed to be doing fine and at times even enjoying the work in class. I did what I could to try to get the seemingly apathetic students involved, but they resisted. And when it came to handing in work, it looked as if they had spent about 20 minutes on it. And revision? That wasn’t happening. Ever. How dare I mention such an activity to them.

As the semester wore on, I noticed that these students were spreading their damage all around the classroom. Other students noticed them, and seemed to sympathize or band together in some way. By the end of the semester, discussion in class wasn’t happening. If I called on someone, the response would be a big “meh.” (Not literally, of course.) Though some students were still in the game and doing great work, most were not interested and it was painfully obvious.

I have always thought I have had black cloud students before, but maybe I was wrong. Last spring I had an afternoon section of UDW with a couple students who were somewhat disruptive. I would have to get after them at least once a week. One time I even said to one student, “you are a junior, right? You should know when to talk and when not to talk in class.” He just smirked at me. I told him I would count him absent for the day, and I did. He just gave me a dirty look. But at the same time, this student did good work in the class and only got the grade he did for lack of participation. His written work was thoughtful, developed, and well articulated. He was a smart kid, he just liked to act like a jerk, it seemed. But his attitude never took over the class like the attitude of a few has done this semester.

Like any teacher, I do blame myself. I feel like there was something I could have done to get these students involved, to get them to want to be there and to get them to enjoy the class. I do realize, however, that I can’t force anyone to want to have a good time in class. I can’t change poor attitudes. When I talked to these students individually, many of them seemed uninterested in school. One even admitted he hated his program, which is actually the same field of study I am in. I asked him, why and he said that he disliked the fact there wasn’t enough creative writing. I then told him that MSUM has a creative writing program for undergraduates and why didn’t he go there? He just shrugged. It made me realize that he would be the same way at MSUM and he was just making excuses. He didn’t want to be in college, but he is in college. And from the others who started the “black cloud illness” I got the same kind of idea. They were here, but they had no real desire to be here.

These apathetic students aren’t that astonishing considering what students are told in high school. If you want to be successful, you have to go to college. But college doesn’t guarantee success. Students also seem to think that if they work hard, they deserve an A, which is equally ridiculous. Working hard doesn’t mean you will get the grade you want or think you “deserve.” And that whole word “deserve” is something I hear far more than I should.

And by telling students they need to go to college, we are only hurting higher education. The more students we admit, the more we feel we must bend the rules or work with these students to put them on the path to success. But college isn’t meant to do that for you. You have to put yourself on the path to success in college. In high school, they usually put you on that path if you are a decent student. In college, it is a whole other story.

It has been a frustrating semester considering that one section of students I have. I confess I am happy to be soon rid of them. I have had a couple to expect me to accept late work because I apparently should. I told those students I wouldn’t and explained why. But I didn’t say I also think it is disrespectful to other students for them to think they can get away with that. I didn’t say that it is arrogant of them to think that they deserve special treatment. You would think that by the third year of college, they would have a clue. No. Not all of them.

What I have tried to do all semester is to not focus on this class. The other section I teach has been one of the best classes I have ever had the opportunity to teach. These students are great. They participate in class, ask interesting questions, do great work for the most part, and even laugh at my silly jokes. I’ve enjoyed being their teacher and I hope they have enjoyed having me as their teacher. And in a way, they have been a great stress reliever to teach that class after leaving the Class of the Black Clouds. They have been just what I needed.

Or perhaps, I have done all of this to myself. It is possible. Though I get after students, I am no great disciplinarian. I am also a very non threatening presence. All I have ever been told is that it is easy to read my facial expressions and know the jist of what I’m thinking, which in the right circumstances can be unnerving. (I wish this wasn’t the case. I’d much rather have people not know what I’m really feeling.)

If this semester has taught me anything, it has taught me that apathy is contagious, far more contagious than I originally suspected. It has also taught me about what has been termed black clouds. I had always assumed that last semester I had a “black cloud” class, but after seeing this semester’s class, I don’t agree. I’m just grateful for the other section I taught and the important lessons I learned from them and I try to focus on that.


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