Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 119-124
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Listening to Their Voices
Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. By Richard J. Light. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
More often than not, when we seek to improve teaching, we talk with our colleagues; we sit in seminars at conferences or institutes on our campuses; we get wind of some who are incorporating technology into the classroom and either ask for their advice or attend sessions offered by instructional resources; and, generally, we ask our colleagues what they believe has worked to engage students in their classes. As much as we try to improve what we do in class, the overall results are at best uneven. Our own anecdotal reflections seem to suggest this. Sometimes our classes are successful, sometimes not. Most of those with whom I have talked seem to believe that if a class has good "chemistry"--some favorable mix of time of day, students, faculty energy, and something else that they cannot quite put their finger on--students are engaged and the teaching experience is successful. But the same faculty are quick to point out that they can teach the same course, either during the same semester or the next, and the whole experience is different. Their anecdotal reflections suggest an ongoing national concern: our students seem most often disengaged, and their disengagement undermines our best pedagogical efforts to affect the quality of their learning in the class. [End Page 119]
While many have pondered the reasons for student disengagement, the prevalent view seems best summed up by Mark Edmundson (1997) in his well-received piece in Harper's, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students." The impetus for the article was his teaching evaluations. His students were pleased because he made the material "enjoyable" (40). For Edmundson, what his evaluations reflected was the "cool consumer worldview" of American culture at large (40). He characterized his students as lacking passion for their studies; as ironic, but without self-assertiveness; and as desperate to blend in, to look right. He saw them, at their very best, as decent: "They help out at soup kitchens, volunteer to tutor poor kids. . . . they also want other people to have a fair shot . . . but overall, students strike [him] as being sweet and sad, hovering near suspended animation" (42-43). Edmundson found his students disengaged, and he was quick to point out that he had confirmed his reflections with colleagues across the country.
What Edmundson wanted to find in his evaluations was not that his students had enjoyed the course but that somehow they had been changed by it. When he asked them, "Who are your heroes? Whom do you admire?" they responded, to his dismay, with the names of people they knew--teachers, parents, people in their communities--the "people who delivered the goods" (47). What Edmundson wanted to hear was that his students' heroes were the ones who grappled with complex ideas or represented the great intellectual battles. Because their responses did not reflect an appreciation for greatness, for genius, Edmundson believed that his students were "the progeny of Bart Simpson and David Letterman, and the hyper-cool ethos of the box" (47). For Edmundson, we too reflect this ethos. To attract students to our courses, we cater to the "customer," using some vague form of cultural studies that becomes nothing better than Madonna studies, and give ourselves over to the ethos of consumerism. Three months after Edmundson's article had appeared, Harper's printed a response from a student in the course that he had discussed:
I was a student in the Freud class that Edmundson uses to illustrate his claims about the state of today's youth. I believe that I can explain the "generic" responses and lukewarm evaluations he garnered from students. I have encountered few classes in my university career whose objectives were so poorly defined and whose assignments were so amorphous and ill-explained. Edmundson, with his obvious contempt for undergraduates, wasted my time and my money, and then used his experiences...