Teaching Tuesday: Some More (Maybe the Same) Thoughts on Student Resistance

Each year around this time my heart sinks a little. With the start of the school year, I am pushed into the role as someone who coaxes effort and enforces consequences among students. The ubiquitous memes appear mourning and mocking students’ reluctance to read and digest syllabi. And the annual season of “why don’t students read” articles appear each with a different take on the the perennial problem of convincing students to engage material outside of the classroom. As someone who has now taught (in some capacity) for nearly 20 years, I experience the same frustration when students aren’t prepared and struggle to find ways to motivate students.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve also come to hate the role as motivator, as cajoler, and as enforcer of standards. Part of what as sucked my enthusiasm for these roles is the growing recognition that campus culture, not just at UND, but everywhere has drifted increasingly toward audit culture, assessment practices, and skill building and away from instilling a passion for engaging ideas, confronting problems, and negotiating challenges. This isn’t to say that I’ve lost my excitement and interest in teaching, but I feel like the shift in the conversation on campus has pushed me to be complicit in a scheme to make the university into an increasingly corporatized education factory. In this new arrangement, I’m compelled to make students learn stuff as part overseer and part machine operator pressing reluctant minds into assessable and monetized commodities.

In this context, every time a student complains about the structure or expectations of a class, I feel less obligated to justify my pedagogical decisions and more of a vague glow of pride as the students resist mounting pressure of the modern educational establishment.

Why don’t students read?

Because learning is hard.  

But there’s more than that. Our expectations of student work is increasingly couched in terms of skill acquisition which then equate to success in the post-collegiate world. It makes sense then, as students struggle with the bleak reality that they will invariably confront as they are dragged toward adulthood and responsible (corporate? economic? political?) citizenship, that they resist. The simple act of refusing to read or of confounding our expectations should not be seen simply as an act of petulance or a sign of being overwhelmed by other things, but as an act of resistance to the dominant mode of contemporary educational culture. 

As faculty, we are obligated, then, not only to encourage students to read, but more importantly give them reason to read that goes beyond the language and culture of current university culture. Student resistance to reading is more than simply an act of resistance to overcome, but may well demonstrate a shared disenchantment with modern academia. In other words, students not reading might be a shared strategy that could be profitably redirected rather than subverted. When I think this way, I can almost convince myself that students are on our side as we struggle to resist the growing debasement of higher education. Almost.

(And it’s sure better than complaining!) 

4 Comments

  1. Bill, how does the resistance to reading vary based on what they are “supposed” to be reading (or does it)? To elaborate, is there a spectrum of resistance that matches to type of the reading? Textbooks vs blogs vs monographs?

    Reply

    1. Without being too cynical, I think it’s the context for reading rather than the medium or the style. I think that students have become increasingly prone to resist education, even if we don’t see it as a systematic kind of resistance (i.e. resisting the corporate university or audit culture or the inevitable shackles of adulthood), and see it as a kind of vague flailing against a system that appears to designed to rob them of agency, spontaneity, and, in some ways, their humanity and (ironically) replace it with a intellectual command economy.

      On the one hand, I know that I benefited by doing the reading, I benefited from being forced into kinds of structures and routines, and I benefited from my education, but can we blame students these days from approaching our world with a more jaundiced eye? Do they sense that the promise of public and higher education – higher wages, better life, more ‘murica – has slowly been eroded over the past three decades as we desperately seek to cling to a world imagined by Baby Boomers (and their little brothers and sisters in Generation X)?

      Or maybe it’s older still as Thorstein Veblen observed: “In the modern community, under the strain of the price system and the necessities of competitive earning and spending, many men and women are driven by an habitual bias in favour of a higher “practical” efficiency in all matters of education; that is to say, a more single-minded devotion to the needs of earning and spending.”

      B.

      Reply

  2. This post made me think of Michel Serres’ book/essay (2015 [2012]). “Thumbelina: the culture and technology of millennials”. London-New York, Rowman & Littlefield International. If you don’t know it, it may be of interest to you.

    Reply

    1. Erik,

      I don’t know it, but I just ordered it on your recommendation. Thanks!

      B.

      Reply

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