Thursday, November 20, 2008

"The Regulars!" Milo From Manchester On Student Invisibility & Passivity.

On some Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I feel as if I’ve had a stroke. This semester I have a freshman Comp class that, through some mysterious process of self-sorting, has arranged itself in the room so that on my left are ten or so ordinary students who behave in ordinary ways and on the right are ten others who, well, simply are not there at all. Like I said, it’s as if I’ve had a stroke that has wiped out half my visual field. Except that I can see them, of course – it’s just that they are practicing to be invisible. And getting pretty good at it, I must say – by the second week of the term I had, as usual, worked my aging brain hard to memorize their names, but I look at them now at mid-semester and draw a blank. They have erased themselves from my mental roll sheet.

There are always students who sit passively through class, but they don’t usually sort themselves out quite so starkly as this lot. Practically speaking, it’s not much of a problem: I just conduct the class standing in front of the responsive group, though this gives me pause, a little, as if I am somehow responsible for the invisibility of the right-hand group, the ghosts. They have worked hard to be invisible – why should disturb them? Recently, however, I decided to do a little investigating, run a couple of experiments. At first, I just sidled over to the right side of the room as I spoke. Sure enough, they were still working at being invisible, flickering in and out of existence, looking, looking down at their desks, fiddling with their pens, though made a little nervous, it seemed, by my proximity.

I decided – in the interest of science, you understand – to try calling on a couple of them. Just to see what would happen. We were in the midst of a discussion of the opening chapters of The Quiet American and a number of the visible students had given their general reactions to the two main characters, Fowler and Pyle. At an early stage of a discussion like this not much is really required to participate – all you need is a reaction, however superficial. So, digging deep into my memory banks, I came up with a name:

“Nancy, what do you think?”

“Uh, sorry. What was the question?”

“Never mind. Jim, what do you think about Fowler?”


With that, I walked back over to the other side of the room – from the land of the dead to that of the living. It bothers me to think that fifty percent of this class has chosen invisibility so early in their academic careers. Wouldn’t it be pretty to imagine that they are live wires in their Chemistry or History classes, but one suspects they are practicing invisibility in those places too.

When I first began teaching I would have taken this great passive silent invisibility to heart. I would have stewed about it at home and worried at it with colleagues in the corridor. These days, I let it go. As a practical matter, there is not much I can do about their passivity. (The reader may insert here the obligatory RYS refrain: I’m a good teacher, I’m prepared, I show enthusiasm, etc. etc.) These students have made choices – or have had choices made for them – that I have little access to. For many of them, I think, a year or two of national service, as proposed by president-elect Obama, might serve to wake them up – some, though, are always going to be time-servers at best, reactionary voters at worst.

I’m basically an existentialist (You should see my collection of berets!) and it’s pretty clear, as noted, that these students have made some kind of choice. And even if they are in my class against their will, they have choices open to them. They could get up and leave, or never show up. I’d have more respect for them this way and they might have more respect for themselves. Or, they could wake up and participate. Ideally, they would make interesting trouble because that’s what being a student, as opposed to a time-server, is all about. Anything would be better – for the ghosts, for the class – than this willful stupidity. Well, willful stupidity is a choice too, come to think of it. I’m sorry for them, but I have choices to make as well. I have a class to teach, with at least ten living students who deserve my attention.