Thursday, July 28, 2016

That's Entertainment!

Back when I was a kid, my parents dragged us to religious discourses where pundits interpreted the holy texts for us nincompoop believers.  Pulavar Keeran and Kirubanandha Variyar were the kind of people who helped me understand the role of religion and about India's rich literary history as well.  The good student that I was, I loved their interpretations of the fine points.  As one who has always enjoyed humor, I particularly relished the jokes the speakers employed.

My late great-uncle, who could easily lecture about many of the texts, often sarcastically remarked that most people who went to those lectures went there only for entertainment--for the stories and the jokes.  If the attendees were asked about what those lecturers said, they would merely respond with "they spoke well," the great-uncle joked with intensity.

Over the decades, it seems like every aspect of life has become more and more about entertainment.  Even a memorial service to remember the departed has to be entertaining.  Churches use PowerPoint slides with cartoon images and emojis.  With a reality show entertainer as the presidential candidate, we have rendered politics the ultimate theatre of tragicomedy.

When such is the external environment, is it any surprise that students expect teachers to be entertainers in the classroom?  Of course, I take my awful sense of humor to my classes, and pun away, triggering groans, even while making sure that I help students understand the world.

But, the final day of the class last term, I decided that I needed to speak the truth.  After the initial few minutes of making sure everything about the final exam was discussed, I calmly and steadily launched into the message.

"After the first day of introductions, many of you commented that you felt like I was doing a stand-up comedy routine" I said.  Students, not knowing what was coming, smiled and nodded perhaps thinking that I had prepared an entertaining spiel for them.

"My humor is a facade.  In reality, I am an insanely serious guy.  If not for the sense of humor, I would have died at least twenty years ago."

I had the students' attention.  In a steady voice, I continued.

"It is with that humor that I often joked about students who skip class meetings.  I made snide remarks about how students do not care."

There was no more joking around.

"All those funny remarks were because it really, really bothers me that students skip meetings.  It really, really bothers me students attend class but then are texting, Facebooking, Instagramming, or even sleeping."

The students were listening.

"I share with friends and neighbors what goes on in a university like this, about students and faculty.  Most of my neighbors hate paying taxes.  And they hate even more that their tax money is being wasted like this."

"More than anything else, your behavior affects the learning environment in the classroom.  I might come prepared with an activity in mind, but that goes kaput because there aren't enough students, or because students have not come prepared."

I laid out my case.  And then wrapped it up with, "based on the last few weeks, I have no confidence that the rest of the class time will be productive.  So, we are done.  Thank you all."

Slowly most students filed out through the door that was away from me.  A couple of students walked up to me. One said, "I wish you had said this like in week five."  I shrugged my shoulders.  "I know what you mean.  But, like I have always told students, I treat them as adults, and adults have responsibilities.  Thanks for your comment."

I have started working on the syllabi for the upcoming year, even though there are a few weeks of the summer break left.  I am sure that I will take with me the sense of humor that has kept me alive for the last twenty years, and which will keep me here for a few more.  But, I am acutely aware that in a world in which people are so eager to hand over their money to entertainers, even a Variyar will have to fight hard in order to get people to listen.

Nobody cares a shit!


IP-MD said...

I feel for you...unless students are actively involved in class, no education can happen. If they are on their cell phones, they are not really "in" the class. This is why it is crucial to ban the use of any electronic devices (laptops, tablets, cell phones) in class.

Ramesh said...

Its a familiar sight in every classroom in the world, and profoundly depressing to the teacher. Haven't we all done some form of what you have railed against, in our youth.

Its tough being a teacher.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, it is not easy being a teacher. But, guess what? As important as teaching is, and as difficult as it is, individuals clearly indicate in the marketplace that they would rather spend their money on entertainment than on education. What a disgrace!

I wonder if I failed in my true intention behind the post, or if that was purposefully skipped over. It is the culture of entertainment that really pisses me off, and how much we people are willing to spend our time and money on entertainment. It is this entertainment culture that has made it worse for the learning environment. So, two things here:
1. I have no idea about IP-MD's background ... but, Ramesh and I made sure we gave our education the respect and attention that it needed. Else, we won't be where we are now, right? And that is despite the fact that Ramesh was entertaining himself by being an active cricket and TT (ping pong) player, while I was simply wasting away my time--sometimes by reading Russian literature, which clearly was not entertainment!
2. The possible ways in which a young person can be entertained now--as a passive spectator even--is phenomenal. in a context that highly prizes entertainment, and with more and more entertainment options, we can--and should--prepare ourselves for even more of a worsening situation.

BTW, in the syllabi that I am drafting, for the first time ever, I have already included language that students need to put their electronic gadgets away during class time. But, I can't prevent students from sleeping in class, or not coming to class ;)

IP-MD said...

In my experience as a teacher, students WILL come to class if the quality of teaching is good and if they are properly incentivized. But it is crucial that they shut off their electronic devices.

Personally, my attendance record as a student was quite poor. But the teaching was not so great, either!

Sriram Khé said...

hmmmm ... last term, out of a registered number of 30, typically 10 to 12 students were absent for meetings ... so, are you telling me that the large absences were because "the quality of teaching" was that awful? Maybe, eh ...
I don't agree with the "properly incentivized" either. For one, whether students like it or not, society has deemed that a college diploma is a needed passport for most jobs. There is that incentive. For another, students are paying money--not attending college for free. That is another incentive. In that case, is the claim that these huge economic incentives are not enough? You see my problem with the way you have phrased it?

I have blogged enough, and even written op-eds, that the problem is that most students do not really want to be in college, yet society forces them to. It is unfortunate, and a tremendous waste of time and money. At least money we might be able to earn back, but time goes only in one direction.

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