After I posted on the issue twice and Julie posted on it once (although she might blog further on it), I got a brainwave about what’s at the core of our frustration with our students who ditch lots of classes.
At bottom, it’s our feeling that we are not succeeding in our attempts to communicate with them — about why being in class can help them succeed in a course, about the value that course could have beyond filling a necessary requirement for graduation, about the larger value a college education could have in their lives. We’re trying to get all this across, but sometimes we wonder whether we’re the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown special; to the kids, what we’re saying might as well be “WAH-WAH WAH WAH WAH” (as played by a trombone).
And perhaps the reason our attempts at communicating with our students are failing is that we are not framing these attempts as well as we could.
“Framing” has been a hot topic in these parts lately. (As usual, Bora has compiled a comprehensive set of links to go with his analysis.) Part of why the discussion rages on is that folks are trying to figure out just what framing amounts to — whether it’s “spin” or propaganda, or rather a matter of knowing your audience well enough to help them understand and care about what you’re trying to convey to them.
Here’s how Bora explains framing:
The short-term framing operates at the time-scale of seconds. Its goal is to persuade. To make the listener believe that what you say is true.
The long-term framing operates at the time-scale of decades. Its goal is to make new generations much easier to persuade, and once they are persuaded, much easier to teach and inform about science.
My stand as a philosopher is that persuasion is (or ought to be) different from tricking someone into believing what you believe or doing what you want them to do. With a good grasp of logic (and some introspection about one’s own interests), I’d hope that a student could look at the case an instructor is setting out and evaluate it on its merits. So, the “framing” in which I’d want to engage would be about making my assumptions (and the data I see supporting those assumptions) crystal clear to my target audience.
Here’s where the differences between the professoriate and our target audience rear their heads. Julie put it nicely:
Students now are so very different than when we went to school that it just makes me very sad; Janet’s slightly older than I am, but we’re of the same GenXy kind of age range. I hated a ton of classes (mostly those science and math ones) but I always went, I always did my work, and I still cared that someone might not think I was an appropriate member of the scholarly community at my school. It seems like very few students have that attitude these days, at least not at our school.
It’s really important to note that it is not the case that Julie and I were perfect college students, nor that every class meeting we attended as students was a thrill and a joy, nor that we knew we were on trajectories to eventually teaching college students. (Please resist “othering” us that way!) So what makes our own students different from ourselves as college students? What is the disconnect that keeps us from understanding their motivations and keeps them from understanding our motivations?
I can’t help wondering if part of it is that they haven’t ever really thought about what they’re doing in college and what they hope to get out of the experience. It’s almost like some of them are sleepwalking. You go to college because … uh, that’s what people do after high school. You need a college degree to get a good job. (Doing what? Uh, making money …) All those required classes are just obstacles you have to climb over to get the degree.
If this is really where a lot of our students are coming from, it’s no wonder they seem utterly unmoved by our arguments that learning how to write well, or how to think critically, or how to solve problems using theoretical machinery of a particular sort, is a worthwhile goal. If a particular course is only instrumentally valuable (as a set of credits on the way to a degree), caring about the course content might well seem like wasted effort.
So, I’m left with three connected questions here:
- What are our students’ interests and values? How are these connected to what they want to get out of a college education (or, for that matter, to whether they’ve even thought about what they want to get out of a college education)?
- In the short term, what’s the best way to frame our arguments that class attendance and otherwise engaging with the course material would be beneficial to our students in pursuing their interests?
- In the long term, what’s the best way to help students develop a broader and deeper understanding of their own interests and values, and of the role a college education might play in furthering them?
Recall that our goal here is successful communication, not mind-control. How do we achieve it?