Teaching Today’s Students
Many thanks to Dan and the crew for inviting me to join them for a couple of weeks.
From time to time here and at other law professor blogs, the subject of “teaching today’s generation of students” comes up — usually in the context of whether laptop use and/or wireless Internet access should be curtailed in the classroom. I’d be interested in hearing readers’ thoughts on this subject more generally.
Initially, of course, one should ask whether “today’s generation of students” has any meaning beyond the descriptive — in other words, whether students today are different in kind, rather than simply in degree, from our own classmates. I think they are, and in important ways. Students today are a more diverse group in terms of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, financial status, political views, family situations, work experience, and life experience. (That’s not to say that earlier generations were exceedingly less diverse in each of these areas, but those students may have felt less able to engage in a public discourse about some of these facets of their identities.) Students today have been raised on a diet of popular culture and instant communication, resulting in shorter attention spans and higher demands on faculty to use technology in the classroom. They are fluent Internet users but do not always have a similarly developed ability to be intelligent consumers of information — to distinguish reliable sources of information from less reliable sources of information. Finally, some students today see themselves as consumers of an educational service, which manifests itself in the way they treat the classroom experience (choosing to attend class or not, expecting (and requesting) a certain type of classroom experience or procedure, and so forth).
Is this an accurate description? And, if so, how should faculty respond to these issues, if at all?
Some responses are more easily considered because, to my mind, they don’t raise any major pedagogical issues: being sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of our students in the kinds of cases we teach or discussions we lead, for example. Some responses are a bit more difficult because, while often pedagogically sound, they may require some of us to modify the way we teach. I tend to incorporate technology into my classes (PowerPoint, Blackboard, and so forth) both because I enjoy doing so and because (I hope) it appeals to visual learners; others may be resistant for reasons relating to a belief that such things are merely “bells and whistles” that distract more than they assist. Finally, some responses are even more difficult because, to some of us, they result in a head-on conflict with our sense of what a law school class should be. Students may want (or think they want) heavy doses of black-letter law, frequent viewings of TV and movie clips, and the ability to attend class when they choose, but to what extent should professors accommodate those desires?
I’ve been thinking about these questions recently because I’ve just had a chance to watch a rebroadcast of the HBO special “Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl”, in which actor/comedian Robert Wuhl teaches a 30-minute history class in front of a group of NYU undergraduates. The theme of the class is fairly uncontroversial: History is essentially narrative, and not all narrators are reliable. Wuhl presents this as “how pop culture becomes history,” by which he means “whoever the most popular person is at that point in time.” (I don’t think he actually means “popular” in the way he says he does, but that’s beside the point.) But what brought out the curmudgeon in me (and me alone, judging from the laudatory reviews the show has received) is the way in which Wuhl taught the class: a nonstop barrage of Monty Python-esque cartoons, gratuitous pop culture references, mindless call-and-response exercises, wacky stand-up–like patter, a heavy dose of scatological language — and, in the end, not much substance for thirty minutes of work.
I recognize that the class was being televised (and was based on an earlier stage performance), so entertainment value is the primary metric here. But many of the reviews, so far as I could tell, said something along the lines of “This is college as it should be,” or “He’s the teacher everyone wishes they had in college.” And all I could think was: Really? Is this now the way to teach college (or law) students today? Don’t they deserve a bit more — indeed, shouldn’t they expect a bit more? I’m by no means suggesting that the classroom experience shouldn’t be enjoyable or even entertaining from time to time — I hope that my classroom is both. But if Wuhl is now the model, aren’t we risking putting style over substance in trying to reach “today’s generation of students”?