I teach the first year composition sequence at a community college. These are required writing courses for all transfer students–the majority of the students who pass through the institution. With very few exceptions, I would say that these two courses are probably the least looked-forward to by students of the entire gen-ed curriculum. Many just don’t want to do it and see the composition requirement as shear drudgery. Now, I love this course. Heck, I pursued graduate studies in composition in large part so that I could teach it, and I’ve always enjoyed writing and working with the power of language. So, needless to say, there is a bit of gulf between my and my students’ motivation when it comes to this course.

One complaint I’ve heard in the past–usually related to the more theoretical aspects or the critical readings of the course–is that it seems “irrelevant” to student lives. What teacher hasn’t heard this–you know, the proverbial “when-am-I-ever-gonna-use-this-stuff” argument? As cliché as this perennial student remark is, I am sensitive to it to a degree. Much of what is forced upon us in school is taught without context for our contemporary lives or without enough attention to practical application. Again, I can understand where these remarks come from, but I also find it demoralizing that many of my students see education as little more than practical application or a hoop to jump through to get to whatever is next. Curiosity and an openness to see a world beyond their own is severely lacking. But I digress…

As part of our personal education, theory is valuable as it is the conceptualized knowledge that informs our ongoing practice. It’s what prevents us from having to relearn the same lessons again and again and repeating the same mistakes again and again. It’s what allows us to live deliberate lives rather than merely accidental ones. This I believe. However, I also agree that sometimes in academia the balance tips a bit too far, and we end up with an educational experience that privileges thinking over doing. In a world rife with problems in dire need of immediate action, hundreds of my students sitting in desks listening to a pontificating professor (or gazing out the window) for hours each semester plus maybe three times that outside of class meeting time (approximately 25,000 person-hours each semester in all) seems downright irresponsible. We can and should do more with our time. At least that was my contention at the start of last semester.

i give you the real world

I kicked off the semester with an enthusiastic explanation of how this first-year writing course would be one of action–one where we all worked together to effect some real-world change; that’s right–real world work, the stuff my students had been asking for. As I explained how we would learn about research and writing by engaging in activism and service work, my energy was met with ennui; students sat there just as listless as always. I could feel the air rushing from my balloon.

I explained how students would work together in groups to figure out what was really important to each of them. Something they felt needed to get done in their community, something of interest and concern to them. I was wide open to all ideas from groups. There they sat. Not knowing how to proceed. Was no one, in fact, interested or concerned about anything? This was an authentic opportunity to get some important work done (to change the world, yes I said it), and no one could think of anything they felt like doing. I was starting to get depressed.

After some nudging and prodding and a week or two, groups turned in their project proposals. Great, I thought. Now, I’d see the commitment, the enthusiasm, the hope and willingness to work for change. My enthusiasm surged again as I began talking about next steps to move from ideas to action. Then the hand went up; “You mean we’re actually going to do this stuff?” It took me literally 20 minutes (and much longer for some) to help the class understand that each group, in fact, was expected to do what they proposed. The majority of the class thought it would end with the proposal. A small handful thought we would run a “simulation;” but not a one believed we would actually get our butts out of the chairs, go out into the community, and do the work that needed doing. Once I painstakingly got students to understand this simple concept, my classes got conspicuously smaller and smaller and smaller. Apparently this whole “doing” thing didn’t appeal much to these students clamoring for “real world” relevancy.

anti-intellectualism, selfishness, apathy, inertia

Despite the mass exodus the class experienced once the reality of the experience to come settled in, a few students stuck around. I couldn’t help but think, though, that a good portion of those who stuck around were simply too lazy to go through the trouble of dropping the class. I was witnessing in large part human inertia–bodies sitting still, unable to get moving. This really was the case for many of even the best intentioned students. Considering this carefully, I suppose it might have something to do with being overwhelmed with the challenges they set out for themselves. I suppose I can relate to this slowness in getting started when facing what might feel like an insurmountable task. Is it better to do nothing than try to and fail? I wonder if this is what stops most people from getting active and from working toward change–the fear of being ineffective in the face of big challenges. I tried to remind students that they only need to take small steps and make small changes–that this could make all the difference. It was tough. Feet were dragging.

For some the challenge may have been inertia; for others, the problem had to do with qualities much less forgivable–anti-intellectualism, selfishness, and apathy. This is a strong indictment, I know. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe what I was observing in my students as they complained about how they were too busy to make time for service work, how they just didn’t care much about the experience and would just prefer to write a couple of lame papers and get on with it, or how uncool they thought it was to show any real intellectual engagement in the work of our course, was really just immaturity. These kids (who I thought were young adults) were a childish bunch. I don’t mean that as an insult but an observation of how severely hampered they all seemed to be when it came to doing real work of real importance in the real world. The consensus was that I was expecting too much of them. At this point, I was really starting to lose faith.

social anxiety and communication incompetency

The students in this class had the option of collaborating in groups on their service/activism project, and while initially students jumped at this, they soon proved incapable of working in groups. Strangely enough they had the hardest time communicating with one another–most likely due to the self-imposed constraint of limiting all communications to texting. Seriously. I had one group with five students in it, and not once had they met in person, talked on the phone, or even e-mailed. They attempted all collaboration and group decision making through text messages. This, they told me, was how people their age communicated. It was the easiest and, get this, most effective way to communicate they thought. Well, based on the miserable failure of their collaboration and project overall, I would have to disagree with the statement that it’s the most effective way to communicate. I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I was once again shocked at the misguided beliefs my students had about working in the so called “real world.” I’m open to learning new ways (jeez, I’m not that old), but clearly effective communication is not something I was about to learn from my students.

tapping intrinsic motivation

Despite the challenges in getting many of my students on board with this activism/service learning project, it wasn’t all bad. Actually, I’m probably losing sight of the successes amidst all the failures. Several students did very well with this project. Interestingly, though, these successful students who embraced the project were non-traditional “returning adult” students and most of them were in my online sections of the course. These students were probably 25 years or older, most worked full time, and all had families and children of their own. These folks were legitimately busy people juggling many obligations. And yet they complained very little about what I was expecting of them. (The students who complained most of being busy were the 18 year olds students, living at home, and maybe working a part time job. I guess it’s all about perspective.)

The returning adult students who embraced and succeeded with this project worked really hard–beyond what I expected of them. They had organized community events, talked with classes of children in schools, participated in volunteer training courses in order to get more involved in their service projects, interviewed county officials, raised money and awareness for important causes, and committed a great deal of their time to getting the work done. It’s funny, one student who had proposed a multi-faceted action project mentioned to me how time consuming it all was. I reminded him that everything he proposed was not required–that perhaps his plans were a bit too involved for the requirement of the course. He thought about that, acknowledged how this was likely true, but then said he wanted to follow through with it anyway. This attitude emerged as a pattern amongst my older students as the semester progressed. Many proposed far more than was really required of them in terms of our course, and they spent many hours making good on their proposed actions–sometimes even at the expense of their other work and assignments in the course. It was as if suddenly the “real world” work became the driving priority for my students regardless of what the course asked for. It was as if the project succeeded in tapping a well of intrinsic motivation in these students–where they wanted to do this work because it was important to them and to others–work worth doing regardless of any course or grade. This was what I was hoping for–if only it was this way for all my students and not just those nearly my age.


The question is how can I get the level of involvement and engagement in this service project that I saw in my older students with all of my students–30-year-olds and 18-year-olds alike?

I’ll be giving this service/activism learning approach another whirl with my online classes this summer. I’m hoping that we will enjoy good successes given the usual summer online student–older, highly-motivated, reverse transfer. But for the fall, I’ll need to make some serious adjustments if I hope the course to finish with more than a small handful of students. Perhaps, I’ll need to “scaffold” more–set up ready-made service experiences to get my students interested in doing this kind of work without the initial shock of having to plan it all on their own. After a few shared brief experiences that I set up, maybe then they will be more ready to pursue service projects of their own design. I’ll also have to spend some time teaching collaboration, organizing and planning, and skills of social engagement, all of which seem severely lacking in today’s traditional-aged freshman college student.