[EAS] Boredom in Class

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Fri Apr 6 17:29:34 EDT 2007

You've heard me mention the Tomorrow's Professor mailing list before. 
This item, about how to avoid boring students in class, with the 
charming confessions by a Stanford professor, opens up a worthwhile 
set of awarenesses.

Teaching techniques, as per the below, tend to be a much more evolved 
topic in non-technical fields, where verbal skill is at the core of 
professional advancement because everything is arguable. Engineering 
discourse, framed by the certitudes of Maxwell's equations, can be 
the duller for it, though I see no reason why Engineering couldn't 
have its Vincent Scully's, given adjustments in the value system of 
teaching.  Our Yale undergraduates continue to have sterling 
opportunities to "comparison-shop."  --PJK

Date: Tue, 3 Apr 2007 08:56:12 -0700
From: Rick Reis <reis at stanford.edu>
Subject: TP Msg. #785 Why Good Teachers Have Bad Classes: And What You
	Can Do About It
To: tomorrows-professor at lists.stanford.edu
Message-ID: <p06230900c23829863c82@[]>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"

Reminder: You can comment on this or any past posting by going to: 
"In this issue of Speaking of Teaching, we address the issue of why 
even the best, most knowledgeable teachers occasionally find 
themselves teaching a course that is just not working.  In this 
introduction we propose several effective approaches to the problem, 
and then in the following pages listen to the reflections of one 
Stanford professor who found himself in a class that was not working. 
Finally we offer a list of excellent books that can help you 
avoid--or at least respond constructively to--a bad class."


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The posting below offers some excellent advice and resources on how 
to improve classes that for one reason of another just don't seem to 
go right.  It is from the newsletter, Speaking  of Teaching, produced 
by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Stanford University -, 
http://ctl.stanford.edu/Newsletter/  Winter 2003, Vol. 12, No.3. 
Speaking of Teaching is compiled and edited by CTL Associate Director 
Valerie Ross.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Ross at 
[varlet at stanford.edu].  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
UP NEXT: Teaching Naked

		                 Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

  	 --------------------------------- 2,250 words 

	      Why Good Teachers Have Bad Classes: And What You Can Do About It

In this issue of Speaking of Teaching, we address the issue of why 
even the best, most knowledgeable teachers occasionally find 
themselves teaching a course that is just not working.  In this 
introduction we propose several effective approaches to the problem, 
and then in the following pages listen to the reflections of one 
Stanford professor who found himself in a class that was not working. 
Finally we offer a list of excellent books that can help you avoid-or 
at least respond constructively to-a bad class.

Bad classes happen for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is the way 
the course has been organized-is it coverage-centered or 
learning-centered?  Other times it seems that the traditional 
teaching methods-lecture and Socratic discussions-just don't engage 
students the way they used to.  Sometimes students just don't do the 
reading...why is that?  Much of the literature on effective teaching 
suggests that there are several important ways to approach the 
problem of a bad class: creating a sense of community and 
collaborative learning in the class, getting feedback about the 
course from your students early and throughout the term, varying your 
teaching methods, and bringing significant "active learning" moments 
into each class meeting.

More broadly speaking, however, the bad class can be approached from 
two intimately related directions.  In her exceptionally useful book, 
Tools for Teaching, Barbara Davis suggests a student-centered 
approach of increasing motivation by getting students actively 
involved in generating the content of each class.  Options range 
anywhere from designating students to be responsible for bringing in 
discussion questions to assigning short in-class writing assignments, 
to using debates, case studies, small group projects, and letting 
students have some say in choosing the course material. She writes, 
"Students learn by doing, making, writing, designing, creating, 
solving.  Passivity dampens students' motivation and curiosity" (p. 
194).  This is true for undergraduate as well as graduate students. 
Even for large classes, Davis suggests in a chapter called 
"Supplements and Alternatives to Lecturing" that there are always 
ways to bring community and active learning into the classroom.

On the other side of the issue, a more teaching-centered approach is 
suggested by Wilbert McKeachie in his book, McKeachie's Teaching 
Tips.  McKeachie encourages teachers to be continually open to 
learning about teaching, and to make extensive use of evaluative 
feedback from peers, students, faculty development specialists, and 
even from themselves.  Whether by reading about teaching, attending 
workshops, talking to colleagues, or observing other teachers in 
action, McKeachie maintains that in order to know how to handle-and 
avoid-bad classes, our best resource is our own willingness to learn. 
He writes, in the chapter titled "Vitality and Growth throughout Your 
Teaching Career,"

	Talking about teaching with colleagues can be an invaluable 
source of ideas as
	well as emotional support when a class hasn't gone well.  The 
colleagues need
	not be in one's own discipline.  You will often get 
interesting feedback from teachers
	in other disciplines. (p. 322)

McKeachie also strongly suggests that students should be offered the 
opportunity to provide course evaluation feed- back early in the term 
so that changes can be made before the course is over.  This one 
strategy-agreed on by virtually all pedagogical specialists-can go a 
long way toward helping a class that is not working.

Whether student-centered or teaching-centered, there are a wealth of 
resources and effective approaches available to the good teacher who 
wants to save a bad class; it could happen to anyone! ?

				Confessions of a Bore

One honest Stanford professor, who asked to remain anonymous, 
submitted the following essay to CTL for this issue of Speaking of 
Teaching.  We hope that his "confessions" will inspire our readers to 
explore the options we have outlined in this issue.

During some telephone conversations, there comes a moment when you 
realize that the connection has been cut off. Perhaps it is a silence 
from the other end that is just a little too long to be meaningful, 
or perhaps it is a lack of conviction in your own voice that causes 
you suddenly to note that the conversation is over (and has been for 
some time). Imagine that moment stretched into two-hour increments 
and repeating itself over ten weeks, and you have a recent episode in 
my life as a teacher.

With so many years of education behind me, I am naturally no stranger 
to boredom. One late afternoon in graduate school-I can recall the 
exact moment: it was deep in a seminar where the poor old professor 
had already spent hours charging down blind alleys alone and was just 
launching into another tunnel of soliloquy-I told myself that boring 
people was unpardonable, easily avoided (wouldn't it be enough just 
to stop the monologue, open a window and invite someone else to 
talk?), and swore to myself that when I got to be in the professor's 
position I would take it as my moral responsibility never to be a 

Fortunately there were no witnesses.

A moral responsibility? Committing dullness is a serious act, I 
thought then and still think, because you cause the listener to wish 
part of his or her life away, to be drawn toward an attenuated, 
granular form of suicide. Bores are torturers. The bore-or to specify 
further: the deadly bore-does something so dreadful to time that it 
would have been more merciful simply to kill it. The more vividly one 
holds in mind the preciousness and finitude of lived time, the less 
one can condone boring anyone for any reason. These reasonings imply 
that the bore knows he is being a bore. That may not always be the 
case. I could not be sure about the professor in that long-ago 
seminar, but if he didn't know, he was the more to be pitied. I 
supposed that a bore without self-aware- ness was forgivable, but 
only because not entirely responsible; and someone as watchful as I 
would not have that excuse.

I do watch my audiences like a hawk. I know that what I have to tell 
them is not always what they got out of bed for. They may have to be 
amused and cajoled into listening. I set traps for attention, many 
kinds of traps for different kinds of attention.  Jokes, metaphors, 
gestures, apostrophes, snatches of song, mimic voices, even the 
sluttish temptations of audio-visual and slide presentations-all are 
fair means. Eventually, or so I hope, the glow of polemic or the 
tight structure of a well-fashioned argument will by itself command 
attention. Facing an audience of a hundred, I keep a half-conscious 
running tally of the number of glazed eyes and averted faces, and 
should these rise much beyond ten or fifteen percent, I pull out the 
emergency measures: a dramatic change of topic, a knockdown argument 
in favor of the opposing side, even a little shouting and hand-waving 
to reawaken our memories of childhood punishments. Anything short of 
a fire alarm will do. We teachers are performers; our audiences tell 
us what we need to know about ourselves.

Or, sometimes, what we would rather not know. Given what I have said, 
you know that I have no excuse for being a bore: I don't approve of 
boredom, even on conditional grounds (the value of information 
imparted does not justify dullness in imparting it, though the 
perception of value may do away with the feeling of dullness), I know 
it when I see it, and I devote a lot of energy to watching for it and 
chasing it away. You should expect me to do anything in my power to 
avoid the failing I have just painted in such deeply moral colors 
(the torturing of time, the incitement to suicide by degrees). When 
you are being bored, the bore seems to be a perpetrator of some kind, 
the active force behind an offense; when you are the bore, it feels 
more like helplessness, like being marooned-on Easter Island, for 
example. "Easter Island" is the name a friend of mine gives to the 
staring rows of stony, uncomprehending faces you sometimes see from 
the front of an amphitheater.

I noticed early on in the course I'm making my confession about (a 
seminar with seven graduate students) that the students had little to 
say. Were they just timid? If so, they must have been petrified, for 
the only reaction I could read from most of their faces was a fixed 
expression that could easily be interpreted as polite hostility; one 
or two of them regularly met my eyes and nodded, a little too 
mechanically to convince me that it betokened any strong form of 
assent. Were we all speaking the same language? Had anyone come to 
the class for a good reason, beyond the fact that the class was a 
degree requirement? Maybe I'll stop the didactic monologue and ask 
some questions, I thought. Help me, Socrates! But a question thrown 
out into the air and not picked up eventually becomes a rhetorical 
question to which the questioner is expected to provide a response. 
Answering my own question returned me to the stream of my detestable 
patter. It went on and on. At the very least, I was going to complete 
the job the university pays me for, and fill out the whole two hours 
with verbal behavior from which someone might, other conditions being 
favorable, extract some knowledge.

To construe my verbal behavior as a performance would impel the 
conclusion that it was not a very successful performance. The 
audience response was lacking, or at any rate was not registering on 
the meters at my disposal. So it could not have been a performance. 
Rather, what I was doing was extruding the required amount of verbal 
matter (two hours' worth), and shaping it as best I could: a little 
antithesis here, a little personification allegory there, now and 
again a chiasmus or a hysteron-proteron. In short, I was talking to 
myself-unwillingly-and trying to disguise my own boredom with an 
engagement in the rhetorical materiality of the verbal flow, like a 
child adding up the numbers of license plates on a long drive.

The self-aware bore is a desperate creature. He is conscious of the 
offense he causes his hearers, conscious of his responsibility for 
it, and in the worst of cases unable to do anything about it. (I am a 
few years too young to simulate a heart attack and thus get out of 
the room.) While my mind raced about, seeking expedients, escapes and 
alternatives, my voice, reliable after years of practice in less 
trying situations, continued to emit a certain volume of verbiage 
under a certain pressure for a certain time (in obedience to a flow 
ratio established by centuries of academic precedent): and this 
volume, sculpt and twist it though I might, was, I knew, the very 
substance of boredom. Boredom fills the room, makes movement 
impossible, asphyxiates any alternative to itself. It is a painful 
thing to realize that one is the source of boredom, that dullness has 
taken one over, like a disturbing odor or an involuntary tic. 
Possession by devils would have been more exciting. One can only wish 
for it to be past, and if the audience will not help (my audience was 
too reserved, too passive or too hostile to try), the only horizon 
for its being over is the end of the quarter. That means taking the 
granular death-wish in large handfuls, and having enough left over at 
the end of class to carry it home.

If our species can feel boredom, there must be a purpose to it. 
Presumably the reaction is triggered by fruitless activity: those of 
our predecessors who persisted in looking for fishes in the treetops, 
and did not feel boredom, starved before passing on their genes. 
Boredom is the vast penumbra surrounding focus, attention and will; 
it defines itself relative to these three. But even given this 
proximity of dullness to more valuable mental powers, there is surely 
no need to teach people how to be bored: there is enough noise, 
enough pointlessness, enough waste already, and the very formlessness 
of these opposites of attention makes it doubtful whether they have a 
lesson in them that could not be taught equally well by a 
proportionate amount of time spent waiting in line or searching 
haystacks for needles.

An experienced and optimistic colleague of mine urged me to put the 
experience behind me. "It's not your fault. You are a good teacher. 
Everyone can have a bad class. They were not ready for or receptive 
to what you had to say. You will go on to have better classes." 
Perhaps. But having been an incorrigible, helpless bore for several 
weeks at a stretch makes it harder for me to hear identity-statements 
such as "you are a good teacher" as anything but well- meant 
mantra-chanting. The horror I felt on observing the spectacle of the 
helpless bore led me to draw a line be- tween myself and the bores, a 
line which it was not in my power to maintain. Perhaps the 
stubbornness that made me continue with a class that was not 
working-that is, my determination not to be a bore, not to admit that 
I could be a bore-was the real villain of the piece. ?
Speaking of Teaching is compiled and edited by CTL Associate Director 
Valerie Ross.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Ross at 
varlet at stanford.edu with any questions, suggestions, or comments; 
thank you!

			Useful Books for Improving Your Teaching

Angelo, Thomas A., and Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment 
Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2nd edition. San 
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Banner, James, and Harold C. Cannon. The Elements of Teaching. New 
Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Boice, Robert. Advice For New Faculty Members.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Brookfield, Stephen D.  Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. 
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Christensen, C. Roland, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, Eds. 
Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. 
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Erickson, Bette LaSere, and Diane Weltner Strommer. Teaching College 
Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Feldman, Kenneth A., and Michael B. Paulsen, Eds. Teaching and 
Learning in the College Classroom.  2nd ed.  Boston: Pearson Custom 

Grunert, Judith.  The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach. 
Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, 1997.
Light, Richard. Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their 
Minds.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Lowman, Joseph. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. 2nd edition. 
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Mazur, Eric.  Peer Instruction: A User's Manual.  Upper Saddle River, 
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory 
for College and University Teachers. 11th edition. Boston: Houghton 
Mifflin, 2002.

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