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I am a professor at a college and my students are bumming me out.

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

I am a professor at a college and my students are bumming me out. Only half show up to lectures and those that do show are very difficult to motivate. Do you have any story advice to get them engaged?

~ Laura


I feel bad for today’s college students and the higher education story they’re in. Imagine, if it was a movie. The main plot– learning– is clear enough: in Act 1 they find and commit to a program; in Act 2 they encounter trouble and struggle, mature, and discover their true selves, all of which launches them into Act 3. Here in the final act, their last year of study, they make the heroic climb to the summit of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. With all they have gained and imbibed, the student is finally capable of creating and producing something original for the betterment of themselves and the world around them. And that’s not all. Sub-plots of personal development braid into the main plot and the hero not only creates but achieves a miraculous personal transformation of mind, body and soul. The end.

This is a great movie and the professor– if you’re good, I will assume you’re good Laura– is an important supporting cast member in it. This is where you get your job satisfaction and your love of teaching. All by playing in your students’ stories called Going to College. Yet, as your question points out, there’s a problem: the blockbuster they’re in is a bit of a dud. And your performance is suffering because of it.

Laura, to be fair, it’s not easy to make a good movie. Just ask Walter Murch, film editor and theorist, who has spent many years editing films and thinking about a hierarchy of decisions that makes films great. Amidst the myriad of choices from casting to rewrites, to hair, make-up and wardrobe, everything is prescribed and controlled. According to Murch, at the top of the hierarchy of to-do’s are the things that affect emotion. This translates on screen to simply communicating and supporting the correct emotion on screen for each moment along the timeline. For Murch– the editor– he does this by choosing the right close-up or suggesting a scary sound off-camera. In Murch’s estimation (and many others) feeling trumps all– even story– and everyone's job on set and in post-production is to make the audience not just understand but, most importantly, feel the story.

In a sense, our college administrators and you professors are the editors, directors and crew of the higher education film the students are in. They are organizers, cutting out the bad bits, ordering the scenes, keeping everything on-story through curriculum and student services, and hopefully, as Hollywood does, making students feel. Yes, feel. The best movies make us cry, laugh, and experience new emotions. They act as a cathartic proxy to vault us out of the circumstantial lives we lead, if only for 120 minutes or over ten hours on Netflix. Then, the theory goes, we use our imaginations, imitate art and try to achieve a truer version of ourselves through the trouble and struggle of our own stories.

And then we go to college. This blockbuster film– Going to College– should be the best movie we’ve ever seen. The pitch is great: Two, three, perhaps four years of intense learning, growing, new relationships, and discovery all capped off with a great ending. It’s chock full of emotion and action. The hero, anxious and full of false bravado marches onto campus, enters the lecture hall and… Everyone’s on Tik Tok. Suddenly, the Tom Cruise-like freshman, playing in his own version of Top Gun Maverick, loses all focus and any fear he might have, gets out his laptop and checks his fantasy football score (and Tik Tok). Mach 10 is clearly not going to happen.

In this light, the lecture hall has become mute and sterile with an inattentive audience getting all their feelings, good and bad, from their distractions. There isn’t even any fear of being late or absent and missing out since, thanks to technology and an abundance of caution, many lectures are recorded and in most classes, all the notes are uploaded for immediate and forever-access. And so, the lecture hall, once a place where you could feel the learning while struggling to take notes, keep up, and maybe fall in love is now a place where the stakes are pretty much gone: Debate has been dampened by the fear that expression will actually get you in trouble; love is lost to staring at phones instead of real people; and there no value attached to show your face online or otherwise thanks to crippling sensitivity to personal differences.

Yup, by and large, the movie the students have been promised doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it’s kinda boring. While the problem is complex, I challenge you, the professor, and your higher education admin folks to revamp the picture. A good place to start would be with a critical eye on colleges’ quixotic and ironically shallow relationship it has with technology. The constant drum of student success, whenever technology leaps into the academy, needs a shift.

This strategy would begin with a vision, something filmmakers, great artists, and leaders all have. The goal would be simple: have students feel more in a lecture. How do you achieve this?

One tactic is easy: take half the classes in the semester and leave cellphones and laptops at the door, turn off wifi, and never record the lecture. From this small drama exercise, all sorts of emotions could be conjured. That’s right, no technology (unless it helps support and reveal emotions tied to learning). There would be annoyance, anxiety, doubt, optimism, fear, joy, or even happiness. Bad listeners would have to take notes. Tardiness would pay a price and if you missed a class you would have to get the hand written notes from someone. Imagine approaching a stranger and asking for notes! Hey, they might even fall in love! Yes, that’s the scene we want in the movie. It makes us feel and focus and engages us with the material, with others, and with one's self. All of a sudden, the movie is better. And that goes for everyone including you, the professor. Plus, it brings us full circle.

Remember too Laura, your work as a professor is its own story. While you’re a supporting cast member to students you are the star of your own narrative. With a long career teaching, and perhaps doing research, your narrative might be more like an ongoing Netflix series. Being bummed out about your students sounds like the beginning of a new season that’s all about getting students motivated.

Don’t be bummed, Laura. What you’re doing was never easy. It’s just a more complicated plot now. But the rewards are huge. Your journey and all your students’ is age-old. This could be the Emmy award-winning season of the professor series that spins off and launches your students into the best movies they've ever seen! It plays like any number of great films we love: the star does through action something they would have never been able to do had it not been for the story they’re in. Thanks, in part, to you. This is the promise of the premise of higher education and it is the story you have to tell. Good luck and, one last piece of advice, good drama is like great teaching: it’s never easy.

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