When Seminar Classes No Longer Work

I’d like to say that the Fall 2019 semester was wonderful and that all my students were brilliant. It feels good when everything is going well, after all, and I like to brag about how smart my students are.

The truth is, however, that this semester was miserable, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. What was going on? What was I doing wrong? What could I do better?

Now that the semester is behind me, I’ve come to the conclusion that something wasn’t working with the students. I hate to shift blame onto someone who isn’t me, but I think that what happened with my classes this semester is indicative of a larger trend in higher education.

Students are no longer capable of engaging with course material that requires reading or watching something for more than a few minutes. This is fine in large lecture classes, but it makes smaller and more discussion-focused seminar classes very awkward and uncomfortable.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it would be helpful to give some background information first.

There are generally three types of classes in a university: lectures, seminars, and labs.

Lab classes are above my pay grade, so I’m not going to talk about them.

Lecture classes are larger classes with minimal participation. The professor stands on stage presenting information, and evaluations are structured so as to measure the students’ retention of this information. If an individual student performs poorly, they fail. Unless a specific professor has an innate knack for entertaining an audience, most people don’t particularly enjoy lecture classes. These classes are necessary and vital to what a university does, of course, but students tend not to think that they’re fun or engaging.

Seminar classes are smaller and focus more on individual student participation. Although it’s still necessary to evaluate students based on their retention of information, these classes allow much more room for individual student expression. A lot of Social Science and Humanities courses with more specialized topics, such as the ones I teach, are seminar classes. If a seminar class goes well, both the students and the instructor can get a lot out of the experience. This is the type of class where students have the sorts of transformative experiences that the institution of higher education likes to celebrate.

In lecture classes, the instructor basically has to show up, present material, perform evaluations, and make sure these evaluations are assessed properly. This is far from easy, and there’s a lot of planning and preparation involved. Still, it’s the responsibility of the students to do the work or risk failing the class. If a student gets a bad grade, it’s the fault of the student, not the instructor.

In seminar classes, the instructor still has to show up, present material, perform evaluations, and make sure these evaluations are assessed properly. At the same time, because the classes are smaller, there’s more of an opportunity for student engagement, and most seminar classes are designed to take advantage of this. While an introductory lecture class in Art History might expect students to memorize lists of names and dates and manufacture short and shallow essays about, for example, the symbolism of fruit in Renaissance painting, a seminar class would encourage students to dig deeply into a more specialized topic while discussing their own thoughts and intellectual interests in a structured manner.

Because the instructor of a seminar class has more leniency in evaluating each individual student’s performance, they also have much more responsibility for what each student gets out of the class. This involves a lot of extra work for the instructor, but the trade-off is that they can more or less teach what they want.

Most seminar classes are upper-level – meaning that they’re intended for students in their third year or above – and many also have prerequisites. The idea is that you can’t just throw someone with no prior knowledge, training, or skills in the discipline into a small class and expect them to succeed. Essentially, by the time someone becomes eligible to take a seminar class, they should be able to contribute to it at the requisite level. In other words, it wouldn’t make much sense to allow someone with no knowledge of Art History into an advanced seminar for specialists, even if they really enjoy art.

A major problem in American universities, however, is that many colleges now require courses to have a minimum enrollment in order to avoid being cancelled. People who teach seminars are therefore under pressure to open registration to everyone. In addition, instructors are also pressured into allowing upper-level seminars to count for university general education requirements, especially if the class is offered by a “program” instead of a “department.” (A department can offer a major and thus grant a degree, while a program is generally younger and smaller and can generally only offer a minor or a secondary major.) What this means is that, practically speaking, you might have a bunch of sophomore accounting majors taking an upper-level seminar (offered by the Gender Studies program instead of the Art History department) specifically about the queer symbolism of fruit in Renaissance painting.

Meanwhile, students don’t want to risk their GPA on a seminar with a strict instructor and a qualitative assessment structure, so people who teach seminar classes are under a lot of pressure to make sure everyone gets a decent grade. This means that there’s no way to warn students if they’re not doing the work and not performing at the required level.

This is not an ideal situation. As you might imagine, it creates problems.

Many experienced instructors can handle these problems with a range of strategies that can help to make the best of less-than-ideal situation. Unfortunately, a collection of ill-prepared students sitting in an advanced seminar can result in some truly awkward situations that nothing can be done about.

In order for a seminar to work, there need to be at least two good students. If there’s only one good student, the rest of the class will resent them, and that student will grow to resent the class in turn. Two students can get a discussion going, however, and all it takes is the enthusiasm of two people to encourage the other students to contribute as well. Having multiple good students also enables each individual student to slack off sometimes, meaning that the classroom space feels more collaborative.

What I mean by a “good” student is a student who can and will do the work and contribute to the class. A student who can do the work but doesn’t isn’t a good student. A student who has done all the work but sits quietly in the back of the room isn’t a good student. A student who hasn’t done any of the work but “contributes” anyway isn’t a good student either. Meanwhile, the students who don’t do the work, don’t pay attention, and have to be “reminded” to put away their phones and laptops in the middle of class are aggressively bad students. For a seminar to be successful, the instructor needs to work with the good students to create a critical mass of goodness (attention, engagement, contribution, and collaboration) that overwhelms the badness (the attitude of students who clearly don’t want to be in the room) before it becomes pervasive.

An experienced instructor can set boundaries and encourage a productive classroom environment by rewarding goodness and punishing badness. If there’s no genuine student engagement, however, there’s nothing to reward. Meanwhile, in the hope of at least maintaining a neutral status quo, it can be tempting for an instructor to avoid punishing disengagement by, for example, calling out a student who is clearly spending the entire class scrolling through social media.

It goes without saying that it’s easier for men to set these boundaries. If you’re not a cisgender man, you’re already starting at a disadvantage, and every other minority positionality you occupy makes it even harder to maintain an atmosphere of civility and respect in the classroom. There has been so much work (here’s an annotated selection) that demonstrates how sexism functions in a university setting that this observation has almost become a truism, but it’s still worth commenting on.

To return to the point of this essay, what happened this semester is that I didn’t have a single good student in either of my seminar classes. I know that sounds awful and judgmental, but this is what I mean:

(1) Not a single student prepared for class by doing the required reading or viewing.
(2) Even if one or more of them did, those students did not engage with the class.
(3) Multiple students were actively disengaged and disruptive.

What this meant was that…

(1) It was not possible to have a sustained discussion about the material.
(2) It was not possible for students to otherwise engage with the material.
(3) Students were not capable of retaining or intellectually processing the material.
(4) Students grew to resent being asked to engage with material they couldn’t understand.
(5) Students who were not prepared still insisted on speaking, which was awkward and awful.

In other words, everyone was uncomfortable and no one learned anything.

I tried to mitigate this as best I could by offering praise and encouragement on evaluations, devising in-class groupwork projects and other activities meant to stimulate engagement, and having students watch and discuss short videos during class in lieu of doing any preparation outside of class. I learned the students’ names, I memorized their interests and hobbies in order to help bring them into class discussion, and I played trivia games about tangentially related material to help wake them up and get them in a positive frame of mind. I gave them all sorts of snacks with sugar and caffeine, and I even brought my dog to class several times for stress relief.

But nothing worked. Even students who showed promise at the beginning of the semester were performing poorly by the end, and I felt awful.

What I ended up doing was relying more and more on my presentations, thereby transitioning my classes away from seminar discussions and more toward lectures. Unfortunately, the course material I chose for my seminars was ill-suited to become the subject of a series of lectures, by which I mean a set of discrete topics that could be broken down into smaller units of information suitable for evaluations intended to test basic retention.

Writing these lectures and evaluations felt boring and empty to me, and I hated it. To give an example, imagine having a class about Sailor Moon in which, instead of discussing what makes the show so fun and interesting and culturally meaningful, you have to present the text as something along the lines of, say, “Please list three visual elements of Sailor Moon intended to appeal to its target demographic.” As a result, class sessions that could have been really special and magical became tedious and soulless.

The main problem was that none of the students did any of the assigned reading. Let me emphasize this: None of the students did any of the assigned reading. Moreover, most of them had no intention of doing the reading. The course hosting platform my university uses, Blackboard, allows the instructor to track who has accessed the course material, and almost no one even clicked on the links for the assigned readings and videos. Because none of the students were willing to do any work for my classes, I had nothing to work with myself, and every single one of my attempts to engage the students with the material (and with each other) ended in an awkward failure.

As I wrote earlier, I ended up turning my seminar classes into lecture classes, and any discussions we had were very broad and not too terribly productive. I did my best to smile and laugh through the entire semester, but I have no idea what my students got out of my classes.

I’ve been noticing a trend that’s become more pronounced with each passing year, and I think it’s finally time to acknowledge what’s going on – the undergraduates at my university are unable to read or watch more than a few uninterrupted minutes of video. Even when presented with short and accessible material, they cannot engage with it. I’ve always had a few students in every course who were capable of doing enough work to contribute to a productive classroom environment, but their numbers have been shrinking, and this semester I finally hit zero.

I have theories about how we got to this point, but that’s immaterial. What’s more important is figuring out where to go from here.

Specially, what sort of material can students engage with? Moreover, is the specific information gained through college classes what’s important, or should the emphasis of seminar classes be on the process of developing textual and media literacy and critical thinking skills? If the goal is the retention of information, is there a better way to deliver this information? Something like a podcast, perhaps? If the process is important – and I really think it is – what can be done to encourage it? What needs to change so that students can do the work they need to do?

And finally, is it worth it? Is it ethical to force students to pay so much money for classes that aren’t useful or even interesting to them? By remaining in an institution that exploits some of the most precarious members of American society without giving them anything in return, am I complicit in propagating an unjust system?

The only conclusion I have to offer is that this issue requires more research. Surely I’m not the first person to have made this set of observations, and there have to be strategies for addressing these problems in order to create classes that are more beneficial to students.

A Hellscape of Unsavory Experiences

The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained
https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.” Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe. The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.

I taught a class called “Demonic Women in Japanese Fiction” last semester, and some of my students were obsessed with the Momo Challenge. I have vague memories of the Blue Whale Challenge from an old group conversation on WhatsApp, but I didn’t pay any attention to it then, so it was interesting to watch this urban legend spread and develop in real time this past spring. I wonder, will the Momo Challenge be a bit of internet ephemera that people will forget ever existed, or will it eventually resurface and take on a life of its own?

By the way, maybe this is just me being weird, but I think Momo is actually kind of cute.

Performative Environmentalism

Sustainability vs the Mason Jar Aesthetic
https://thebibliosphere.tumblr.com/post/175923334416/sustainability-vs-the-mason-jar-aesthetic-joy-on

I guess the point of this lengthy ramble is a complaint that the aesthetic of sustainability is actually more popular than actual ethical sustainable practices. Too many people are concerned with looking like they care, but don’t actually want to get into the nuance of things. And I get it, I do. It’s nice to feel like you’re doing something good. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’re taking responsibility for their time on this earth and being the best version of themselves?

But it has to require thought, and method, and looking beyond the narrow scope of your own four walls (metaphorical or otherwise) and what that one person on YouTube said, while merely swapping one form of consumerism for another because it looks and feels ethical, but not actually exacting any kind of global change.

And that’s the difference between using a mason jar to drink out of, and the Mason Jar Aesthetic. Being aware of your impact on the earth and doing what you can within your limits and means (and respecting the means of others), vs wanting to be seen as such. And it’s an important distinction and one that requires self reflection and a great deal more thought than buying into an aesthetic.

This is some good writing.

Here is a true story, which I promise is related.

In the Spring 2018 semester I taught an upper-level seminar about the intersections between culture and the environment. I set up the course to examine the main issues involved from multiple angles, but the conclusion of all of the scholars and analysts we read was more or less the same: An overwhelming majority of people around the world are extremely concerned about environmental issues and are strongly in favor of “greener” public policy. Unfortunately, the reason these desires are not accurately represented in the policy enacted by many governments is because the laws that direct what these governments can do and how they can do it were written in historical eras with vastly different concerns than our own, and it is not in the interests of the people who are already in power to change these laws. (The Electoral College system in the United States is a representative example of what I’m talking about.) Therefore, before we can change public policy, we need to reform the laws that shape the scope of our national governments.

For fourteen weeks, in class after class after class, we talked about how local governments, media producers, citizens’ groups, and individual people are already quite environmentally conscious, and we also talked about why policy regulating the vast majority of pollution and resource management needs to be enacted at the national level. Individual actions regarding the environment are important and meaningful, of course, but the harmful excesses of global neoliberal capitalism are larger than any one person can combat on their own.

So, at the end of the semester, I got a course evaluation (which is basically a standardized form that students can use to give the university feedback about a class and its professor) from a student who wrote, in all caps: THE PROFESSOR PRINTS OUT THE WEEKLY QUIZZES ON PAPER, THIS IS VERY WASTEFUL AND DISRESPECTFUL TO THE ENVIRONMENT.

……………

On a completely unrelated note, I’m really interested in what this writer is doing with her Patreon.

“Patreon” is one of the words I’ve muted on Twitter because I’m uncomfortable with the growing trend of everything on social media becoming a transaction. This doesn’t mean, however, I’m not still trying to figure out a way that a system like Patreon can work ethically and without commercializing personal relationships.

All that aside, it’s always good to see a writer with a successful Patreon. Based on the small handful of other popular Patreon sites managed by authors that I’ve encountered, the secret to success seems to have something to do with monster romance.

This might be a good thing to keep in mind for the future.

An Informal Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Although I strongly believe in the value of education, I hate how unapologetically elitist the American university system is, and one of my goals as a professor is to resist and undermine this ideology.

This is one of the main reasons I put a lot of energy into a commitment to give every single student in every single one of my classes a grade in the “A” range. The way I see it, different students have different strengths and talents; and, as a professor, it’s my job to figure out what these strengths and talents are and reward them instead of punishing people for failing to meet some sort of arbitrary, idealized standard. I want my students to feel excited about reading and thinking and learning, and I want them to get a sense of accomplishment and empowerment from my classes.

This isn’t always easy, but I’ve gotten much better at it. I managed to pull off giving every student an “A” in the fall semester, and I was almost able to do it in the spring semester as well. (At the end of the spring semester, many students are dead tired and make the decision – as is their right – not to turn in their final project, as they will get a passing grade and graduate regardless.)

One of my life goals (and I understand how small and unimportant I am, so I know this is ambitious) is to make quality higher education at least a little more accessible to anyone who’s interested in pursuing it at any level and for any length of time. In order to make college-level material more accessible, I think you have to account for a range of diversity in your students, their learning styles, and their goals, and you also have to respect their limited levels of time and energy.

I think it’s important to make people feel heard, validated, and appreciated. And let’s be real, given the state of higher education at the moment, it’s also important that students feel like they’re actually getting something in return for the massive amount of money they’re borrowing. If I skew the university’s numbers and averages by accommodating and supporting my students, so be it.

Of course I can’t write any of this in the formal statement I submit along with my tenure file at the beginning of June, but this is the fundamental truth of where I’m coming from.

The First Day of Class

The worst campus interview I ever had was at Michigan State University, which is located in the sad city of East Lansing, Michigan. I was living in Indiana at the time, and I made an executive decision to drive through a snowstorm (instead of flying through a snowstorm) to get there. Despite leaving as early as I possibly could, I still arrived at the scheduled welcome dinner 45 minutes late, and the search committee was not happy with me. Things went downhill from there.

I made it through the three-day dog and pony show of the campus interview by telling myself that there was a comic book store in East Lansing that I would visit once everything was over. MSU has a strong Visual Arts program, and the university library has the largest collection of zines in the United States. Many comic book stores sell zines created by the local community, and I was excited to see what sort of cool things the store right next to MSU would have.

So after a great deal of misery this awful, harrowing process is finished, and the last lunch has filled me with so much anxiety that I spend a good fifteen minutes crying in the restaurant bathroom after everyone else has left, but finally I can go to the comic book store. I get there, and it turns out to be a small box of a room with stained carpet and fluorescent lighting and a few cheap particleboard bookshelves from Target displaying a depressing collection of the most mass-market graphic novels you can think of, like The Complete Far Side and the first five volumes of Naruto.

Thinking that it’s rude to walk in only to then immediately walk out again, I go to one of the shelves and pretend to look at the titles. I start counting in my head, like, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” reasoning that maybe it will be okay to leave after three minutes. I pick up Watchmen or something, and I begin to zone out, replaying some particularly mean thing someone said to me during the interview or some cringeworthy thing I said in response, and then the store clerk comes up to me.

“Do you need any help?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, panicking. “I already have everything in the store.”

She looks at me, and I look at her, and then I suddenly become aware that I smell like I just spent fifteen minutes crying in a restaurant bathroom. I put down the book I’m holding and walk right out the door. I already have everything in the store. I wonder if she still tells people that story sometimes, you know?

Anyway, sometimes I get nervous about the first day of class, but it’s comforting to know that at least it won’t be as awkward as this one exchange I had with a clerk in the comic book store of East Lansing, Michigan.

Video Games and Japan

This semester I’m teaching a class about The Wind Waker! I commissioned the artist Visi Herman (@visicolors on Instagram) to create the image above to use on promotional posters and flyers, which I hope to use to try to nudge the GMU Game Design program into crosslisting my “Video Games and Japan” course in the future. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a syllabus for this semester’s class here:

https://kathrynhemmann.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/japa-370-syllabus-spring-2019.pdf