Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Hugo Schwyzer poses a fascinating question:
The mystery to which I refer is this: one of my Western Civ classes, for example, is filled with students who seem tired, uninterested and virtually lifeless. The other is filled with students who laugh at my poor jokes, ask constant questions, and seem to relish being around each other. Both classes are in similar time slots, they get the same lecture, they read the same book, they take similar exams. I leave one class feeling exhausted, and the other walking on air. To a less extreme degree, the same is true with my two Women's History classes.

Classroom chemistry has little to do with student performance. At times, my most enjoyable classes were filled with C students while my quietest and most exasperatingly passive classes were filled with those who did unusually good written work.

The chemistry also seems unrelated to my own effort level. Indeed, sometimes I think I try harder with my "dead" classes, hoping against hope to inspire something beyond blank stares. With the more animated classes, I can relax and enjoy myself more thoroughly, and indeed relax quite a bit.

It also seems unrelated to the weather, the season of the year, the time of day, or whether I am wearing jeans or khakis.

Anyone have any theories about classroom chemistry?
Yes, anyone? This doesn't seem like the sort of thing that you could quantify and measure (although given the propensity of some economists, I wouldn't be surprised if someone had done so). And I've noticed the same phenomenon outside the classroom. Some groups of people (all too rarely, in my experience) just seem to "click," and everyone is excited to converse with each other, prod each other intellectually, etc. But most groups of people (including at Harvard) don't have the same energy when it comes to discussing the world of ideas. Perhaps it is just an instinctive shyness that -- occasionally, and sometimes for mysterious reasons -- is overcome when everyone realizes that no one else in the group is going to roll their eyes or become bored when if someone openly expresses a passionate interest in some intellectual question.


Blogger Dave said...

Given my relatively recent undergraduate experience, I'll pass along my observations of classroom chemistry from the perspective of the student. There are a number of factors that come into play:

1) Comfort levels with public speaking. For better or worse, most high school students never have to speak in class, and, if they do speak, it generally is not in a highly intellectual, abstract manner. Those students, like myself, who felt comfortable speaking aloud would do so. So, if you happen to have a class with at least a couple self-assured students who don't really care what the professor thinks of their oratory, you likely will have an engaged class.

2) Irritation at core requirements. I'm not sure if this is directly applicable to the situation discussed in this post, but it should not surprise anyone that many college students view their time in college as a utility. They go to college with the end in mind, and get restless or irritable when they find themselves in classes that have little to do with their interests or their goals in life. I'm not saying that this is a good thing; it's just the reality that all professors probably have to deal with at one time or another.

3) Intimidation. This is somewhat related to point 1, but there's a subtle distinction. Many people who otherwise feel comfortable in social situations feel intimidated by those they view as 'intellectual' because many people are uncomfortable thinking of themselves as intellectuals. I suspect that this is, in part, why professors and public policy wonks represent a small minority of college-educated adults. Again, students who are not intimidated by intellectuals are likely to feel more comfortable speaking up.

4) Distraction. I've always thought that professors had this Platonic ideal of students wherein the only thing engaging a student's mind is the issue at hand. Nothing, unfortunately, could be further from the truth. Students have all sorts of other concerns on their minds. For many students, college is the first time they are away from their parents, and they find themselves on their own; a lot of my fellow students simply did not know how to manage their daily lives and were continually overwhelmed.

I hope that gives you some idea of reasons why I, or people I knew in college, would seem to be distracted or bored in class. I don't offer these explanations as justifications, just as context and perspective.

Dave Friedman

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The next level of research might be to do a Myers Briggs Type Index analysis of several "dull" and "responsive" classes, and of the teacher. For instance, I am an ENTP, and the NT element makes all the difference in whether someone(s) I deal with are on the same wave length, humorous, give me the benefit of the doubt, "get it," etc., etc. Give it a try. It's easy at a number of places on the Web.


8:42 AM  

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