A few years ago, I had my so far most demoralizing experience as a teacher of sociology. In an introductory undergraduate theory seminar, I had given my students an extract from Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method to read. I had chosen the usual bits that every undergraduate ought to have read — the same ones I read as a student and the same ones you likely read as a student — the ones that are really foundational to our discipline. I had prepared an, I thought, clear and simple handout, in which short extracts from Durkheim were followed by a number of questions that were meant to clarify key ideas and generate an interesting class discussion. The problem turned out to be that none of the students in my class could make any sense of Durkheim’s words. None at all whatsoever — key founding statements of sociology to my students seemed both unintelligible and rather unappealing. We thus spent the rest of the session parsing the text sentence by sentence, and we never really had time to talk about sociology at all.
Since then, colleagues have often told me about similar experiences they have had, and teaching journals, blogs, and websites these days regularly highlight the challenges involved in using complex texts as teaching materials. In this context, two issues are often highlighted as particularly important. One is the problem of students’ willingness to devote significant amounts of time, effort and attention to the study of complex texts and ideas. The attendant problems are often discussed in terms of ‘student engagement.’ A second frequently discussed problem concerns students’ ability to understand complex texts and ideas in the first place. Here, for instance, ‘new literacies’ shaped around smartphones, new media, and short texts have received much attention. These debates are helpful in the sense that they allow teachers of sociology to reflect on their classroom strategies and develop new, interesting ways of teaching that address the needs of contemporary students. I now frequently ask my students to make use of their smartphones for in-class exercises and discussions, and maybe you do the same.
However, these discussions about students’ engagement and ability are also problematic, in that they obscure the political dimension of the issue. Student engagement, i.e. the extent to which a student devotes time and attention to a particular scholarly text or subject matter, is per se a personal issue, to be addressed by the student in question and her or his teacher. Student ability to understand complex texts or subject matters is per se a personal problem, to be worked on by the student and his or her teacher. When we discuss students’ disengagement and students’ lack of familiarity with long and complex texts, often there is little attention to the ways in which these problems are rooted in fundamental shifts in the operation of universities themselves.
When I took my advanced undergraduate course in sociological theory, on most days the teacher — still one of Britain’s best-known sociologists today — walked into the classroom, sat down, kept quiet, and just waited for students to begin a discussion about the book or article we had been assigned. At the time, this worked. Today, at most universities this is unlikely to work. The reason for this, I believe, is not that students have suddenly become in some sense ‘worse.’ The problem is that universities and the public discourses surrounding academic work now encourage disengagement and divert attention away from the development of students’ ability for analytical and independent thought.
Over the past decade or so, an intense process of commercialization has re-shaped the ways in which universities work and the ways in which politicals, policy makers and scholars discuss academic labor in public. Just as scholarship now is more and more about the generation of economic benefits, for many studying is now less about ‘reading for a degree’ than about ‘getting a degree’ — from students’ perspective the acquisition of a pathway into the labor market and from the perspective of policy makers and academic managers the training of a skilled and useful labor force. The Humboldtian model of the university does not seem to be an inspiration for most contemporary universities anymore. Likewise, the idea that academic education may play a key role in enabling citizens to participate actively in the democratic process equally receives little attention in public debates about the role universities play in public life.
In such a cultural climate, it is unsurprising that students will often seek the most efficient ways of getting a degree and avoid engagement with knowledge whose instrumental value in the pursuit of that degree is unclear.
The ideas I have sketched in this post have been proposed before, in greater length and by more skilled writers. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have entered the academic mainstream, and they do not seem to have a major impact on the debates about teaching that take place within that mainstream. For this reason, it seems worthwhile to repeat and emphasize them whenever possible. As long as universities show students that ‘getting a degree’ is all that matters, teachers will face an uphill battle when it comes to student engagement with the complex forms of knowledge that lie at the heart of scholarly life.