I’m getting the hang of teaching on-line, but writing that is going to cost me. Bigly. Whenever I get the least bit cocky about my faux-electronic teaching skills, I almost immediately do something exceedingly stupid. My undergraduate Multicultural Education class is filled with bright eyed, smart, engaging young adults. Most of the time. On Tuesday, the proletariat staged a work stoppage. Meaning whenever I posed a question to the 22-person class, no one responded. “I’ll just wait them out,” I thought to myself. Had I not capitulated, I’d still be waiting.
It’s happened once or twice this semester. So I thought about what those class sessions had in common and formed the following hypothesis. If I start class by talking more than a few minutes, they all have the same inner dialogue, “Fine, if you like the sound of your own voice so much, just keep talking for the whole damn 90 minutes.” In medical circles, this is known as “Death By Lecture”.
It didn’t matter that my 30-minute presentation was clear, conceptual, and relevant, cross the 10-minute Rubicon on screen and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount would’ve left his crowd mute.
So I came up with an experiment. I started Thursday’s class without talking at all. At 10:01 a.m. I wrote in our Zoom chat room, “Good morning. I have a hypothesis. When I begin class by speaking for more than a 5-10 minutes, a passive pall descends upon the land.” Sheepish smiles from those with video cameras on spread like wildfire. “So today, instead of talking, I’m going to use this chat room to begin class. I will type fast. I’d like to begin by having you think about the following questions. You successfully graduated high school and earned admission to a well-respected university. To what do you credit your academic success? Why? What constitutes ‘success in school’? It has to be more than just getting good grades doesn’t it? What else should ‘school success’ encompass? Why? All right, ready? I’m going to put you into groups now.”
Then I weaved and bobbed through uber-animated small groups. After awhile, I brought everyone back together and again turned to the chat room. They were clearly digging the fact that I still hadn’t spoken. This time I typed, “Okay, that was excellent, you’ve already confirmed my hypothesis, but let’s extend the experiment. Have your Berliner article in front of you to refer to when discussing these questions. Which outside-of-school factors most impact how well students do or don’t do in school? If outside-of-school factors impact student achievement three times more than in-school factors, how much should the public expect teachers to accomplish in any given school year?” Again, they dove into animated, energized discussions.
An hour into class I ruined everything by breaking my silence. After a mini-lecture, we were nearly out of time. I hurriedly asked a few questions, but was met with another stone-faced work stoppage. Their silence wrapped up the experiment and spoke volumes. I had resuscitated their surliness. What I heard was, “Answer your own damn questions.”