"if boredom should prevail": A Few Thoughts on Student Engagement
On February 23, 2023, I was invited to present at keynote at the Fierce Education conference. Below is the text of that keynote.
A very long time ago, I wrote a letter to my students. I was a teacher then, a teacher of creative writing. And every day, I went to class hoping to find another window to open, through which my students might peer into their own imaginative worlds. I was that obnoxious teacher, that “o captain my captain” teacher who took students outside to play hopscotch, to walk hand-in-hand and blindfolded across campus in order to awaken their senses and their sympathies. I sometimes stood on the desk. And I was very very certain that the only way into education was through the heart, the imagination, and a clearer, deeper, sometimes painful but always eventually joyful understanding of the self.
I asked my students to engage with me in an epistolary relationship. They would write letters to me—quite literally starting with “Dear Sean”—and I would write letters back; but often, my letters would be to the whole class, and I would stand at the front of the room, holding the typed letter in front of me, my voice quavering a little like it is now, and read to them.
And because I thought I was probably pretty boring, I offered them crayons and paper so they could doodle while I spoke.
If I could have offered you crayons today, I would have. But I certainly encourage you to doodle regardless. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing besides listening right now. We are never fully attentive online—there are emails coming in and messages from our families landing like small birds on our desktops. But I’d encourage you, if you can, to put those messages away, take out a pencil or a pen and some paper—and if you have crayons nearby, bless you—and draw faces or mountains or spirals or trees, or whatever makes it easier for your fingers to listen.
Don’t worry about missing anything. You’ll hear whatever your mind deems important.
So, I was saying that a very long time ago, I wrote a letter to my students. And in that letter, I told a story, which I’ll tell you now.
The story took place in a Starbucks. A child and his father had come in while I was sitting at a table trying to think about what to write, and the boy couldn’t stop moving, so he caught my attention. His father asked him to settle down, asked him what he wanted to order, and the boy was too distracted to answer. He looked into the pastry case, and then he scooted over to the juice boxes, and then he was picking up thermoses and mugs and all the paraphernalia associated with coffee and with being a loyal Starbucks customer.
He never did tell his father what he wanted, and the man ordered for himself. When the boy realized he had missed his chance to get something—a hot chocolate maybe, or a cookie, or a cup full of whipped cream—he started to cry. But not just cry, he started to speak.
And as his dad took his hand and dragged him out of the coffee shop, the boy said over and over again: “I have something I want to say.” “I have something I want to say.”
Now, in the context of the creative writing class I was teaching at the time, the idea of having something to say had clear implications. We all have something we want to say. We all have an idea about the world, a memory that needs to be shared, a sense of an experience we had once that feels important to voice. What we want to say is entirely and 100% unique to each person, each speaker, and sometimes to each circumstance.
We’ll never know what people want to say unless we find entirely and 100% unique ways to listen.
As I went to write this keynote, I thought: what do I want to say?
I’m supposed to speak to the idea of engaging students across all learning platforms. But I don’t understand what’s meant by a learning platform. An LMS? Social media? A classroom? A Zoom video? And if these are what we mean by learning platforms, then this—this square that I’m in right now, these slides I’m sharing—this is a learning platform too.
Which begs the question: am I engaging? Am I engaging you? Or are you answering an email, responding to a text? Or maybe you’ve walked away from the screen choosing instead to get a snack.
If any of those are the case, then the best I can hope for is that my voice carries. Or maybe that’s not the best I can hope for. Maybe the best I can hope for is that you’ve found something, wherever you are, that matters to you in this moment and that has you rapt with encounter.
This is the odd thing about engagement. As I sit here writing this, days before I’m to take the stage, days before any of you will show up to listen or not listen or listen a little anyway, I have to find something to say that matters. Or that matters enough. Enough that you will maybe end the day remembering something I said.
Because you count on a keynote to mean something. Just as students count on teachers to mean something. To say something that matters to them.
We go back and forth across the world with each other, now more than ever before we are connected across boundaries of time and location, lines of heritage and culture. We live in a time as miraculous as it is in peril.
Maybe you thought I would offer tips and tricks for getting students to put down their phones, or to show up on time, or to stop asking for extensions on their assignments because, you know what, the trauma of this world is just too much to meet a deadline.
And instead, I’m offering you crayons. Doodling. An invitation to distraction that I once offered my students so they wouldn’t have to suffer through every word I said, but could pick up, out the side of their ears, the things that might matter to them.
In a recent, rather sad article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano reports on teachers’ consternation about the current state of student engagement in their educations. She writes: “Everyone keeps telling professors to ‘meet students where they are’ — even if it takes more time and effort… Increasingly, though, professors aren’t so sure that this level of flexibility is working.” And she goes on to report that teachers are beginning to frame students' need for flexibility as a kind of entitlement, and that, essentially, something has to give.
I say this article is sad because, as I read it, I felt the magnetic pull of the teacher-student divide, the quiet war that takes place every day in classrooms everywhere over who knows education and learning better: teachers or students. Supiano writes “ Evidence suggests that stricter policies are correlated with better attendance, and absences negatively correlate with grades.” These correlations didn’t need research to be proven: discipline someone to be where you want them, and they’ll show up; lower their grade if they are absent, and absences will mean a lower GPA.
But these suppositions are echoed by educators throughout the article—some who have, in other situations, advocated for ungrading as a practice, for including students in the development of syllabi and rubrics. Normally progressive educators with liberatory pedagogies are getting exhausted.
The article weighs decidedly upon the role of the instructor to ensure that education happens. That weight is, in fact, an important point the article makes, even as subtext: teachers carry a burden students don’t. They are charged with ensuring that every, or almost every, student under their care learns what they need to learn. That’s a systemic expectation, and it can cause systemic distress.
As systemic, though, are the expectations that students will show up for learning when and where it’s being delivered; that they will present when assigned; that they will cite sources exactly as mandated; that they will fit their work into the grill of a rubric; that they will provide doctors’ notes when sick, and death certificates when their grandmother dies. And that they will do this even when they’re hungry, even when they’re homeless, even when they’re dealing with abuse and alienation, or when they have just paid too much attention to the news.
Too often, education assumes students are guilty until proven exceptional; they are all failing, until they pass.
I do have something I want to say. And it’s exactly about learning platforms and engaging students, and it’s mostly a request: To move away from thinking about platforms and instead think about students. Maybe students are the most important platform for learning. Maybe it’s their experiences that are the most important text books. Maybe a world full of climate crises and campus shootings is enough reason to rethink what we want from them, what we expect from them.
Maybe what we once learned in school isn’t what they need to learn at all. Maybe the canons are wrong and maybe calculus is wrong. History already has learned that it’s wrong, and so has psychology, so why not the rest? Why not our pedagogies? Why not our evidence-based approaches?
How have any of these prepared us for the world we live in? For the world our students are already inheriting?
While advocates for trauma-informed pedagogy tell us that students need structure, and while there are studies that show the stricter we are, the more attentive students become, I want to go the opposite direction… Not away from structure, exactly, but toward the security of possibility. Toward the idea that education might point to something we don’t yet know, even for those of us who seem already to know, those of us who control its narrative.
Because when we make rules of engagement, we also create the circumstances for silencing voices. Students have something they want to say, and if we insist that they must say it at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain way—as a father to his son in the coffee shop—many of those students will balk, choked by the regulations we think we’ve put into place to enable them.
Here’s the thing: I was an instructional designer for the better part of a decade, off and on. And I’ve taught online almost exclusively since I earned my M.A. I have struggled to teach through the screen, to reach students where they are, to understand what it is that brings them to the keyboard, what will make this class interesting when other classes have failed at that. I have reinvented the way discussions work, I have never given grades through the whole of my two decades of teaching, I have been vulnerable with students, I have let them write their own assignments. And I have spoken to audiences of educators for the last ten years.
In all that time, I have never found a solution that works that forces engagement. And there’s a simple reason for that. We cannot entice students to learn precisely because they already want to. We don’t need to light a fire where one’s already burning. All we need to do is stoke that fire, and not let it go out.
bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress that: “The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere.”
What that takes is imagination. What that takes is a willingness to trust that students are already there, waiting to hear us, and all we need to do is listen. Maxine Greene—an arts educator and educational philosopher—encourages us to provoke students through “cognitive adventuring and inquiry” rather than “‘authentic’ assessment,” and she grounds her philosophy in a “battle against disengagement” that requires teachers to make tangible, palpable, and immediate the ideas for which curricula are meant to instill mastery.
But mastery, Greene might say, is a secondary outcome at best; engagement in ideas, surfacing up through them to discover the perspective from above—that is the true purpose of education.
Education is not meant to make us masters; education is meant to liberate us from the very notion of mastery, seeking instead open inquiry and the imagination. We need to ask, not know; we need to wonder why, not foreclose on curiosity.
I used to say to my students: Do not learn from me, learn from yourselves. Use your voices to find your way in the world. Education is like echolocation: it’s only useful when it bounces back off the world to give you a sense of where you are.
A lot of folks will say, yep yep, you taught Creative Writing. Sure all this stuff-and-nonsense works there, but it doesn’t work for other fields, it doesn't work for the hard sciences.
But really, this is not just true of the humanities. The imagination and the idea of encounter is just as present in mathematics. Is there anything more joyful than a square root? Is there anything more inherently wonderful than twelve times twelve is a hundred and forty-four? The Pythagorean Theorem? And it’s true of medicine, too, and the marvel of the human kidney, the dazzling secret of reproduction, the kindling spark of chemical ideas flying like lightning across the brain. It’s true of physics, of course, a whole field founded upon the imagination and possibility.
Greene wrote that “knowing ‘about,’ even in the most formal academic manner, is entirely different from constituting an [idea] imaginatively and entering it perceptively, affectively, and cognitively.” For Greene, to know is to embody, to put onto oneself and around oneself and through oneself not the idea alone, but the idea as it enters the world. Learning happens through significant encounter.
And sometimes, all that takes is crayon on paper.
It feels shortsighted of us to worry that students we perceive as disengaged can only be engaged through strict policies, structured class time and assignments and due dates. It feels like we’re paying more attention than we should to the obvious constructions of education, and not to the undertones and rhythms of learning, of encounter.
If we want to engage students, we don’t need to mandate that engagement, or try to trick them into it. All we need to do is find those pathways—regardless of platform—that will release our students’ imaginative capacity and help them see that knowledge is ecstatic.