The back of the classroom

I invited the faculty member who inspired me to talk about aliens to sit in on the class. Her reaction:

That was a fun class to sit in on–thank you for the invitation! I learned alot, and so must they have. You got some lively conversation going. Seems like the people who actually care sit towards the front.  From the back row where I sat, there were many students with computers open just surfing the web, writing papers for other classes, or messing with their phones. If that were my kid and my tuition dollars, I would have a few choice things to say to her/him.  Why do they even bother to attend–warm place to sit and free wifi?  How can you stand it?–have you ever surveyed to find out why they bother?  Arrrggghhh–you have my empathy

Back of the class.jpg
This is an important mystery. Some students at the back text me asking me to put a stop to the distracting behavior of other students (that’s hard – I can’t see who it is. Why don’t the texting students just move to the empty space at the front?). I have been for a walk up the back several times, and it really is the badlands. The students up there don’t even care that I see them doing something else. Mind you, it is not as bad as some other classes. One faculty member saw a student watching porn at the back of his class.
I do wonder why these students bother turning up. I take a few marks for attendance – are they that desperate? Or do they think something percolates in, even when they are not listening? Lots of regular attendees do poorly on my tests. I assume they are the ones sitting there not paying attention. One hypothesis which was put to me tonight is that they like the soothing tones of my New Zealand accent. Groupies? Seems unlikely.
But my colleague has a good point: as a parent about to shift money from my retirement fund to my kids’ college education, I would be outraged if my kids go to class and ignore it. 
How best to ask these students why they bother coming (and take a seat from from someone who could not get on the course)?  Imagine the questionnaire. Do you attend and pay no attention because (a) Andrew has a sexy accent, (b) it is a warm place with wifi (c) I want my parents to feel they are getting their money’s worth (d) masochism: college education is something to endure.

5 thoughts on “The back of the classroom


    I’m not a fan of the Australian accent but all New Zealanders I’ve met (the others were rugby players, coincidentally) do have good accents.

    The lack of dialogue or discussion is missing in my courses too, even the higher level political science classes. Apathy prevails. I think we discussed over lunch about technology and its negative effects on civility. I do remember that I could never connect to wifi in the Hammond classroom because I didn’t have the engineering authentication. I’m not sure how others dealt with that and if that’s part of the change.

    I spoke to a former classmate, one of your former students, last semester about your class. His response was that he had learned nothing and that it was a waste of time. I became visibly annoyed and essentially told him to piss off. Perhaps my desires are not so provincial.

  2. Andrew Read

    Matthew – I am glad you are still out there.

    The apathy issue really bothers me. My only comfort is that colleagues report it is everywhere, which suggests it is not just me.

    More bothersome, your report of someone who thought the class was a waste of time. That is not the consensus view in the SRTEs, but more importantly, I also think that it is too early for students to know. I’d really like to know what they think after five years in the real world.

    My theory is that it is not the technology. It is that most students have it too easy. Students like you, that had to overcome a lot to get here, care. Among the privileged, there are also some with intellectual curiosity and ambition – and they make the most of it too. But many apparently simply don’t care because they don’t need to and haven’t ever been shown the value and rewards of intellectual discovery. I try my best…


    It’s hard for me to speak for everyone else but my hypothesis is that going to class is the norm, regardless if you’re learning or not. I know countless students that go to other classes and play games on their phone. Why still go? They have nothing else better to do and this is college so you go to class. Also attendance points and quiz points are a plus.
    I think it really comes down to how the student is doing in the class. If the student is sitting comfortably then those students are more inclined not to pay attention. This class also is not a spit back information type class so no one really takes hard notes. I think that is a big factor in students not paying attention. The lecture part of the test is still very objective (in my opinion) so paying attention isn’t really that valuable for some people.
    As your colleague notice some students were doing other work in class. That also has a lot to do with the fact that this is not a spit back information class, which again = no notes. Most students look at classes like this as a study hall. It kind of forces you to do other work, especially if your going to sit there whole hour and a half and not take notes, you might as well get some other work done. And plus again the attendance points for just being there.
    I know this is really bad but to answer the question about wasting tuition money, some students don’t look at it as wasting money if you’re getting a good grade in the class. This society is all about labels and whom you know. At the end of the day what really matters is the grade because that’s what everyone cares about, especially if your applying to graduate school. I wish it was more about you as an individual and what you learned but America doesn’t value you things like that. Graduate schools want to see that you were at the top and you were involved. I don’t think you can get away with getting a C in a class but explaining on the application but I really learned a lot. Then why didn’t you get an A would be the question from the selective committee.
    My Comm 110 Media and Democracy (taught by Michael Elavsky) that I took last semester is like your class but a lot harder. Its one of the hardest classes I have ever taken at Penn State and he didn’t care that it was only a 100 level class. I learned so much in that class and managed to get a B. I haven’t felt so proud of myself but if I had not gotten less than a B it wouldn’t have been worth it to me. A C on my transcript doesn’t look good when applying to law school, which is what I want to do when I graduate. Grades also equal better scholarships, financial aid, private loans and deduction on car insurance. Again, it is what society cares about. It doesn’t matter about what I learned in this class if I didn’t get an A or B in it.
    My opinion come from what I have seen in my three years of college. I have spoken with students applying to graduate school and other upperclassman. I think if we had more classes like yours, Sam Richards and Michael Elavsky people would learn how to appreciate it more and see the value in them. But as long as we remain a society that wants to see only numbers you will continue to see the students that don’t pay attention in your type of class. So if I had to pick I would say d. college is something to endure.


    I feel that the academic environment has jaded me. I held off on coming to college until I was 24. I had done poorly in high school and this worried me.My understanding of college was that it was face passed and required higher levels of application. I have been at Penn State for two years now and will graduate next fall. I can honestly say that I feel that I am merely spending money and time to get a piece of paper rather than learning.

    What excited me about the prospect of college was to be surrounded by people eager to learn new things and to have meaningful discussions on topics that I had an interest in. Sometimes this happens, but most of the time it does not.

    I can honestly say I love the class. I love being challenged to think and research topics. I like that I am not forced to listen to a lecture where I must learn a list of terms only to regurgitate them a few weeks later and brain dump it all.

    So why is my attendance so poor? Well for starters I get there usually a few minutes after class starts and I am forced into the back. While there are seats towards the front they tend to be in the middle. I hate trying to crawl over people in the middle of a lecture so I just find the closest seat I can. Every time I have sat somewhere other than the front row I have had some kind of distraction present.

    The last class I was in I had to listen to four girls talk about stretchy pants and how great they where over sweatpants. While I enjoy a good debate I do prefer something with a bit more substance.

    So between the stretchy pants debate of 2012, the apparent fact that all college students are deaf and must keep their music as loud as they can even during lecture, The horse race addicted gambler, the insistent vibrating phones, and all the FaceBook zombies I cannot focus on anything relevant to the actual course.

    Now why not address these issues? Well I have in other classes from pointing it out to professors to actually letting students know they are being rude. All of this doesn’t seem to work as I am sure you have noticed. For some reason it seems people can’t seem to understand or just don’t care that they are distracting.

    I find it easier just to read what’s posted online and study in my office where it is quiet. I find it sad that our future is in the hands of people that have such a great opportunity and they instead waste it.

    College could be such a wealth of knowledge if people actually cared enough. I won’t touch on actual classes as I feel that this also feeds into a student’s lack of interest, but I will say that I hope this class continues on as it was incredible to see a scientist actually try to teach us how to think not what to think. That is the basis for all science and is something that has been lost in traditional science classes.

    I hope my post was not too overtly agitated, but I feel like I wasted a semester reading online studies to supplement what should have been an amazing environment.


    I do not know if class attendance and degree of attention has anything to do with this, but after the grades for the last blog period were posted two students in class sent out emails asking for help for the next blog period because they could not possibly understand how they were doing so poorly.

    Being that I was curious as to what exactly they needed help with, I offered my help to both students, told them to read over my blog and get back to me, at which time I would read their blogs and offer feedback. Still, to this day, I have never received another email from either student.

    Perhaps they received help from somewhere else, but I suspect really it is just about the simple fact that putting forth effort is something that today’s college generation is not willing to do.

    I think this is why college students come to class, because they want to be able to say they put forth the effort – even when in reality they did not.

    I know many people will be angry at my judgement, but I am tired of listening to people complain about how hard it is to find time to get things done when I personally have to juggle my schedule, my husbands schedule, my child’s schedule, take care of my household responsibilities, and work and still maintain a high GPA with little difficulties. (I know, I know, I chose this life – my point is, MOST of you have it easy).

    Also, I think a huge lack of respect for officials and seniority is rampant in today’s generation of youth, which contributes a lot to people’s ability to sit in class but ignore their professors.


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