Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I'm participating in a campus project on student engagement which starts with reading a few chapters from Barkley's book on, yes, student engagement.  I started reading yesterday.

In the introduction, Barkley talks about being a deanling and then going back to teaching and finding that her students were apathetic and what she'd done well in the past (lecture) just didn't work.  I'm not disputing that.

What I want to ask, though, is: are your students apathetic?

I ask because I wouldn't use that word to describe my students at all.  It's not like they necessarily love whatever I'm teaching at a given moment, but they aren't apathetic in the sense of not feeling or caring. 

If I have a conversation with any student, an advisee, a student in a class, a student checking through my groceries, any student, they reveal pretty quickly that there are things they care a lot about.

When I read my first year students' research essays, they reveal that there are things they care a lot about. 

I don't necessarily care about the same things, of course, but that doesn't make them apathetic.  And it doesn't make the things they care about unimportant or useless.

(Of course, I'd like some of them to care more about writing well, or Shakespeare, or whatever, and that's why I'm working on the program.)

We're supposed to read a few chapters and then go in with some prepared questions, and I'm thinking I'll ask one about student apathy.

What about you?  Are your students apathetic?

(Coincidentally, from what I can figure, Barkley was teaching in a community college not far from where, at about the same time, I was enrolled at a community college.  I wasn't apathetic, but I really don't have a sense of the other students in the classes at all.  We didn't do group stuff and they were all night classes with students who were probably working full time, and we weren't very social as I recall.)


  1. Anonymous6:22 AM

    Nope. Hostile sometimes in my required scary class, but not apathetic.

  2. Not apathetic at all. They are often clueless, and at sea in the (foreign) world of the university, but not apathetic.

  3. When it comes to Big Issues (politics and whatnot), I often hear statements like, "People won't ever change," or "Nobody will ever agree," or "That's just a fad" (the latter most often in reference to environmental and sustainability efforts). I'm not sure that this is identical to apathy--they might CARE about these issues, even though they have some kind of fatalistic sense of futility about them--but perhaps that's interpreted as apathy? (I sometimes interpret it as apathy.)

    But I wouldn't blanket-characterize my students as "apathetic." Many are politically disengaged, but some are definitely not, and there's plenty of stuff out there that gets them riled up. Around here, though, I think that the riling is often rather private; unlike at the SLAC that I attended, there is never a glint of a shimmer of rabble-rousing activism (excepting, perhaps, the Pro-Life Birthday Party held by the Catholic student group).

  4. I don't have apathetic students either. Maybe saying you have apathetic students is a "must" when writing a book about student engagement. Who knows? I think the students feed off a professor's enthusiasm, even if they are initially not interested in the subject. Perhaps an apathetic teacher breeds apathetic students, too. Hmm...

  5. I have a wide range of attitudes, just like I have a wide range of abilities. I get quite a few who are just here because it seems like you need to get your ticket punched in order to get a job, and some who are interested in making money ... or their specific major, but couldn't care less about learning how to write/think well or think about literature, and then I have some who are totally excited about everything.

    Now, I get plenty of students who just couldn't be bothered to come to class or do an assignment, but sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between those students and the ones whose lives are currently blowing up for personal/work reasons, or who had planned they would work their way through college and are in the middle of discovering they aren't quite smart enough or have enough time/braincells/free arms to do that successfully.

  6. I've got some (younger) students who just don't seem to know anything -- and I mean ANYTHING -- about the political world. It's not so much that they're apathetic, as they can't figure out how or why they should care. It would be like watching baseball (I'm guessing) when you really don't know the rules and can't tell the teams apart and don't know why the baseball or bases even matter. This leads to the sort of attitude we sometimes get, how politics don't matter, and everyone in Washington is the same.

    OTOH, I have some tremendously involved students, who (for instance) when a student was mistreated recently at my university, took a protest all the way up the line, and more or less forced our administration to back down: these are students who are also involved politically, on the local level, and who are rhetoric and writing majors, one of whom wants to write political speeches, and another of whom wants to go to work solving world hunger after she graduates.

    Then I have a TON of students who are working 40 hours a week on top of taking 19 hours on top of raising 2 or 3 kids -- often as single parents. It's remarkable how involved they are and how much they care despite how hard they have to work, frankly.

    tl;dr No, I don't see much apathy among my students!

  7. You hit the nail on the head, Bardiac: what they care about isn't necessarily what we care about, but that doesn't make them apathetic.

  8. Speaking as a recent student taking college courses, I didn't see much apathy on part of fellow students. People seemed really busy and focused on their goals. However, some of the teachers were definitely what I would call apathetic!

  9. Interesting post--I just carried that book home from campus to read in preparation for a workshop series I'm participating in next week. I haven't started it yet.

    My students aren't apathetic at all. I was struck by the ways many of the commencement speeches (including the main speaker, but mostly the several student speakers) talked about how the most important learning occurred outside of class. I take the point, but I think it's odd that the outside-class-learning got so privileged in both the main and our departmental ceremonies....but I digress a bit, I suppose. In any event, I think students care deeply about many things, and sometimes their caring overlaps with my courses/activities/projects, and sometimes it doesn't.

    (not the same susan as above, fyi)

  10. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Don't let the stupid names in the case studies put you off ("Professor Xavier Breath")...although I admit it's hard.

    My students aren't apathetic as much as they are overly obedient. It's so rare for someone to challenge something I say or ask them to do. I don't know if it's because they're terrified of me, or because they don't give a puff about what we're doing.