Students switch off to switch on

I see it over and over again – my students showing up to class in the middle of a personal crisis. Granted, I teach freshmen, so perhaps that should be no surprise. The stress and drama of adjusting to university, compounded by a seemingly chaotic world, without boundaries, defined by an amorphously digital existence – these things weigh heavily on my students. Yet, the one source of comfort that seems to work for my students – over and over again – comes in the form of what I like to think of as rest-through-research.

Now, if asked, I’m not sure many students – and I’m certain, even fewer academics – would say that the curiosity driving their research is a comfort. Often curiosity can feel like a plague driving one onwards to uncomfortably long hours stuck in front of a screen or a book. However, for students, what I’ve observed is an ability to reset and rest through curiosity-driven writing and research – when pushed, of course.

The best ways to engage students' excitability productively is to remove their phones. 

Millennials and Gen Z alike are notorious in the classroom for their outwardly strange mix of apathy and excitability. Oddly enough, one of the best ways to engage both productively is to remove their phones and allow them to discover topics that incite their curiosity. Locating this curiosity is the best way to distract them from the heavy burdens they bring into the classroom. It’s not always possible, but sometimes it is. When students are given the opportunity to become an expert on a topic they care about, it seems to provide an emotional rest-through-rigour. Sadly, I’ve found that helping them achieve this is only possible in the absence of their mobile phones.

My experience in this field is limited to two subjects: American Poetry and Composition. Composition is an essential part of a university experience, yes, but if basic composition exercises can be combined with the kind of intense writing experiences that distract, interest, engage, and absorb students, it gives them time to step outside their own troubles. This is why I push my students to always choose a research topic in which they are deeply interested – which is often the most difficult part of the whole process! I give them ample time to write in class, pushing their writing speed and concentration by timed writing sessions in which they practice a particular method that we have just learned on the topic they’re researching. And the results? Increased energy. Questions. Post-writing chatter with classmates. Relief. A healthy fatigue.

Intellectual rigour in itself becomes an emotional rest for students. Preoccupation with challenging concepts provide an escape from students so often tied to their mobile apps, which are created with the sole purpose of forming addictions. The New York Times and the Guardian are rife with articles about how carefully thousands of emotional engineers design apps to tap into our reward systems, and – all too often – our loneliness, fears, and disconnection from the world, just to make money. Escape into even a single peer-reviewed journal can be exhausting in class, because attention spans are short and discomfort with concentration is quick to arise. But it is that very discomfort that I find to be most helpful for my students, that brings out the best in them – a personal best that is not, perhaps, a genius thought, but a preoccupation with intellectual discovery.

Sadly, this preoccupation seems only possible when my students are off-screen. I have an incredibly strict no-phone policy in our classroom. I ask my students, as if they are 5 years old, to pull out their phones, turn them off in front of me, and place them in their bags. I do the same myself. If I hear ringing, their name goes on the board and they are marked absent. I firmly believe that at this point, they gain almost nothing from the significant use of technology in the classroom. They are already distant enough from their fellow students, and – sure enough – during the breaks some of them avoid eye contact, choosing instead to focus on their phones.

This, however, is not the case for the near three hours we are in class together, where I give them a break – albeit forced – from so many of the sources of their weariness. I’ve seen their eyes light up, their backs straighten, their voices rise while reading a poem about an old lady munching plums, an essay on cynicism, a love song in Harlem, an interview about Gen Y fragility. Whether we’re in my poetry class or my composition class, I’ve found students to come in exhausted from their lives, glued to their phones, finger-pads growing calloused from the tip-tapping on the virtual keyboard, and within a few hours see their eyes grow more alert, even if they are yawning and exhausted, buoyed by an intellectual distraction not found on Reddit or Instagram.

Of course, this rest-through-research doesn’t happen every time – all too often, the moment students leave the classroom, their own curiosity fails to provide sufficient comfort for them, and they relapse into plagiarism, apathy, or their own crises. But occasionally I see truly happy students, students that have found a new love in that sweet exploration, and indeed that display of knowledge, that burst of confidence not based on the affirmations of a friend or acquaintance via text, but a deeper sense of accomplishment. This feeling of accomplishment and knowledge gained from their own research serves as a rest for them. And watching their eyes brighten when they finally come to their own research-based conclusion, or when a poem finally “clicks” with them? That is the teacher’s moment of rest.


Author: Hannah Hanover

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