Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning From Bob

A while ago, Becko wrote a provocative post about the need to learn "from the right students". We all know who the wrong student is, by the way - the one who is hostile, disruptive, outraged - you know the type. We all hope on the first day that we don't spot this student sitting here, glaring at us. As Becko rightly put it:

We will all spend stressful and sleepless nights worrying over this student. Worse, I suggest, we think to change our teaching based on his behavior...Allow me to suggest that we should not learn from this student.

As I noted in the comments to her post, I think Becko is right to point out that we spend way too much time thinking about this student -- I called him "Bob" just to give him a name -- to the detriment of other students who may not only need our help, but who may actually want (and thus be open to) that help. I'm also convinced that focusing on Bob also leads to lousy pedagogical behavior. Still, whereas Becko thinks there's nothing to be learned from Bob, I do think there are some things that we can learn from him, or at least that we can teach ourselves we unfortunately have Bob around every MWF or TuTh for sixteen weeks. I'm not saying that I've mastered the Bob Experience - I haven't, as this would require a sage-like meditative capacity that I don't possess -- but I have some basic ideas. I'll talk a bit about my own experiences with Bob below, and then mention some brief observations about what to do when Bob is (unfortunately) around.

To start off, in my experience, I've found that there are actually two types of Bob (a "Tale of Two Bobs" as it were). The two are:

a) Philosophical Bob: this character populates upper divisional philosophy courses and isn't really all that interested in philosophy per se, but is rather interested in being the smartest person in the room, being a domineering presence, and so on.

b) Gen Ed Bob: this character is far worse than Philosophical Bob. Gen Ed Bob doesn't really like school all that much, is likely none too happy about having to be in college and is particularly upset about being forced to take this general education course with you (typically ethics for me, since this is part of the gen ed curriculum at my school). Gen Ed Bob doesn't care about being or looking smart, but is more focused on being dismissive, disruptive, and generally aggressive and hostile. Gen Ed Bob likes attention and is simply looking to disrupt the class.

I'm going to ignore Philosophical Bob and focus on Gen Ed Bob, since the latter Bob is a far more destructive and annoying character (more frequently encountered as well). I'll come back to Philosophical Bob in a different post, because I think the problem is different with him, and because I think the solution to the Philosophical Bob problem (which is not a small one, and I think this problem plays a role in the gender problems we have in philosophy) is different as well. So let's focus on Gen Ed Bob in this post, because when I think of Becko's post about who not to learn from, I definitely think of Gen Ed Bob primarily, because he drives me nuts (and yes, Bob is almost always a he) and because I'm always a lousy teacher when Bob is around.

So after many years of teaching, why does Gen Ed Bob drive me nuts? Honestly, I find myself focusing on him not just out of class, but in class. I think about him in the car on the way to school, and on the way home as I "decompress." In class, as I teach, I find myself perpetually "checking up" on him to see what he is up to out of the corner of my eye. As my mouth keeps running on and on about Kant, in my head I'm trying to figure out "is there a way to swing GE Bob to my side today?" All day long I'm trying to figure out how to "crack" Gen Ed Bob's psyche. There must be some strategy that I've overlooked, right? Everyone responds to something. What have I missed? What makes GE Bob tick? Nothing works, and I simply get more frustrated as time goes by.

I tend to strongly agree with Becko that this whole enterprise is noble, but mostly a massive waste of time because Bob is not interested in being a actual member of this course. So it's not all that surprising that nothing works. Moreover, excessive Bob focus on my part is not very good or effective pedagogy because when I engage in it I forget about the rest of my classroom. The other students in the room become innocent pedagogical bystanders on the periphery of the unseen and unhealthy relationship that Bob and I have formed, and which has poisoned the room.

At the same time, it is entirely understandable that we as teachers focus so much on Bob. Bob is like corrosive acid on one's pedagogy. Quite simply - I just can't teach well when he is around. When he's absent the class goes better, because I am better. Why? Well, part of my teaching includes being (or at least trying to be) funny. But I'm not funny when Bob is there because I don't feel funny when he's present. I also find myself most effective in the classroom when I feel a personal connection with the students in the room. When I'm Bob-focused, however, I feel impersonal. So that mood envelops my teaching and I find it difficult to relate to the other students. Last (but not least) I teach best when I am in a flow - when I'm spontaneously thinking about the material, trying to to relate points, and trying to see who doesn't understand what and why. But if I am constantly conscious of Bob and trying to think about what to say to get him "to my side," or if I'm trying to figure out if some snickering aside he has made is causing a disruption at the side of the room, I cannot immerse myself in the subject. I lose "flow" when Bob is there because I'm trying to do two things at once - teach and keep an eye on him while trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead.

Recognizing that Bob has these larger-scale pedagogical effects on me has led me to believe that what we can learn from Bob is how to ignore Bob while at the same time engaging in good effective teaching. How? In my view, we need to redirect our obsession with Bob towards "turning" a small handful of non-talkative students into engaged learners. Bob is hopeless, but those few shy students are not. You know those students (often women, in philosophy courses). I say: completely write Bob off and devote your time to getting them involved. Go home and obsess about them. Come up with strategies. Figure out what makes them tick. What a far, far better use of your time.

In the end, if we can succeed at doing this - turning some of the shy or non-confident students into active learners -- we kill two birds with one stone. We create a better courses for the rest of the students and neutralize Bob. After all, Gen Ed Bob thrives in a classroom environment in which he perceives a general mood of indifference to the class and to the material. Once that classroom environment shifts to one of interest - and it only takes a few students to be "turned" for this to happen! -- Bob almost always checks out and quietly bides his time until the end of the semester. After all, Bob doesn't go against the crowd. He's a bit of a coward. Who knows. Maybe Bob will decide to turn himself around too (not likely).

Now, I'm not saying that this is easy to do, because it is not. However, each of us surely needs to get better at this. Not just for our own psychological health (because you know those semesters can be very trying) but also for the good of the other students in the room.

Anyone have any battle-tested strategies you'd like to share? We all have our Bobs, after all.


  1. I don't have a strategy to offer, but I do have a tale of two Bobs of my own that might be worth sharing. One Bob matched your description of Gen Ed Bob almost perfectly. He didn't see any point in philosophy and just wanted to be disruptive in class. I never solved the problem, but I did end up doing my best to ignore him and focus instead on the other students in the class. (The point of this story is basically to show that I know what a Bob is.)

    The second story is about a 'false Bob.' This guy made my life miserable, challenging me every class to convince him that what we were discussing was worth bothering with. I did my best, but it clearly wasn't doing any good. Then he signed up for another course with me. And this time he was great: really attentive, wrote good papers, asked good questions, etc. As far as I can tell, I had actually won him over by the end of the first course without realizing it. Or maybe he just grew up. I don't know. But the point of this story is that not every Bob is irredeemable. Or else that some seeming Bobs are really just trying to get to grips with a very unfamiliar kind of activity.

  2. DR -

    Point taken on False Bob. I've actually had one or two of them over the years (though they are in the real minority when you total up all of the Bobs). In fact, in my original reply to Becko (on her post on the subject) I noted that when we ignore the Bobs, we do need to maintain an openness to a turnaround, as this is always possible.

    One thing does stick out to me about your False Bob story, and which I've thought about myself - when we are challenged to convince students of why philosophy matters, should we take up that challenge? I am often struck by my defensive reaction in such situations, wanting to show and prove that philosophy matters. But afterward I am never satisfied - I almost always feel as if I should not have done it.

    Instead, I wonder whether the situation should be reversed - when a student wants to know why philosophy matters, you ask them why it matters, after all, they are enrolled in the course. Of course, the student can reply (perhaps) and say "it's a gen ed requirement" or something of that sort, but the question can be pushed back: "then why are you at a school with such a requirement?"

    If we are really serious about trying to get students to take charge of their own education, isn't that the first place to start?

  3. Chris -

    Yes, that's a good idea. Most of my least good students would say, I think, that they're at this school because it will help them get a job and/or because it allows them to play sports at a higher level than anywhere else they could have gone. Why we require some of them to take philosophy would be a mystery to them, unless they remember enough to parrot back something I told them on the first day about the value of philosophy. (That sounds cynical, but I'm talking only about the worst students here.)

    But even if they see the point of philosophy generally, perhaps in terms of enhancing critical thinking skills, they still might ask about the point of any particular philosophical question and the point of trying to answer such questions without much gathering of empirical evidence. These are questions worth discussing in class, but I would expect to have to suggest answers myself at some point. There are limits to what the Socratic method can achieve.


  4. It's comforting as a high school philosophy teacher to see the same sort of issues cropping up in post secondary classrooms. I also appreciated the description of flow state and teaching philosophy.


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