Stop Blaming Students for Your Listless Classroom

How the use of games as a teaching methodology has the potential to break the long history of student disengagement in college learning

Creative Commons

September 29, 2014

For the past eight years I have been arguing in this column that the professoriate should pay closer attention to what researchers tell us about how students learn. I’ve also maintained that we should consider a wider variety of approaches to teaching than the ones we inherited from our forebears, and should look more closely at our teaching practices when we encounter problems like distracted and disengaged students, lifeless classroom discussions, or academic dishonesty.

Just about every volley I’ve fired off in those directions has earned at least a few comments from faculty members who believe that we are doing our best in the face of a sluggish and superficial generation.

Stop blaming teachers for the problems with students, runs this argument. Students simply don’t care about learning anymore—and even if they did, they are no longer willing to put in the effort required for real learning.

"Instead of being thrilled by the eager search for truth," laments one senior administrator, "our classes too often sit listless on the bench. … It is not because the lecturer is dull, but because the pupils do not prize the end enough to relish the drudgery required for skill in any great pursuit." A political-science faculty member claims that college has descended to the level of "protected juvenile delinquency." A famous philosopher, in a more melancholy tone, says that students’ college years are mostly "trivial and wasted." A faculty member at Columbia University seems to have given up hope entirely: "I do as little as I can for these dunderheads and save my time for research."

More on the series

If the language in some of those quotes strikes you as old-fashioned, it should. The first one comes from an essay by the president of Harvard University published in 1909. The second is from the eminent political theorist, Judith Shklar, at the beginning of her teaching career in 1951. The third is from a 1921 monograph by the philosopher George Santayana. The final one comes from Ogden Rood, a faculty member who taught at Columbia in the late 19th century.

You will find all of these delightful quotes, and more like them, in Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College, the new book by the Barnard College historian Mark C. Carnes. In it, he sketches the history of the pedagogical approach known as Reacting to the Past, and argues for its potential to break the long history of student disengagement in college learning. I became personally convinced of the power of Reacting as a teaching methodology when I attended the annual Reacting conference in June, and wrote about it in the first column of this three-part series. Last month, in Part 2, I offered a rough outline of the logistics of using a Reacting game in a college course.

This month I want to focus on Minds on Fire, Carnes’s analysis and defense of the idea he pioneered in the mid-1990s in the wake of a history class that, while successful on most traditional measures, seemed lifeless to him. Carnes opens by thoroughly establishing two premises, the first of which stems from the evidence he provides of American higher education’s long history of blaming students for listless courses. The collection of telling quotations begins in the 19th century and runs right up to the present day, concluding with a list of complaints like this one from the comments section of this very publication: "It’s not me, it’s not the subject matter, it’s not the college. It’s a failing on the part of the students."

The problem with all of those critics, Carnes suggests, lies in their flawed assumption that things were ever different. They envision a Golden Age from which we have descended to the present day of apathetic students texting beneath their desks. "Many contemporary critics of higher education similarly posit a Golden Age," Carnes writes, "but no one knows when it was supposed to exist."

The second major premise of Carnes’s argument is an equally arresting one, and equally devastating to those who would argue that today’s students come to college disengaged, apathetic, and unwilling to work. Not so, argues Carnes. They are deeply engaged—just not in the traditional college classroom. By contrast, he suggests, students spend enormous amounts of time and energy devoted to what he calls "subversive play worlds," which encompass everything from competitive drinking games to social-media one-upmanship.

But that, too, Carnes notes, is absolutely nothing new. The history of subversive play worlds in higher education began with the secret debating societies of the 19th century, which college officials tried unsuccessfully to repress. When fraternities and sororities arrived on the scene, administrators longed for the days of debating societies, which at least had an intellectual component to them. As fraternities and sororities blossomed in the late 19th century, so did college football, which retains its prominent place on the scene today—accompanied by games like World of Warcraft, competition for popularity on social media, and an endless new variety of binge-drinking games.

Carnes makes a convincing case that "generations of college students have built and inhabited subversive play worlds that are distinct from the official institutions of higher education." He enjoins us to embrace the deep role-playing methodology of Reacting to the Past, an innovative and exciting teaching strategy that recreates some of the features of students’ subversive play in the classroom but directs them toward the goal of learning complex course material.

He marshalls evidence for the effectiveness of Reacting to the Past from numerous sources—first from his own nearly 20 years of teaching Reacting games in his courses, and then from many of the faculty members who teach the games on more than 300 college campuses.

But because Carnes found himself especially intrigued by the perspective of the students, he set about trying to collect as much evidence from them as possible. In the end, he interviewed more than 90 students, from 30 different campuses, who had taken courses that involved the Reacting games over a four-year period.

Over and over again he heard stories like the one told by Nate Gibson, an undergraduate who played a Reacting game on the French Revolution in a Western-civilization course at Dordt College in the early 2000s. Gibson said that, as the semester drew to a close, his professor foresaw that he would not have enough time to finish the game, and let students know that it would have to finish early. In response, the students proposed that class start 30 minutes early for the remainder of the semester—at 7:30 a.m. The professor agreed, and the game was allowed to run its course.

Recollecting that experience, Gibson recalled the difference between learning in that course and what his peers in other courses were experiencing. As he described to Carnes: "While my friends trudged off to their engineering, theology, philosophy, or business classes with this sense of apathy and frustration, I was rushing off to Western Civ, eager to see how the day’s session would unfold."

Comments like that contrast so sharply with the dire picture we read about today’s students in so many articles on higher education. But as many of us who write about teaching and learning on college campuses would argue, sparking that kind of excitement in the classroom requires faculty members to let go of their nostalgic yearning for the idealized students of the past.

It may also mean letting go of the long-held notion that it’s the professor’s job to stand in front of the room and teach, and that whatever happens out in the cheap seats is really none of our business. The success of Reacting to the Past suggests that, rather than think of ourselves as content delivery vehicles, we faculty may have to reconceive our role as that of an architect or curator of a learning space. That’s exactly what happens when you run a Reacting game in your course. The game requires you as the professor to carefully design and prepare for the course, but once it has begun, you step back and let the students take charge of their learning.

Before I conclude this three-part series on Reacting to the Past, I want to offer a caveat. The transformative power of this particular pedagogy does not strike me as limitless. For one thing, students who participate in Reacting games tend to devote tremendous time and energy to them. The faculty with whom I spoke about these games all agreed that it would be difficult (or even impossible) for students to take more than one or two Reacting-based courses in any given semester.

Second, and more important, Reacting works by inspiring students to compete for victories in their games. I asked both Carnes and a half-dozen Reacting veterans whether the competitive aspect of the games was integral to their operation, and all of them said it was.

I have no quarrel with that. As Carnes points out, competitions are happening in students’ subversive play worlds already, and will follow them all throughout their lives. But while competition might inspire learning in this particular context, it should not have the last word in every classroom context.

Some of the deepest learning we can experience comes when students independently pursue the questions and problems that interest them, as they wander between library stacks, wade through websites, or play around in the laboratory. That kind of independent, self-driven learning won’t find an easy home in a Reacting game, which might make games more appropriate for introductory or intermediate-level classes, where students need more inspiration to embrace the course content. Once they have been hooked, they should have the freedom to explore what interests them on their own, outside of the strictures of a game.

With that caution in mind, I urge faculty readers to explore Reacting to the Past through the consortium website, through the annual conference held at Barnard College each June, and through Minds on Fire, Carnes’s beautifully written apologia for this fascinating and powerful approach to teaching and learning in higher education. If we are willing to open our minds and explore student-centered approaches like Reacting, we might just find that the spark of student engagement we have been searching for in higher education’s mythical past can catch fire in the classrooms of the present.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at <a href="">@LangOnCourse.</a>