Blog Post

On Teaching The Lesser Percent

I do not teach in a first-rate university, and I do not even have a full-time job.  I am a "part-timer" or "adjunct" in two local institutions of higher education, a state university and a community college.  I make under $40,000/year—quite a bit under if I don't get a full schedule of classes every semester—but I am absolutely committed to giving my students the best education I can give them.  The problem is, that I have to fight them every inch of the way, not because of my false beliefs, but because of theirs.

Of course they are all aware that the economy is stacked against them, and they are all worried all the time about what kinds of jobs they will find when they graduate.  They believe, in some cloudy sort of way, that a college degree is the ticket to a guaranteed future.  In the meantime, most of them hold down time-consuming jobs doing everything from waiting on customers in a tire store to waiting on tables to assisting with patient care in nursing homes.  They think that once they get that degree they will be able to leave these jobs behind and become teachers, social workers, businessmen.  But in the now, they are giving up so much time to the jobs they have that they treat their academic work as an interfering time clock in thier lives: show up as required; do the minimum; ignore everything that is not deadlined and graded.

I have been trying to get them to use computers to extend class discussion, through online forums and wikis, and they won't do it.  On a recent writing assignment I received four papers out of forty on the topic "The Internet is Making Us Stupid."  One young man is trying now to write a paper arguing that the use of text messaging will eventually cause people to be unable to speak.  He believes this.  I tell them over and over that technology is not inherently good or evil, it is a tool, and it is the tool of thier future, but they glower and say that social media are destroying the reality of relationships.

I don't know who has been telling them all this stuff.  Surely they didn't think it up for themselves.  I have tried a variety of ways to jump-start them, but generally my success rate is about zero.  Maybe I am a lousy teacher, but i don't think so.  I think I am fighting an environment in which the advantages of mastery are not visible to people whose expectations for their lives are not really very high.  It is quite one thing toi be eighteen and a student at a first-rate university, where you can see digital media as  means of entry into the world, and quite another to be eighteen and in a, shall we say, lesser percent institution, where all you want to learn is how to survive, in the most limited terms.




As you mention, your students arrived with this mind set and it's reinforced in other classes and in their personal lives. It sounds like you're doing the best you can to expose them to other ways of thinking.

One thing I do in my writing class is stage an impromptu debate. I divide the class in half and give them two resolutions. (They present the arguments, then rebut them. Everyone has to participate.) One of the resolutions students have to argue is "Composition and rhetoric should be required of all college students." The students not participating in the debate vote for the side they think did the most convincing job.

This year, the side arguing for the resolution won; last year, the other side won.

Next year, I think I'm going have them debate "The digital age is making us smarter."

Do you think something like that might work in your class? Maybe not this semester; your students seem quite determined to oppose your efforts to make them at least see the other side.

Good luck, Margaret, and keep us posted about how things go. I'm especially interested in learning about strategies that end up working well for you.






Thanks for the suggestion.  I think it's a good one, and one I probably will try next semester if I run into the same obtuseness.  I get discouraged sometimes, and it's helpful to know that people out there think my efforts are worth it!




Thanks for your reply and for the sympathy.  I am teaching a course called "Writing Arguments" (It's actually advanced composition), and I do insist that when they argue a position they take account of the other side, but with the technology issue it's hard because I really think a lot of them have been told by previous teachers that their natural environment is corrupting them: it makes them stupid; they can't have normal human relationships; having information available makes them lazy.  All the sense of fun and discovery that should accompany addressing any topic and developing any mastery in sny medium is totally gone.  I feel like just turning them loose with computers and saying "Play."  But I fear they would be looking over their shoulders waiting for me to  tell them they were doing it wrong.

Anyway, thanks for the sympathy, and thanks for the link.




Thanks for your comment on my post, which was born of frustration and mid-semester fatigue.  When I read the review in the NYTimes of Now You See It in August I promptly dumped half the syllabus i had been working on for my Writing Arguments course and added requirements for online interaction.  (This is at Southern CT State U).  Our English Department Tech guru assured me that we, meaning me, are "old and incomptent" while they, meaning the students are "really on top of this stuff; they live it."  He couldn't have been more wrong.  With about five exceptions out of the forty, all they can do on a computer is word process and use Google and Facebook.  Most of them aren't even gamers.

I have been reading Now You See It (I am almost done), and the more I read the better and the worse i like it.  The business about using our brains in new ways, or wiring it in new ways, is not new to someone who did her dissertation research in a laboratory where neural nets and fMRI technology were already daily fare, and anyway I read McLuhan's Understanding Media in 1968 and have never forgotten his claim that the spread of literacy reorganized the ways in which human beings used their minds.  But I think she is right about preparing our students for the future and her insights are indeed valuable.  What I am lacking at this point is a way to convince my students that using technology is liberating and not just another dreary chore that their English teacher assigned them.  My feeling is that they are so worn down that they WANT school to be that 20th-century time-clock model Davidson talks about, aand my challenge is to confuse them out of that comfortable model.

Yes, I do insist on counterarguments, but i am afraid i am just playing into their game as above.  Is a puzzlement!

Thanks again for the suggestions.




Dr. Dunn, thank you for this interesting post.  I certainly have some thoughts about it, and I am hoping you will write more on this topic in future posts.

It seems that your students fail to realize the power they have, that is they are somehow unaware that they can choose to not be consumed by technology just as much as they are consumers of it.  There does seem to be some permeating attitude that humans are subjected to the whims of technology, but the reality is that there are places where people have little (if any) access to technology, so at least they won't be forgetting how to talk any time soon.  Not to mention, there are so many positive technological contributions: assistive technology for those with special needs, Skype for those who have relatives abroad, and all of those things besides cell phones and computers that comprise our households (refrigerators, toasters, stoves/ovens, laundry machines).  The danger, it seems, is in how much we nuture the dangerous aspects of technology: texting while driving, cyberbullying, cloning, etc. 

It sounds like your students could benefit from having an ethical debate about technology, during which they can sort through what is good and bad, and then consider the moral implications and benefits and drawbacks of each.  Who knows if it would change their minds, but at least it will get them thinking.  They have to understand that technology is what you do with it.

Considering you are concerned enough to write this post, I doubt you are a lousy teacher. 


Please consider reading the links embedded in the content of my comment.  Both blog posts present interesting perspectives.




Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and the links, which are interesting.(and for not mentioning that I misspelled "their" twice (it was late)).  I am particularly interested in the post claiming that most of the world is not connected, because I think that is going to change as time goes by.  I have a friend, an undergraduate at Yale, who spent last summer selling individual solar power devices in the bush of Zambia.  These inexpensive devices produce enough power to charge a cell, and he envisions a day not far in the future when smart phones will be available to people out there, and they will be able to use them to connect to "the world."  We have been arguing about whether or not having the ability to see the world meaans having the ability to get into it, but he is convinced that it does.  This question will probably inform my next post—to be a while in coming—because I think it is related to my students' resistence to technology.  But thank you for pointing me to both posts, and for the suggestion for discussion.



Margaret, In a way it's refreshing to know that not all students are so immersed in the digital world that they are unable to see its darker sides. However, it's just as bad that your students don't see its positive aspects, some which Teresa pointed out.

Have you read Cathy Davidson's new book, Now You See It? The book has many insights as to what digital literacy means, why we should encourage it, and how our current educational and business models serve the needs of the twentieth century, rather than the twenty-first. One of her main points is that Internet (or more broadly, the digital age) requires different thinking skills. It's not that we're stupid, we just use our brains differently and in ways that would not work so well 30 or 100 years ago. That is, the way we direct our attention, and what we direct our attention at, has changed.

When your students write a paper called "The Internet is Making Us Stupid," do you require them to explore a counterargument and/or exceptions to their claims?

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


Hi Dr. Dunn,

I feel your frustration entirely- just this past week I had a student in the class I teach say she wants to give a persuasive speech on why social media is terrible and ruins communication. In my class however, I require that students argue both sides of an argument, and so for her next speech, she will have to address how it can help society, too. While I'm not sure she agrees with it, I do think it will help her to have to see the other side of the coin, too. 


I agree that getting students to participate in and see the benefits of technology can be a struggle: the countless times they come to my office and say "well there's nothing out there" and I turn to my computer, and find several articles to help them in mere seconds astounds them. "You can do that?!" They say incredulously, as if I didn't spend an entire class period showing them what I had just done.


Part of me thinks there's only so much that can be done with those unwilling to learn, but I hope that for every "The Internet is Making us Stupid" paper that there are others that note its benefit, and the recognition of an opportunity for a healthy discussion about the role of technology in society for the whole class. I'm not sure what courses you teach, but have you thought about devoting one day to discussion of technology would benefit students. Even if that means attaching a grade or promising a quiz over the reading to get them to read it, the end result could very well be a few more students appreciating what techonlogy and digital media has to offer. One reading that I highly suggest is Douglas Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed, that addresses the presence of technology and what we do with it. 


Best of luck, and thanks for the post!