November/December 2022Vol. XXXV No. 2

Never Mind the Firehose, You Can’t Even Lead Them to Water

W. Craig Carter

I’m co-teaching this semester and have been attending my co-instructor’s lectures. I’ve been sitting behind the students and observing how they are engaging.

It’s not pretty.

My rough estimates are that 30% skip the lectures. Of those that attend, 25% are focused on their cellphones, 25% are browsing social media on their laptops or tablets. I’ve seen a student playing a video game during a lecture; students behind that student were focused on that video game and not the lecturer. Hallway conversations consistently provide anecdotal evidence that this is widespread student-behavior. This suggests that over half of our admitted undergraduates are occupying seats that were denied others that would have longed to benefit from them.

It’s a red herring – and in this case, inaccurate and unfair – to blame the lecturer’s abilities. The lectures are clear and engaging. Blaming the students’ insouciance on the subject material misses the point: in this case, the material is foundational for their major. It is also clear that students are not reading background material. As a result, the lectures become our only means to deliver education.

It is understandable that some faculty don’t police this behavior themselves. End-of-term student evaluations are typically the only means to evaluate the instructor. For pre-tenure faculty, a few negative evaluations can have serious consequences. For post-tenure faculty, negative evaluations can make the difference between a 1% or a 3% salary increase (or, -7.2% and -4.2%, depending on how one counts). If there is to be a remedy, it needs to be institutional.

Personally, I cherish the topics that I (try to) teach. I put time and care into my preparation. I try to engage with my students. It is dispiriting – depressing even – to have that passion sucked away by TikTok, video games, and text messages.

I firmly believe that I am not alone at MIT and that this is an epidemic across many universities. I have sympathy for Columbia Professor Maitland Jones’ statements about the lack of student engagement.

There are technological fixes that range from severe to draconian. Perhaps faculty could opt to have cell signals switched off; or routers placed in classrooms that can be configured to eliminate social media; or attendance automatically recorded. However, I am not sure such technological fixes are the right prescription: they treat the symptoms and not the disease.

I believe that the classroom behavior that I am observing defeats MIT’s mission, and that our faculty should consider a remedy carefully. The sooner the better.