Dear Professor

Dear Professor; Teach Me

An Open Letter from your Least Favorite Student Sitting in the Back of Your Classroom

Yep, I’m that student – the one you mention, even if not by name, to your spouse when you get home at the end of the day.  You’re exhausted, I’ve frustrated you (again), and somehow my name pops into the back of your mind when you find yet another grey hair as you get up in the morning to go back to school to see the likes of me again.  I appear rude.  I can be disruptive in so, so many ways.  But, here are a few things I need you to understand about me, and perhaps a little unsolicited advice.

I like to sit in the back of the classroom.  You might think I do this because I’m not interested in anything this class has to offer.  But I can say with confidence that this is rarely true because I like to sit in the back of the classroom in all of my classes.  Here’s how it usually goes down:

Professor: Hey, why don’t you come up here, closer to the front?  There’s plenty of open seats up here!

Me: What are you, the chair police?

So, we both lose.  Let’s look at this from my perspective.  I like to sit in the back for many reasons.  Sometimes I just feel self-conscious.  I’m nineteen years old – of course I feel awkward!  Sorry Professor, but that’s just biology at work, nothing personal.  Also, I like to sit in the back because I like to watch my peers learn.  I like to watch them raise their hands and say things.  I like to hear your responses.  I like to take it all in.  I learn best when I can learn from others.

Okay, so, I hear you when you respond “I know that you’re back there so that you can play with your phone.”  And yes, you are right.  Here’s the deal though.  I can text, tweet, and upload pics to Facebook without ever taking my phone out of my pocket.  Ask any student on campus to demonstrate.  If you can find me five students my age who can’t text you from their pocket, I will treat you to a bowl of Lucky Charms – the only edible food in the cafeteria.  You might catch me a couple of times as you are probably tipped off by the fact that I appear to transfixed by the strange iridescent blue glow coming from my crotch.  And yes, I’m probably on Tinder checking out that cute student who sits three rows ahead of me in your appointed “good student front-of-the-class seats.” But will your punitive measures stop me?  Or a better question: will they be more disruptive to the class than my phone?  Let’s not find out.two distracting students

So, how about this: don’t take away my phone.  It won’t help you anyways because once you take away my phone, all I will think about… is my phone.  (Once again, I’m nineteen.)  But what if, for just a moment you gave the verbose PowerPoint slides that you are reading to me word for word (by the way, I can read) a break for a moment and let me use my phone for good instead of evil.  I know I’m not the only student who feels that way.  That student I was checking out who sits in the “good student seat” is on Tinder now too…

What if before you present a slide that goes on and on about who Mozart was, you first let me take out my phone and google stuff.  True, in under a minute I will probably find this:

God I love Mozart… and Skrillex.  I wish you, my music professor, knew as much about Skrillex as you do about Mozart.  I need to feel personal connections, even with a professor’s ideas.

What’s that?  This video doesn’t demonstrate high academic quality or rigor?  Well, I agree with you there, but I want you to think about the five-years-from-now me.  I’m going to remember this hilarious video.  But, that doesn’t mean I won’t remember the content you are teaching me.  This video could be the emotional connection I make in my memory that helps me make the link to the ideas I learned about how Mozart was from Salzburg, his father was also a musician, Mozart was a child prodigy, and he wrote a bunch of crazy funny operas with Lorenzo Da Ponte who, let’s face it, was a little shady.

It’s not just the phones you say?  Okay, yes, you are right.  I may also be doing homework for other classes, painting my nails, talking to the person next to me, doodling, or just plain taking a nap.  Here’s the thing – the syllabus is not really going to make it clear to me that these things are unacceptable, nor is it going to tell me why those things are unacceptable – even if you write it on every page of your syllabus in 24 point bold font in all caps.  The real reason I am sitting back here and doing anything but paying attention to you is because I don’t know what my responsibility is in this class.  When I played goalie on my high school soccer team, I knew it was my job to keep the opposite team from kicking the ball into my team’s net.  When I played the tuba in band class, I knew it was my responsibility to listen to the other players around me, watch the conductor, play the notes I read on the sheet music, and not suck (also known as practicing).  But here?  It’s unclear to me whose job it is to get the “knowledge,” either from a textbook, a lecture, a musical example, etc. into my brain.  I need you to stop trying to spell it out in the syllabus.  I need you to use activities where I become actively involved that show me I have a responsibility in the learning process that is taking place here, even if all that means is calling on me, or making me find and print out my own syllabus.

The talking thing – let’s discuss that finer point too.  What am I taking about back here?  It’s not always what you think.  José Antonio Bowen once said that a lecture should be like a sermon – it’s not just about imparting ideas, it’s about inspiration and change.  To tell you the truth, sometimes what I say to the student next to me is just a response to what you are saying, like “yeah” or “that’s cool,” or “I agree with that.”  You might as well have just paused your lecture with a little “Can I get an Amen!”

You say that’s not all I’m talking about and you weren’t born yesterday?  Yes, also true, but don’t discount the fact that I may be listening to you and agreeing with the good points you are making.  But sadly, I get bored very easily.  Last time I googled it, I learned I have an attention span shorter than a goldfish.  Here, see for yourself:  Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 1.54.55 PMSo why not let me talk sometimes?  Can there be some time in class where it is okay to talk to the people next to me?  Even if it is about Scott Joplin, I’d be glad for the opportunity.  And yes, okay, maybe I like to sigh and roll my eyes at you, Professor, and yes, I did throw away the first page of my syllabus on my way out the door on the first day of class (I really needed something to spit out my gum and I typically show up on the first day empty handed), but what if I had the chance to argue with you about how race relations mattered in the music making of Joplin’s day and in ours, instead of another argument about my attitude problem.  This might surprise you, but I would actually prefer to argue with you about the former rather than the latter.

Finally, there are some other things I really need from you.  First, learn my name.  No, not just as “that student again,” but really try to get to know who I am just a little.  What is my major?  Do I have one?  What are my fears?  Did you know my fears are mostly about loneliness and failure?  Did you know the best way for you to get to know me is by letting me see a little bit about who you are?  Can I follow you on Twitter?  Trust me – I need mentors much, much more than I need all of the medications (antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills) that are prescribed not only for me, but pretty much for every other college kid I know.

Teach me.  Teach me!  But first understand, and teach me the ways I may learn to learn.


Your problem student in the back row.

Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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