I’ve written here about babies who do not cry because they are institutionalised and about toddlers who do not speak because nobody has ever shown them how.

Maybe that is why I am particularly furious today about able bodied university students who live in a democratic society and do not speak in their seminars.

I am halfway through a part time degree in English. I enrolled full of enthusiasm, expecting to have stimulating conversations with other people who love books and reading. It was the fulfilment of a 25-year ambition.

Three years on and I am beginning to think I might have to stop going to seminars. I can no longer cope with the long silences that follow almost every question posed by the tutors.

I have tried to be patient and to make allowances for the fact that my fellow students are young and perhaps shy. But nobody is a fresher now and I have run out of excuses for them.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would pay for a university education and then fail to participate in the learning process. Yet week after week I sit in seminars where only one or two people speak unless virtually forced to by the tutor.

Take Wednesday, for example. Fifteen minutes into a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – arguably a landmark work in English literature – the tutor despairingly announced that he felt as if he was pulling teeth. It’s not as though the questions were difficult. ‘What did you think of this book?’ is hardly threatening, is it?

I wish I could take my silent fellow students to meet some of the people I encountered in my years as a teacher of English as a second or other language.

They would probably like Yasmin. A refugee from Yemen, she was one of the most intelligent women I have ever taught and one of the hungriest for learning. Her eyes filled up with tears when she told me how her parents had forced her to leave school at 14.

Or take Munira. Munira was raising eight children on her own, all of them under 11 years old. But she never missed a class and always handed in her work on time. ‘My ambition is to go back to my country and be a teacher,’ she told me. Unfortunately her country, Somalia, is gripped by famine right now and I’m guessing nobody is going to school there.

It wasn’t just women, either. There were several Kurdish men in my literacy class. The reason they could barely read or write was that when they were children, the Iraqi authorities banned them from school because they were from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group.

And if all this seems too far from home, how about my mum? Her ambition as a teenager was to do biomedical research, but back in the 1940s her school told her that ‘girls don’t do science’. She’s 76 now but she still speaks of it with regret.

My fellow university students make me want to weep with frustration. Their lack of engagement is such an insult to thousands of people around the world who would literally give their right arms for the chance of decent education.

They also devalue the learning experience for everyone. It took over an hour to get nine things on the whiteboard that people thought were interesting about Orlando. Next week I might just go to the library and read instead. The problem is that then I wouldn’t be participating either – but at least I would be learning.


10 thoughts on “baffled

  1. I was very touched to read your blog. I have returned to study as a mature (in all sense of the word) student with the Open University. I have found such joy in learning – something I didn’t really believe I had in me. But I do and I love it. I too have experienced these silences and the frustration that these situations make me feel. I so long for the engagement and am frequently disappointed with my fellow students. Alas I have no answers but I wish I understood more about why this may be so. Thanks for your post – really interesting.


  2. I think in the next seminar you should tell your classmates about the students you used to have. Maybe it will shame them into talking. (The opposite problem, by the way, happens in politics seminars: everybody is really arrogant and thinks they know everything).

  3. I got my degree five years ago, at the age of thirty five. I had a very similar experience to what you’re going through. It’s so frustrating. I honestly believe that some of them don’t want to be there, but the whole ‘University for all’ ethic coupled with lack of jobs means that they don’t know what else to do. That’s not to say I don’t think anybody who wants to shouldn’t be able to go, of course they should. Just that they shouldn’t go, if it’s not really what they want. My, society has changed!

  4. Thank you so much for your responses. It is interesting and (in a way) encouraging to know my experience is not unique. Sarah, I think you raise a really interesting point about the uncertain future that looms before so many young people today. Miriam – thank you for linking to this on Facebook. I’m pasting in here a comment that came from one of Miriam’s Facebook friends who recently graduated from Durham University.

    ‘YES. It was one of my pet hates too. I had a couple of really good tutors who solved the problem by going round the class at the start asking everyone to talk for 2 minutes on the two journal articles they’d read from the reading list. If they hadn’t read any or didn’t talk, she would say “It’s not fair that you should profit from the hard work of others, and take up a university place when you aren’t willing to try, get out of my class” Seminar attendance was compulsory so if that happened three times you had to go before the disciplinary board. Suddenly, everyone was reading, everyone was talking and it really felt like a forum for debate.’

  5. Intriguing. I imagine as an experienced teacher yourself you’ve used all the tricks in your own armoury to engage with you fellow students already, so not sure that I can make any suggestions. I do sometimes wonder how comfortable younger people are in the company of older people. I am finding it increasingly rare to come across social groups that have include a wider range of ages – there seems to be a very real peer segmentation in social situations. I find also at the book group that I go to that the younger people who attend seem quite affronted when I criticise books that they think are good (I’m talking about the dreadful “One Day” here!). Maybe I’m the problem!

    • I know what you mean, Colleen and I have been worrying that maybe it’s just because I’m there that they don’t talk but I went to see my tutor about it yesterday and she said there is a real problem with all the groups being very quiet. So that was a relief!

  6. Hi, Jo ~ So, I’m a little late to the party here, but I wanted to let you know that your post sparked a whole big response in me, and I’ve been working on it as time has allowed. At the risk of sounding completely cynical, in a nutshell, I have so often thought over many years, that college is (kind of) wasted on the youth. I wrote a whole blog post in response to your post here ~ which is ironic that I would have so much to say, because I myself was one of those “quiet” students back in the day. Anyway, you can read it at your leisure (grab a cup of tea first…..I know, it’s very verbose….I’m sorry!), but in the meantime, thanks for posting on such an interesting topic. I wish I could be in the classroom with you!

  7. Pingback: Wasted on the youth? « Cat fur to make kitten britches

  8. Pingback: a bit less baffled | Joanna Dobson

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