On Academic Engagement

Posted by: | September 8, 2008 | 10 Comments

This article/rant is a guest post written by Sonja Babovic, a third-year Science student, and as such may particularly resonate with other students in the Faculty of Science, though the author believes that the fundamental ideas discussed in the rant can be applied across the board.

It really irks me when people complain about keeners in their classes. You know, the people who commit the horrific sin of trying to participate in the course and actively learn. Who ask questions in class because they are interested in the answers, and maybe even believe that the whole class could benefit from thinking and discussing said question/answers. I will make no effort to hide that I am one of those keeners, and I don’t see anything particularly wrong with this.

Complaints I hear about keeners can be lumped into two main categories. The first argues that people who ask questions, especially intelligent questions, in class, are only trying to showcase how smart they are. While this may be true in some cases, I think that it is far more rare than most complainers make it out to be. If someone asks a question, it’s usually because they want to know the answer. There are much more direct ways to brag about one’s academic success, and from my experience, most top students keep quiet about their grades, because at even the slightest mention of them the student runs the risk of being labelled as a braggart. On the other hand, posting words to the effect of, “i failed the midterm because i didn’t study and i’m screwed for this course LOL can someone help me plz?” is still considered perfectly respectable.

The other complaint I hear is that keeners are just trying to draw attention to themselves. Let’s go with the worst-case scenario and pretend this is true in all cases. For one, I think there are much more disruptive ways to draw attention to oneself than sparking lively academic discussion. Like being obnoxious by talking loudly in class and berating your classmates and/or the instructor. Or playing World of Warcraft on your laptop while sitting in the front rows, which is incredibly visually distracting. Or consistently making out in class. I’m not kidding.

Or POSTING IN BLOCK CAPS ON DISCUSSION BOARDS, as exemplified by this gem:

but most importantly
WISH MYSELF A GREAT LUCK ( while all of you just good luck) ahahahhaah
happy tomorrow.

Secondly, I’ve observed a common sentiment regarding UBC among many of my colleagues: classes are too large and profs are too distant. I hear complaints over this so frequently, and I am left puzzled when the same people roll their eyes at anyone who tries to spark any kind of in-class dialogue. Do you want classes where your prof lectures at you for 50 minutes straight, or do you want your classes to be a more participatory kind of forum? Or do you just want to complain?

I mean, you’ll have to excuse me for being at university because I genuinely want to be here. If you picked your courses or your program of study because a) you thought it would get you into medical school, b) your parents forced you to, c) you didn’t know what else to do with your life, or d) all of the above, that is unfortunate. As an adult, you are responsible for your own happiness, and why you would spend arguably the best years of your life doing something you show no apparent interest in, is truly beyond me, and I’m sorry I can’t help you there. My opinion is that you should be doing whatever makes you happy on a fundamental level, but, you have the right to instead spend your time doing something that bores you to tears.

I’ll be the first to admit that UBC is far from perfect, and I’ve spent hours of my life ranting about things I think could be improved on here. As an example, I’ve found many of my very time-consuming undergraduate labs lacking in intellectual stimulation, often devoid of correlation with the course material, starved for knowledgeable TAs dedicated to help students get the most of their lab experience… the list goes on. At the same time, I think that if things ever get to the point where I’m disgruntled and dissatisfied most of the time, that point would be a really good time to leave. I realize this may come as a shock to many people, but if you really do dislike UBC so much, and if you can think of no positive things to say about it… nobody is making you stay here? The same logic applies to your program. If you have constructive criticism and are trying to engage in meaningful dialogue with others to bring about the change you desire, you have massive respect from me. But if all you’re going to do is indulge in cynicism and whinery, this helps no-one, least of all yourself, and in this case I do wonder why you are staying in a place that makes you so unhappy.

I see so few people in Science genuinely interested in what they are presently taking, and this is unfortunate for a host of reasons. I do realize that being enthusiastic about what one is spending well over 40hrs/week doing is outside the social norm of cool. However, a more important consideration, to me, is that it’s generally a good thing to be able to speak of things that matter to you with pride and confidence.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I left the notion of “being cool” back in high school, where it belongs.


10 Comments so far

  1. lucia_engel on September 8, 2008 5:35 pm

    I’m in Comp Sci, and I guess I’ve had better experience than you did. One of the best classes I had at UBC was when the prof actively encouraged discussions and a few of the students asking relevant questions. While I’m one of those people who remains quiet in class (and everywhere else) I do welcome intelligent questions. It does get annoying when some people don’t know when to STOP asking questions and just visit the prof after class. There aren’t enough class time to cover the material usually, and if your question has already been answer (and you still don’t get it) or it’s not relevant to the topic being discussed, leave it to private conversation or post it on the board.

  2. leigh-anne on September 8, 2008 10:11 pm

    When I was in high school I thought the majority of students at uni genuinely wanted to be here. Not so much. Keener-less classes would be boring and depressing.

    (Also, ewww, who makes out in class?!)

  3. lucia_engel on September 8, 2008 11:09 pm

    When I read the “Campus Life” column in 24 this morning, I tried hard not to laugh.

    “Literally, hundreds of students sit quietly and are listening to every word. For once, I’m in a class where people actually want to be there and want to know what the teacher is saying.”

  4. Sonja on September 8, 2008 11:20 pm

    Lucia: From speaking to friends in Math/Comp Sci, I have concluded that these classes do tend to be more discussion-friendly and filled with people who actually want to be there.

    I think it’s up to the professor to decide whether or not it’s worth spending time on answering a student’s question in class. Ultimately the professor controls the pace of the lecture. I am totally aware that there’s not enough time to cover everything in class, and in this respect university is different to high school because one has to put in extra work outside of class in order to really succeed. But there wouldn’t be enough time to cover everything whether people ask questions or not.

    Personally, I feel that it’s so worthwhile to spend a couple minutes discussing an interesting question. Just think of all the creative potential that exists in a room filled with a couple hundred university students! Think of all the unique perspectives such a large group of students can bring to solving an unusual problem. In my view, it’s so much better to put these bright minds to good use, even if it means going off-course for a bit, as long as the topic of discussion is still somehow relevant to the course or at least the discipline. So much better than letting us sit there like sponges, mindlessly absorbing only information directly pertinent to the course, and subsequently reproducing it on exams. I realize I am overly optimistic, but I envision our University as a place where scholarly discussion should be welcomed and encouraged. I think a measure of success at university should be one’s ability to think critically and creatively rather than simply regurgitate facts presented in class. It seems that, in some departments at least, students’ opinions tend to weigh very heavily towards the latter, and this I think is a grand shame because those people aren’t even aware of their potential to do so much more.

    leigh-anne: didn’t we all :) I think it’s definitely gotten better since high school, though, but with this being said, it’s not exceedingly difficult to find a more inspired group of students than the ones I went to high school with.

    On a much much lighter note, yes people do make out in class. I remember this couple in my MICB 202 class who really didn’t get the concept of toning down their PDA. They also were in a microbiology course, which I found pretty funny. As you watched their ever-moving silhouettes you could tell whether they were kissing or fighting, as they seemed to alternate between the two as the rest of the class sat and stared at the board. Good times.

  5. Alfie on September 9, 2008 12:19 am

    Actually, at times the prof hates “kids” who post a lot on WebCT.

    also, did you go to high school here? I was one keener before, until I went to high school and watched the “Mean Girl”…

    high school memory is so embarassing…

  6. Maria_Jogova on September 9, 2008 12:42 am

    How about having seminars become a part of Science students’ curriculum? They have these sorts of things in lots of upper year Arts courses, and they serve as good places to really discuss and debate certain concepts, and as good places to ask questions.

    While I have no problem with people asking questions, I think the frustration often comes from the types of questions that people ask- questions that ask the prof to repeat what he/she has _just_ stated, indicating that the student hasn’t been listening, or questions such as “what are the axes on the graph”, when those axes are clearly labeled. And I agree that some people don’t know when to stop asking questions- it’s frustrating sometimes when the answers to the questions are fairly obvious, and the person just doesn’t seem to want to think. However, I understand people wanting to clarify things, or wanting to ask an application question. I think that people just need to use common sense, and know when to stop using class time. If something is out of the scope of the lecture, they can very well ask the professor this question after class, or in office hours. I just think that it’s important to also respect that there is a limited amount of time, and that students would rather cover as much information in class so that they don’t have to teach themselves the material later on.

  7. Sonja on September 9, 2008 1:05 am

    Alfie: I went to high school in Kuwait.

    Maria: I used to get similarly frustrated when people would use up class time asking the prof to clarify what I thought were easy concepts. But I think it’s important to take into account the fact that people in a certain course can come from very different academic backgrounds, and it’s to be expected that some will struggle to recall some of the material the prof considers to be background knowledge. I also think I agree with a statement many of my profs have repeated: if one person asks a question, it’s likely that 20 others have been thinking about something very similar. So if someone comes upon a stumbling block that might be a basic concept, and if spending a couple minutes of class time will help that person and 20 others be able to follow and understand the rest of the lecture… I personally have no problem with it.

    I think it’d be great to have more seminars in the Faculty of Science. I’m not aware of any in my departments (Chem and Biochem), but I can’t speak for others. From anecdotal evidence, I’ve gotten the impression that other universities (such as Calgary) have more upper-year Science seminars, though the sample size I’m operating on is likely too small to be statistically significant.

  8. Sonja on September 9, 2008 1:12 am

    On the topic of seminars for Science students, hey I just realized this might be a good time to shamelessly plug a course I’m taking, because I think others may be interested, too.

    HESO 449A, Contemporary Issues in International Health Aid, is a Student Directed Seminar running in Term 1 (that would be right now), Mondays and Wednesdays 6-7:30pm. It is offered through the Faculty of Arts, but I think it’s reasonable to believe it would be of interest to Science students, especially those in the pre-med crowd.

    The first class is this Wednesday, and applications are still being accepted. To find out more, visit http://leap.ubc.ca/get_ahead/student_directed_seminars/courses/#%20Contemporary%20Issues%20in%20International%20Health%20Aid or http://inthealthaid.wordpress.com/.

  9. Laura Rodgers on September 9, 2008 2:38 am

    My main frustration with the Faculty of Science isn’t a lack of engagement – it’s that I see far too many of one type of ‘keeners,’ and not enough of another. From what I observe, the majority of my classmates are very engaged: engaged in grade-grubbing, taking meticulous notes and following every instruction to the letter. That kind of dedication is valuable, but it certainly isn’t what I came to university to learn.

    I feel that it’s a small minority of us who came here because we actually like this stuff, who are interested in the intellectual challenge just as much as the career path. It’s this difference in attitude, rather than a difference in work ethic, that makes my classes less than what they could be.

  10. Gerald on September 9, 2008 8:07 am

    alfie: take the link to email, please.

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