“Talk to Me….”

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently devoted two articles to the challenge of engaging college students in class participation (“Rethinking Participation,” September 8th online; “The Question of ‘Cold Calling’,” September 12th online).

Such attention is sorely needed.  It’s hard to avoid despair when students stare at you with an expression that says, “I’d rather have an impacted wisdom tooth extracted through my urethra than offer a comment on the assigned reading.”

Well, help is on the way.  In July Rutgers University became the first school in the nation to establish the cabinet-level position of Vice President for Management of Class Participation.  (It’s also the first university to have an Associate Provost for Pronoun Oversight.)  

The Vice President coordinates all research at Rutgers that explores the concept and dynamics of participation.   Among the findings reported so far:

—  Can aroma motivate participation?  In seven sections of Introductory Microeconomics this fall, the tantalizing scent of applewood smoked bacon is being circulated throughout the classroom via the air-conditioning system every time a student asks a question or offers a cogent comment.  Preliminary results indicate that male participation is 40% higher in these sections than in scent-less sections.  However, female participation has not been affected.  In response, investigators are examining the impact on this population of a fragrance that evokes avocado salad containing saffron and pine nuts.  

—  Is there really no such thing as a stupid question?  Alas, researchers have found that students frequently ask stupid questions.  Even worse, many of these questions are irredeemably stupid (e.g., “Are Cheetos orange when they grow in the wild?”).

—  But just because a question is stupid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the student who asked the question is stupid, does it?  Unfortunately, it usually does.  Sorry. 

—  Irredeemably stupid?  Yep, pretty much. 

—  What is the most effective way to manage the participation of students who talk too much?  Drone-administered tranquilizing micro-darts.  This is 97% effective for students weighing less than 240 pounds.  

—  Is it ethical to use electric shocks, delivered through desk seat cushions, to increase participation in class discussion?  Yes.

—  Should breathing, coughing, and perspiring be considered class participation?  Usually not, except in situations where the instructor wants to start off with a very low bar for grading participation. 

You may contact the Rutgers Public Information Office for copies of the full reports of these studies.