Re-Engaging to Challenge the "Noise"

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Recently my Macmillan Community colleague Symphonie asked members to share insights into how they deal with the “noise” present in our students’ lives. How do we, as educators, get through to our students in spite of all the distractions they are juggling?


I’ve been thinking a lot about Symphonie’s question as I’ve struggled to get my students off to a strong start in the new school year. For the first time since March 2020 I am teaching the majority of my students in person, and they do seem generally distracted. Just this week I wondered to a colleague whether we as a society have lost the ability to function as members of a group as a result of the long period of near isolation many of us experienced during the recent pandemic. During a recent class meeting, for example, a student put in earbuds and started watching a video on their cell phone as a classmate explained the central points of the homework reading. As class ended, I reminded the distracted student about my “no phones in class” policy. The response was shocking: the student felt it was fine to turn their attention elsewhere because a classmate was speaking and not me, the professor. 


Later that same day I broke a class up into small groups for discussion. I was bewildered to watch as students sat with their backs towards one another for group work. It was not until I made a general announcement that members should sit facing each other that some of the students repositioned themselves so they could see and hear their classmates. I jokingly asked how they intended to do group work with their backs to one another. No response.


Now that we are back on campus en masse, therefore, we as faculty need to make a concerted effort to get students to engage with each other. A colleague in Student Affairs lamented recently that getting students to attend informational meetings for clubs and activities has never been more difficult. 


To answer Symphonie’s question, I don’t think there is one simple way to cut through the noise but I do believe we have to be direct with our students and tell them what we are trying to accomplish. Yesterday, for example, as my students struggled to get started with their group work I took a moment to tell them how meaningful I believe it is that we are back in a shared learning space. Rather than me lecturing for the entire class I want them to make eye contact, to listen to each other’s voices, and to experience the value of learning collectively. I asked them to introduce their group mates to the rest of the class and to make an effort to know something about each other before they began to dissect our primary sources. 


I’m happy to report that the students responded in an overwhelmingly positive manner to my plea for interaction. Taking that moment to remind them of the value of a learning community truly seemed to make a difference. 


Please share your ideas here or with your fellow Macmillan Community members under Symphonie's blog linked in my first paragraph.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.