Some thoughts on underlife and class participation

This week’s readings on underlife and participation inspired me to think about my Baruch class through the lens of my law school experience.

Just in case you’ve never seen The Paper Chase, law school’s pedagogical standard is the Socratic Method. In classrooms of 80 to 230 students (at Harvard, anyway), each student is assigned to a seat equipped with a microphone, and the professor cold-calls several students each class with the aid of a seating chart, asking them questions about the reading. In the old days, if a student didn’t know the answer, the professor would then ask that student’s immediate neighbor the same question in an effort to shame the unprepared student, although that practice is mostly obsolete. In the first year, students quake in their boots, study obsessively, and never get an answer wrong or admit they don’t know. In the second and third years, students relax and declare without shame that they didn’t read or don’t know the answer.

The underlife at HLS is fascinating. Nearly everyone takes notes on laptops, and if you sit in the back row, you look out over a sea of screens on,, fashion websites, and quite a few wedding-planning websites. At least that’s how it was from 2003 to 2006 when I was a student there; things might have changed (oddly enough, I don’t recall seeing people on Facebook, even though it was born on the Harvard campus in 2003).

Looking at hockey statistics or wedding dresses while the professor is talking about copyright law would seem to fall squarely into the category of “private activities whereby an individual divides her attention between class activity and something else.” As teachers, we might initially view this phenomenon as despicable, and Robert Brooke and Derek N. Mueller offer some compelling counterarguments to our initial reaction. On the most basic level, this kind of underlife is a student’s way of asserting her identity beyond the role of student. Viewing overtly unrelated websites in class also conveys a (deniable) negative evaluation of the course; it tacitly states that the course content is not interesting, challenging, or significant enough to warrant full attention. If we believe Robert Brooke, that tacit negative evaluation is a way to “assert one’s fundamental distance from the classroom roles” and to “show that one can think independently” (147).

While I have no statistics to support this, I always suspected that the ubiquitous web-surfing in HLS classes was more about swaggering bravado than anything else. Law school isn’t easy, and surfing the web in class broadcasts one’s disdain for the purported challenges of the institution; it brags, “I’m so smart, I don’t even need to pay attention in class to succeed. My superior intellect spares me from the pains of earnest effort that the rest of you mortals may suffer. What, you need to pay attention to learn and get good grades?” The circulation of these attitudes then generates a kind of odd peer pressure to surf the web during class; if your classmates see you earnestly taking copious notes, perhaps they’ll think you’re some kind of dummy. Better play it safe and surf the web. That set of attitudes is actually my biggest concern about underlife; maybe students who actually want to relax and pay attention feel peer pressure to perform underlife, and to do so in an inauthentic way.

There is another dimension to underlife that Brooke and Dirk don’t discuss but which law school casts in painfully sharp relief: law school cost me $175,000. At that price, shouldn’t I be treated as the consumer in my educational experience, free to participate or not participate as I please? To some extent, HLS recognizes this, and while subjecting yourself to the Socratic Method is mandatory if you show up to class, showing up isn’t entirely mandatory. I think the sense of being paying consumers of the institution may also motivate students’ rampant underlife. The students have purchased the expensive brandy, so they feel perfectly entitled to drink it in the drawing room or the conservatory as they please (or to dump it into a houseplant).

Baruch students may not be paying quite as much, but they’re still paying. To what extent should we be viewing them as paying consumers of their education? And if we do view them as consumers, how should that influence our demands on them and their participation? Perhaps this is misguided, since college freshmen don’t necessarily know what they’re buying when they buy “college,” and they don’t necessarily know what they want to get out of it (or what they’ll wish they got out of it later on in life). I wanted to mention it, though, because participation has become so much more important to me as a teacher than it ever was as a student; non-participation makes my job as a teacher—especially a writing teacher—really difficult. If students are burning to talk but are too shy to volunteer, then I feel like I’m absolutely giving them their money’s worth by pushing them into participating. But if they really just want to do things another way, should I respect their status as paying consumers, free to pour out their brandy?

Incidentally, one of the famous forms of underlife at HLS is a game called Gunner Bingo. Students who constantly volunteer in class a la Hermione Granger are known as gunners, and their subversive classmates secretly ridicule them by playing bingo games with scorecards gridded with gunners’ names; when a gunner volunteers, her name is crossed off of the scorecard. There’s obviously a lot to do with this in terms of Robert Brooke’s article. But even more interestingly, my law school class converted the subversive legacy of Gunner Bingo into an inclusive game in which every single student was gridded randomly onto scorecards, which were then distributed to every student in the class. This one-time subversive, anti-institutional, distancing game turned into an all-inclusive, mainstream, transparent activity. Interesting, right? I never played; it just wasn’t fun anymore.