Boredom Is Earned

In terms of teaching I have found this past quarter incredibly difficult. This isn’t helped by the fact that at DePaul our spring break has been cut short by some administrative error, so what we’re looking at is essentially a 20-week quarter with a four day break (famously, DePaul takes off no public holidays and really only the major Christian ones). It’s exhausting, to put it mildly. But this quarter has been difficult for other reasons as well. Namely, this is the first time I’ve taught Freshman and, without knowing if this is the norm, the lack of interest in the subject matter has not meshed with my teaching style at all. The class is, I think, really cool. Well, as cool as a class can be, at least. The topic was broadly “nature and the city” and the hope was to complicate and maybe even completely destroy the way we tend to think about these two things and how we let the idea of them determine our approach to thinking about the environment. We read Thoreau, de Certeau, Mike Davis, William Cronon, and finish reading Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (in part because I thought it captured a lot of the same ideas in Anti-Oedipus, but in a far more digestible style). We even do a little nature walk through Lincoln Park, where our campus is located, and talk about the way that city planners try to bring in aspects of “Nature” into the city.

From the beginning I had to change my teaching style, since the course is offered as one of our Freshman seminars and this is part of a generally well-thought out first-year program. This meant that I had to require a lot more assignments than I normally prefer (I tend to do the two tests and a final paper deal). One of these assignments has been a weekly reading journal which has allowed me a glimpse into their development in ways I haven’t had before. And, well, I’m not sure I like what I see! On the whole the usual problems are there, some lack of comprehension, some issues with what is appropriate in academic writing, etc., but none of that bothers me. That’s the point of making them read and write and it’s what we as educators have to assume. No, what really bothers me is the almost universal sense of boredom with practically every piece we read alongside a dismissiveness of the authors (the only real exception was Davis whose Planet of Slums seemed to touch on territory they didn’t feel comfortable expressing cynicism about). For example, they’ve written that Thoreau – Henry David fucking Thoreau! – is a “boring writer” who is “repetitive”, while Latour is “unlogical” [sic] and “could have made his point in a paragraph”.

For most of the quarter I gave them the benefit of the doubt and I even doubted myself. I tried to change the dynamic of the class with free food (most of them brilliantly fit all their courses into a MW schedule so were skipping lunch), with more lecturing (they responded badly to the seminar format), and even cutting out some reading to try and adjust my expectations. But at some point, within reason, you have to just say “It’s not me, it’s you.” While a minority of the students are very good, the majority is far too comfortable with their own lack of interest and so when they make the claim that Latour or Thoreau is boring I’m not quite sure they’ve earned it yet.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: at what point, as left-wing educators, do you accept this kind of statement from students? I think that many things we may force students to read may in fact be boring, but this dullness can be overcome through dynamic lecturing and conversation. At the same time, it seems like, especially within theology, there is a certain respect I think for students who can recognize that this supposedly important theological document is utterly devoid of anything interesting. Or, in more theoretically heavy language, much of what we expect students to read doesn’t direct attention to what matters most; that is, to suffering. But, that’s not been the complaint of my students this quarter. Their complaint has been, well, boring. They don’t criticize Latour for not attending to suffering. They don’t ask about weaknesses in Thoreau’s idea of the free man. They just say, “meh” and “meh” is not interesting at this level.

So, I think I’ve found a new principle to tell future students: boredom isn’t a right or a product you pay for, but it is earned through becoming less boring yourself.

35 thoughts on “Boredom Is Earned

  1. This happens among freshman to some extent even in the fantasy land of Shimer College. There are students who are dismissive, or prematurely critical — and there are even cases of students just kind of emptily saying “I’m not convinced,” with no reason for it and no indication of what would be convincing (I find this maddening). In the Shimer format, I’ve found I just have to forcibly shoot that kind of thing down.

    In terms of your reading responses, I think you have to use force as well — tell them that if they’re dismissive or express boredom or are prematurely critical, they’ll simply fail the assignment. I’d even go so far as to disallow criticism, at least for the first half of the semester — yes, it can be good to have a “bullshit detector,” especially for sacred cow kind of stuff, but it’s probably more important to fight the premature dismissiveness than a premature reverence in most cases. At least premature reverence gives you some content to work with — the boredom goes absolutely nowhere.

  2. I absolutely agree. Though, the problem with the reading journals has been the lack of any rigorous marking mechanism (I’m tired). They simply get a check or a check-plus and with 80 of these a week to grade I don’t think I could give each the individual attention that a more nuanced grading system would require. For the next incarnation of this class, which starts in two weeks, I’ll add to the syllabus that they can fail each writing assignment, but otherwise I’m inclined not to use reading journals like this again. Ever. I haven’t had much pay off from them in my other gen-ed class either and have only really seen good work from a sophmore seminar I’m teaching that is only for environmental studies majors who are, well, interesting human beings and actually engage with the material. Sometimes they do call stuff boring, but they’ve earned it.

  3. I agree with your closing thought, which is one that’s been on my mind often recently–that being easily bored (in a certain kind of way) is a result of being boring. The way to become less boring is to become engaged with the world, which means to become interested in things.

    The force method makes sense to me. It occurs to me that the word ‘boring’, like ‘interesting’ or ‘entertaining’ is basically empty as a description; these all refer to the gut reaction of the person using the word. Asking them to explore and articulate what content that reaction betokens is probably asking too much. Maybe you could mandate that they not talk about the writing style of the pieces you assign, and give specific assignments for each week’s journal.

  4. I’m not an academic, and I’ve been out of college for 20 years, but it strikes me that this is only going to get worse as grade school standardization continues apace.

    Re: Thoreau. I thought he was boring in high school, as did most people I knew. Of course, he’s far from boring, but I’ve only returned to him in my late 30s and, now, early 40s. (I may have found him not boring earlier, but never gave him the shot, after having slotted him as boring for so long.)

  5. As I’ve written before, and I think David Foster Wallace was trying to articulate in his unfinished novel, most of us don’t work hard enough at being bored ever actually to be as bored as we think we are. I don’t know enough about youth culture to say it is more the case there, but there seems to be a rise in intellectual entitlement over curiosity — specifically, a sense that the unlearned somehow have the capacity to assess the “value” of what is being taught them. They are obviously using an existing cultural measure, and sometimes aren’t so far from the truth (I, too, find Thoreau a little boring, but worth reading all the same), but by and large are woefully uncurious about why they should be critical of everything else in life but that cultural measure. Is it too meta, I wonder, to discuss, in the terms of the class, how our evaluations are formed — i.e., address their reactions and assessments in terms of the readings themselves?

  6. Perhaps I live in a different world.

    When have general education classes not been filled with those who do not care? I’ve never taught a class that could rely on the students having a native interest. I would say the Prof. Smith’s astonishment is astonishing to those of us who know no other educational setting, which is likely to be most. That said, yes, introductory and general education courses are frequently taught differently out of necessity if not for pedagogical reasons. You have stumbled upon what is the norm for many, and it sounds like you are handling it well. As for your prescriptions, I would agree.

    As for what to do about it, that depends on the context. At DePaul, I expect you to be able to push them to up their game and you should expect it of them. Where I teach that would not be a good idea.

  7. Isn’t part of the point of allowing students to pick which class will fulfill a given gen-ed requirement precisely to allow them to choose topics that interest them to some degree? And are we really at a point where it’s considered naive to expect students to have any intellectual curiosity whatsoever?

  8. Brad,

    I tried to do that and, for this class at least, it didn’t work. I don’t know if it was just their general lack of interest or if I failed to really formulate the question in a way that they could understand (so questions are still a weak point for me teaching-wise and their being stumped at rather basic vocabulary has been a problem all quarter). But, yes, I think that kind of reflexivity is important in the kinds of pedagogy most of us would want to cultivate.

    Prof. Hills,

    Dude, please don’t say Prof. Smith.

    I’m with Adam here, though. I may kill myself if we can’t expect kids to be at all interested anymore. But in this specific context at least the failure of the material to live up to the ideal is a real issue. This isn’t “Intro to History” or any kind of gen ed in that respect, but a freshman seminar that they are encouraged to pick on the basis of interest (so some people do JFK and it attracts a lot of history nerds and conspiracy geeks, or Samari Films, that sort of thing). I had expected the class to self-select in this way, but it apparently is quite common for students to simply do so on the basis of scheduling (which is, to be polite, unwise). My ability or willingness to be harsh has been tempered by my position as an adjunct. It’s something I know I’ll have to deal with more next year when I start the La Salle position. It really isn’t in my personality to be harsh when I’m in a position over someone, usually I can only be aggressive or harsh with people I consider my equals. Hence, you know, my internet persona.

  9. But, you know, it’s also really awful when you’re leading a thrilling discussion – fielding well conceived comments from students whose brains are clearly cogitating, chewing through genuinely new ideas, finding ways of using them and making them relevant – and you see some droopy-eyed student in the back of the room falling asleep. That’s like a little knife in the side, too. I feel like, when it comes to teaching, boredom is this antagonistic little nemesis that never really goes away and is always eating away at your classroom space like a termite. Yet, doing “boredom control” doesn’t really hold much promise as a coping mechanism. I also think, unfortunately, that journal assignments are the best way to become infected with any latent classroom boredom that the discussion or lecture format might allow you to be blissfully unaware of.

  10. “Dynamic teaching” sounds promising. Maybe it’s similar to my method: I watch highlights from Dead Poets’ Society every morning before I teach, to pump myself up to be inspirational and transformative.

  11. The whole thing is both unsurprising and totally depressing. I made the mistake once of making my students read the entirety of “Genealogy of Morals” in a philosophy 101 class. I new it was the wrong decision when I made it, but I’d been reading Book One for a couple years and wanted to have an excuse to read the rest again myself. But by the time they got to Book III they all said Nietzsche was boring and pointless, or that the book was too repetitive. They do not want to have to read a whole text or the same author for three weeks in a row. Many of these were relatively “good” students.

  12. I wonder if there’s room for simply signalling to the students that you don’t take such complaints seriously — perhaps even openly saying something like “no, you’re boring”?

  13. When I was a child I was repeatedly told, “only the boring are bored.” At the time I found it incredibly insulting, but impossible to refute. I’ve since found myself using the exact phrase and have probably even said it to my students…

  14. Beatrice,

    I think what you say about boredom is mostly right, but have you ever seen the Ashton Kutcher version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”?

  15. This is indeed a problem, but one that I believe can sometimes be tempered through an idea of respect. Make it clear that you have chosen these texts becuase you personally find them important and engaging, and that you consider it a form of disrespect for them to dismiss them so easily. Furthermore, make clear how
    much you respect those few who DO engage, so as to model good behavior. Sometimes students quite literally don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, having never learned it in high school, and are simply being defensive out of fear and impotence.

  16. bzfgt: i’ll say, thankfully, no… do you mean to suggest that even the interesting person can get punk’d by the boring?

  17. I, too, have had very similar experiences (for the record, with Duke students in political science/poli theory/ethics classes), although I wouldn’t say that bad experiences have been the norm. Pretty much everything is boring, nothing is convincing, most people who write books that have been read by millions across centuries are “stupid,” etc. Another frustrating tendency: to take any claim by any thinker that would have us change one iota of our behavior of our institutions, and label that thinker a hopeless radical/utopian. “That’s never gonna happen.” “It’s just not like that.” I once taught John Locke, and the students somehow construed Locke as some kind of naive utopian. Locke! This was many years ago and I forget why. But it’s astonishing how much reification haunts most of them.

    One potential suggestion from my teaching experience: put as much literature on the syllabus as you can. In my the classes I taught/TAed in poli theory and philosophy, students tended to be pretty bored by Plato, Locke, Marx, etc., meaning “the canon.” But in my ethics classes, students tended to respond very, very well to literature. They probably wouldn’t have like Thoreau much, but they devoured “Dirty Hands,” “Remains of the Day,” “Billy Budd,” “Antigone,” “The Book of Job,” “Darkness at Noon,” “Notes From Underground,” and other things, and I was often able to use that enthusiasm to springboard into philosophical discussions. If you ever have a hunch that a theory text could possibly be replaced with a literature text on the syllabus, I say go for it.

  18. I don’t know if you use the same kind of on-line systems that the UK uses (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.), but some of the people I work with have made students contribute to a course blog. The students are required to put up at least one post and one comment every week. It may not stop the students from thinking that the reading is boring, but after one person says ‘this is boring’, everyone else is forced to think of something else to say. And it might make the grading aspect easier. Of course it has its downsides too (shy students are less expressive, people may be combative, etc.).

  19. I’ve found some assistance in starting the beginning of the course by asking them what knowledge/understanding/etc they hope to gain from the course. If it’s within the scope of the course, shaping lecture materials to highlight that does help. For instance, my gen ed humanities course which is supposed to cover art, lit, music, political/cultural history, philosophy, etc ended up returning time and again to the slave trade, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights movement, and Women’s Rights movement because of student interest. As a result, I’ve noticed a number of repeat enrollment for my other gen ed courses at Open Admissions For-Profit ‘Pay the Fee, Get the B’ school. Granted, I also have half of a class which is failing because they don’t show up to class, but those that do come tend to be engaged in the discussions.

  20. Great idea–that boredom is a reward. I find this interesting that “suffering” is that which could bypass the “boring” route, as you note with regard to Latour. Thoughts on why this is?

    I’m thinking specifically about this in light of the recent fury over Jospeh Kony online, in which the presence of suffering moves people to affection, but in an ultimately banal way. My sense is that, while the presence of suffering does in fact get people over being “bored”, our reaction to that suffering is (because we have become used to treating things in terms of “bored” or “interested”) never gets beyond a kind of emotivism, In other words, getting people to truly deal with suffering means that one can’t think of “bored” or “interested”, as these are mirrors of one another, but must present suffering as something is….intellectually compelling? It sounds so terrible to say it that way, but it would seem that to present suffering in this way is the only way to bypass the “bored/interested” ping-pong.

  21. “Perhaps “nuh-uh” would be another option.”

    You could always repeat back what they are saying in a distorted, stupid-sounding voice while making an awful face. You know, like the jerk kid used to do at the playground. There is no possible response. What could one possibly say and retain one’s own dignity? It’s like when Sylvester Stallone turns his hat around backwards and uses that weird grip in “Over the Top”: unfair, but unbeatable.

  22. I share your distress Anthony. Especially as reading Thoreau at sixth form college was one of the inspiring moments that set me panting for more when I got to uni. Whatever you think about his take on civil disobedience for example (and I’ve never really agreed with him), you’ve got to agree it’s an elegant argument.
    Anyway, two tips from pedagogy: one ancient and one modern (and one to the tune of “Now thank we all our God”):
    -are you meant to respond to these literature notes? Because received wisdom would suggest that this is precisely the kind of marking (comments along the way, no mark, just how to become better) is the most effective learning that happens.
    -I think that a large part of our educational task is to praise up the greats: they probably won’t bother reading them unless we give them a reason which is not the content. So you’ve gotta be unreasonable and tricky. Once they’ve taken it seriously, then they will benefit, but you’ve got to get the ball rolling (in ways other than forcing them to read, which is itself fairly effective): I’ll never forget the refrain of a lecturer I regularly heard at sixth form – “Aquinas was a towering genius”.
    -“Now respect Anthony with all your eager reading
    Who reads all sorts of books
    Until his brain starts bleeding…”

  23. Thanks for this post and the discussion. Two quick thoughts. One, I’ve enjoyed listening to Tim Morton’s lecture course, How to Read any Poem, Anywhere. Start here: And note that his assignments shift the burden from him to the students in interesting and subtle ways: homework due every class, but he randomly chooses which students will present their work. He plays the erratic sovereign well. And while he does entertain, he also offers readily appropriable methods, and he has a very strong point of view, one the students won’t find anywhere else. They can’t google his technical terms and come up with his technique; they have to listen. To do well anyway. He boldly and baldly tells them that they’re learning how to do what he does. I recommend the whole series of talks, both as model and as juicy nuggets.

    Second, and more to my way of thinking about these things, my students come equipped with two, highly contagious and deeply engrained resistances: boredom and suspicion. Best to see these as defenses, as poses, as what maturity and seriousness look like today. I agree with Latour’s point in “Has Critique Run Out of Steam”: “My question is thus: Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Haraway would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to matters of fact and not subtract reality?” Not only do students mistake their no’s and whatever’s for steely-eyed realism, they also think that the highest value is to remain free of commitments, to be autonomous, to avoid being anyone’s tool, a dupe, an idiot—not that they’re aware that even these are received ideas or that they’re are a bazillion givens that they hungrily swallow.

    So, one thing I do, is just love whatever we’re working on, throw out the fault-finding, never say no, or at least change no into a wtf? And ask neither, what do you think? Nor, do you like it? Nor, are there any questions? These crush wonder and authorize students not to think, not to care, and not to have questions. I teach at a very good school, so I’m lucky; I can count on wonder and life-or-death concern with the ideas. But even so, short-attention-span-theater gets in the way, even here. Concretely, I simply require that students make whatever we’re reading plausible, defensible, intelligible. They can’t reject anything because rejecting x presupposes that they understand x well enough to be confused in some rigorous and profound way.

    This all might sound deeply conservative. And maybe it is. But it works well enough that I would rather try to do more of it than start over again.

  24. John,

    My secret weapon is to tell my students that we are all “necromancers of dead ideas” and that each generation raises the zombies of long dead ideas whose arcane names they have forgotten. Here, we are here to remember and to see all these notions that are invisible to us … but are in truth zombies that walk amongst us….

    I did classical economics within the scope of Locke’s notions of freedom, rationality, and law today. Ended it with a 4-minute video on Behavioral Economics. Today, we slay maximizing self interest!

  25. It’s more the case with some texts than others, but as far as I can tell, lack of context is one reason students often find texts boring. For example, if you read Kant or Hegel without having first had a decent historical introduction to the periods they wrote in, what problems were prominent at the time in philosophy that they was responding to, what shared intellectual background their readers would’ve been expected to have, etc., it can seem fairly pointless and unmotivated, at times even stupid.

    A question I’m less sure about is when it’s better to just read a secondary source than the original, at least as an introduction, diving into the original only after first getting an overview. This seems more accepted in analytic philosophy. For example, if you want students to understand WVO Quine, having them actually read Quine is probably one of the worst ways to do it; his writing is dry and unclear, and these decades hence actually does a bad job of foregrounding which parts are still worth paying attention to, versus which parts were minor and now-forgotten disputes of the time. There are later expositors who present the meat of Quine’s insights in a much more clear and engaging way for a modern reader.

  26. A thought from a second-hand observer of high school students (my dear has been teaching them for 17 years now): reading, especially non-fiction, in general is considered an unwelcome activity, a punishment. There are numerous possible reasons for this (Facebook, Texting, etc. no doubt contribute to damaging language, as students use ‘wtf’, ‘lol’, etc. in written papers), but I wonder to what extent this is a side-effect of 1) teaching for standardized testing, 2) a loss of sense of the value of education that does not translate immediately into a job/money, 3) an increasing hostility to those who are educated in certain communities as ‘weak’, especially among young men.

    I’ll just touch on #2 because young people today are caught in a bind. Post-secondary education is almost mandatory unless one wants to be at a horrible disadvantage. Recently on NPR in Baltimore there was a discussion of the differences in income for students at various educational levels compared to 1969, adjusted for inflation. Without a high school degree, avg. income is around 50% of what that person could have expected to earn in 1969. With a diploma only, around 58%. With a Bachelors, around 96%. With a Masters, about the same.

    Colleges have also changed, with the rise of non-science, non-engineering “technical” degrees, like the now omnipresent and dominant Business degree. The number of students who come in with no interest in learning except as learning how to work the system (which is different from learning a craft or trade or learning a scientific or engineering-type degree which entails a very high educational level, albeit not necessarily in liberal arts) and who have to adopt this framework to justify the massive tuition expenses and long-term debt they will incur can’t be good.

    I went to DePaul in the 1980’s and actually there was always a pretty sharp intellectual divide between those of us in the Liberal and Fine Arts and the Business School, Nursing School, and Law School students in terms of an interest in ideas, and by far the B-School students were the worst. 100 and 200 level classes were a bit of a disaster as a result, but I suspect they are worse now that DePaul is not $5,500/yr.

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