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My Thoughts on Sleeping in Class

It’s time once again for a new semester.  This is not true everywhere; for some schools with greater prestige and the possibility that the graduate could become President of the United States (yeah, Republicans, we’re seeing that again,) it’s just the end of what is now denoted as Winter Break, with exams looming towards the end of January.  Perhaps that’s the secret to Ivy League success: anyone who can remember something over the break formerly known as Christmas Vacation can do just about anything.  But I digress…

In any case, any teacher who gets up in front of the class has to deal with either one or two extremes: either the students showing out or falling asleep.  Since my class is at 0800, and I have to darken the room for my PowerPoint presentations, the latter usually rules.  What I think about this is an interesting way to encapsulate a good deal of my approach as an educator.  In preparing my coursework, teaching, evaluating the students and receiving their own comments on what I do, there are several governing factors, some old, some new.

The first is that my “traditional” students (which are the majority of those I teach) are in the process of becoming adults.  Our society is bad about dragging out the road to adulthood; sometimes I think the ultimate goal is to eliminate that state altogether.  In any case part of that road is to take on some adult responsibilities along the way; one of those is keeping up with the studies.  Although we as a society waste a lot of time trying to motivate people to do all kinds of things paid and unpaid, it is my opinion that ultimately long-term motivation is something that has to start from the inside and move outward.  In this case, the end goal of a degree, an engineering licence and a career should be motivation enough to stay awake, and if it isn’t then the student needs to make some more fundamental self-examination.  This is especially true because I (and I don’t think I am alone) have the bad habit of making statements in passing in class that end up being critical on tests and homework.  (Most of the time these will also appear on my slides or in the book, but that doesn’t always help.)

The second is that having your audience fall asleep before your eyes is a signal you should try to make things more interesting.  That’s no mean trick in engineering courses, where the material is frequently complex and the students’ interest is varied from one to the next.  In the past education (and especially higher education) was more of a “process of elimination” affair; you either cut it or dropped out.  That’s going by the wayside, and in any case ever since I’ve been teaching here at UTC that’s never been the model put in front of me.  So I try to make things better.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I do not.  One reason we have a laboratory part of the geotechnical curriculum is to have at least one place where sleeping is next to impossible.

Third, as a Christian, I don’t think there’s a Biblical sanction for going postal when people fall asleep in your class.  Why, you ask, does being a Christian have anything to do with it?  Consider the following:

On the first day of the week, when we had met for the Breaking of Bread, Paul, who was intending to leave the next day, began to address those who were present, and prolonged his address till midnight. There were a good many lamps in the upstairs room, where we had met; And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, was gradually overcome with great drowsiness, as Paul continued his address. At last, quite overpowered by his drowsiness, he fell from the third storey to the ground, and was picked up for dead. But Paul went down, threw himself upon him, and put his arms round him. “Do not be alarmed,” he said, “he is still alive.” Then he went upstairs; and, after breaking and partaking of the Bread, he talked with them at great length till daybreak, and then left. Meanwhile they had taken the lad away alive, and were greatly comforted. (Acts 20:7-12.)

Face it: if they fell asleep on the Apostle Paul, who took the Gospel to the Gentiles and was inspired to write much of the New Testament, what can I expect?  Fortunately the window doesn’t open in my class…

Finally one must recognise that students burn the candle at both ends, and that sometimes it’s hard to do much else.  That gets into some time management issues, but I have enough trouble covering the material I have in front of me.

So we move onward…


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