This earnest Harvard student, writing for the campus paper, even goes to the trouble of interviewing Facebooking fellow students. Why do they do it?

Two reasons emerge:

1. The professor is dull, confusing, off on tangents all the time.

2. They’ve got other urgent business to transact during class.

It’s true that you can now run, say, a real estate agency and sit in a lecture hall at the same time (Jared Kushner ran a real estate empire and went to Harvard – undergraduate – at the same time); and I think UD speaks for all professors when she says Fantastic. She wouldn’t think of interfering with her students making money while she talks about Keats.

The article writer takes the quality of teaching thing very much to heart; he notices that some of the famously good teachers at Harvard experience little Facebook use in their classes. But he makes a mistake when he concludes that the solution to the problem lies in professors being more like Facebook:

Rather than perceiving technology as a competing force in the classroom, our creative and distinguished faculty should explore innovative teaching methods that harness the same technological force to uniquely personalize class content and deliver it in a powerful, Facebook-type manner.

The hot professors the student singles out – Niall Ferguson, for instance – don’t compel attention because they’re Facebooky. They compel attention because in their lectures they meld a strong – even charismatic – personality with a restlessly polemical understanding of their field, and indeed of the world.

Ferguson wows classes by candidly sharing his strong opinions on world history and current events.

Far from the just-sitting-there information available on the web, strong teachers are up and about, exhibiting to students the crackling synergy of mind and material.

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6 Responses to ““Harvard students are, for the most part, intellectually curious. Their professors are leaders in their fields and senior advisers to governments and corporations. Why such talented students choose to surf the internet over actively listening to their distinguished professors is quite the paradox.””

  1. theprofessor Says:

    I am a little surprised that “complete self-absorption” did not make the list of explanations.

  2. Rita Says:

    What if these best professors are actually quite terrible and students like them b/c they provide the closest thing to college credit for learning what they already know? That’s not so incompatible with the demand that professors be more like Facebook. If a university education can never fully become as fun and frivolous as Facebook (unless it’s actually conducted via Facebook), you may as well opt for those courses which come closest, avoid the challenging, abstract, and “irrelevant” ones, and praise the professors who offer them to you.

  3. Total Says:

    You had me until you held up Niall Ferguson. He may be charismatic in the classroom, but he’s a crap historian.

    Father Coughlin was a charismatic speaker, with a relentlessly polemical understanding of the world.

  4. theprofessor Says:

    For a certain percentage of students, perhaps 30% at this place, the profs are basically ghosts, ethereal beings who float across the front of the room and occasionally make sufficiently loud noises to penetrate their consciousness and distract the kids momentarily from their naps, daydreaming, Face-booking, cell-phone-checking, planner-doodling, Twilight reading, etc. A common question I ask of advisees: “How is your math (literature, history, poli sci, etc.) class going? What teacher do you have?” Common responses:

    Umm, I’m not sure. Some woman, I think.
    He talks very loud sometimes.
    I think his last name is Jones or Minkowski or something.
    She tries to dress too young if you ask me.

  5. Timothy Burke Says:

    The point is about format, if you read the piece carefully. In many ways, I think it reinforces the argument I’ve made to Margaret here before, that to regard information technology or Facebook as the sufficient cause of student distractedness is to miss the real issue. The issue is an instruction format which is often no better than consuming information in other formats (textbooks, Wikipedia, notes, Khan Academy) and is sometimes far worse in terms of learning and engagement.

    Ferguson may, for example, be a deeply flawed scholar and polemicist, but if he knows how to lecture engagingly, then that’s worth *something*. The only people who *should* lecture routinely are those who excel at it as a format. Professors who are good scholars but who lecture dully, mechanically, should be glad to yield that time to digital material, textbooks, some other channel of information and to spend the time they have face-to-face with students on something more valuable, something richer, something closer to the ethos of their scholarship: more dialogic, more exploratory, more hands-on.

    This would mean, of course, that universities which charge premium prices and then expect students to sit in 600-person lecture halls listening to a confusing, droning presentation that restates a textbook or online notes would need to retool. (And maybe that textbooks should also be better, or that the premium universities should create their own premium instructional materials.)

  6. Total Says:

    “Ferguson may, for example, be a deeply flawed scholar and polemicist, but if he knows how to lecture engagingly, then that’s worth *something*.”

    Actually, I don’t think it is. Being more able to sell a deeply-flawed polemical message means that you’re selling a deeply-flawed polemical message.

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