Who or what is to blame for the idea that whoever dares speak in public must, above all, entertain? The adjective ‘boring’ has become absolutely pervasive in the classroom and, no doubt, a major enemy of learning. In recent days I have gone through so many situations connected with this that it is hard to choose where to begin… One thing I have noticed is that, although boredom may have a long-lived presence in the history of education, each generation seems to cope differently with it.

Since I don’t recall being bored in primary school I’ll argue that classroom boredom begins in adolescence, when the augmented narcissism of the students results in their belief that teaching should focus on them. Respect for the teacher is eroded if not lost for good then: ‘you bore me; I could do better; who cares about what you teach?’ As I teen secondary school student in the early 1980s, I coped with my own boredom mostly by daydreaming, and only occasionally by skipping class (severely frowned upon, then). My daydreaming strategy has not changed since then: it consists of looking at the speaker with all due attention, signalling with my body language that I care while my mind wanders off. I often complete this with making notes, actually about my daydreaming, though the speaker may be totally fooled into thinking it’s about the talk.

As a university student I found that my threshold of tolerance for bad lecturing decreased sharply, which resulted in my skipping many lectures–often to go to the library or stay home to study. Other classmates famously chose the bar, always crowded. If we did choose to attend a lecture, however, we mostly kept up appearances: we took (pretend) notes and I don’t recall anyone yawning (only discreetly), eating or drinking, slumping on the chair, much less sleeping. We may have looked at the speaker with glassy eyes but a certain degree of politeness was maintained. Perhaps we just took it for granted that teachers were boring or, rather, that learning was not about being entertained. If a teacher happened to be entertaining that was a bonus, though I distinctly recall that the highest valued university teachers were the ones with the most interesting personality, which does not mean they cared for students at all… Admiring students just hoped their idols noticed them. Really.

In recent days, however, I have seen this in my class: a) an MA student just laying her head on the table and falling asleep (I stopped my lecture to wake her up and invite her to take coffee, or leave), b) an undergrad leaving the classroom five minutes into my lecture. In this case I stopped to manifest my delight at having broken a new record in my career… boring a student in the shortest possible time. He never emailed me to say he was indisposed, so I assumed it was boredom. Students think we don’t notice this but from our vantage point we see everyone: the ones staring at the floor or the wall rather than look at us, the ones never making notes, the ones using twitter and Facebook, the ones eating… The body language says it all: I wish I were elsewhere… Perhaps we were just as bored but the etiquette code dictated that we had to, as I say, keep up appearances, beginning with sitting up decorously. This, I find, is gone. If students are bored, they plainly show it, perhaps feeling that honesty is the best policy. For the caring teacher this is unnerving for the only solution is to a) close your eyes to what it going on in class and drone on, b) throw a hysterical tantrum.

In the last three days I have attended a conference and I have had the chance to see these diverse generational strategies at work simultaneously, as the public ranged from post-grads in their early twenties to seasoned academics in their sixties. It’s not the first time I write here that conferences have grown into truly boring experiences as few speakers succeed in making the 20-minute paper or the 50-minute plenary lecture… engaging. No, I’m not using the adjective ‘entertaining’ for in conferences what matters, in my view, is the ability to communicate new ideas based on solid research using an adequate delivery style. Just let me tell you just about one panel session.

I was sitting in the front row, daydreaming and making notes, as I wondered what the speaker was talking about since she had hidden herself behind her paper and was delivering it in an amazingly monotonous voice (a friend told me this is called ‘lectura parapetada’ or ‘walled-in delivery’). If the speaker had, however, raised her head and looked at the audience she would inevitably have seen the young man sitting to my left, madly twitting as she spoke. Not about her talk, as I noticed. Then came an appalling young man who used his 20 minutes to bore us to death about his journey to Japan, where he had interviewed old glories of Japanese cinema for his documentary on Godzilla. I grew so furious at his impudence I could not even daydream. The guy next to me twitted on–this time the factoids in the speaker’s self-advertising campaign. To my consternation (and delight) a senior academic in the audience told off the Godzilla guy very rudely for his total cheek. This same academic, however, had slept through the previous speaker’s paper… so who was being rude to whom, I wonder?

Is this all, I wonder, the effect of the remote control and channel hopping, the idea that something more exciting is going on elsewhere? Or is it something else, the replacement of an ethics of endurance by the demand for constant excitement for other reasons? The older academics I saw fall asleep in the conference as the younger delegates twitted on confirm my thesis that different generations react differently to boredom.

Yet the older ones’ sleep suggests that 1980s sense of etiquette is gone for all… for aren’t we all becoming great narcissists? Entertain us or else. Easy to say, hard to do. And why should it be done at all?

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