Thursday, September 27, 2007

Quiet Finns?

One of the most common stereotypes about Finns is that we are very silent. If we speak, we speak in short sentences with a quiet but serious tone of voice.

Anyone observing my classes would quickly agree that this seems to be true, even among young university students. If I ask a question, it is met with silence. It has nothing to do with knowing the answer, I've tested with questions every knows the answer for. If I try to engage the group into a discussion, it never takes off. We have managed a spontaneous conversation with 3 exchanges (yes, I'm counting just like when doing keepy-uppies or playing tennis), but that's not what I would call a lively debate yet.

And yet, when I've met with them one-to-one to discuss their dissertations, it has been almost impossible to shut them up. I've overrun every single 15-minute slot I have given them for quick chats about dissertation topics, and not because I've had a lot to say, it's because they've been thinking aloud, asking questions, making suggestions etc.

Probably I've underestimated the social pressure they feel in the seminars and lectures when they are faced by their peers. Some people have suggested before that I must be a scary teacher and that I must be extremely demanding and intimidating (this is probably an extrapolation based on how I sound when coaching rowers at 6 AM...). I don't think this is the case, though. Definitely my students know that I'm as lenient as it gets and almost too understanding when people do things late or fail things. And if I am so scary, why do people not show that in the private supervisions? I'm sure it is the social situation in the lectures... Although it would be a bit cool to be scary... :-)

Speaking of the social situations, they can be funny. In the seminar there are a couple of older students who are very confident and also the first ones to answer questions or make comments, although only after a looong painful silence. When we were having a round table about research questions and difficult concepts that would need to be unpacked, many of the other students in the group were actually talking to them when explaining their work, rather than me or the rest of the group. Interestingly enough, these two are very certain about their work when presenting it in front of others but are having many more doubts and questions one-to-one. I don't mean to say this is a bad thing, on the contrary I think this shows their good social skills. And the fact that they aren't playing the confident know-it-all with me but are honest about what they know and what they've done is of course great. The challenge is to infect the others with some of that confidence, because some of them do have ideas that are as good or better.

The question remains: how to get people to contribute, how to start lively discussions in seminars, how to engage people in the kind of active learning experience we nowadays like to see our university courses? I guess partly it is something that grows over time, people are shy at first and it's not a sin. But partly it is about technique, and so I'm trawling lecturing pedagogy websites for ideas. Most of them are for American universities and some feel somewhat naïve, to put it mildly, but there are good tips as well. I'll try them and report how they worked...

The fact is, however, that if you have 50 people at the lecture, or 20 people in a seminar, there is only so much you can do. It just isn't the intimate supervision for three people I got used to at Cambridge. Also, a lecture is not a conference presentation or a political event, which I'm very familiar with. The lecturer is talking to students, not to his or her peers. You can't be patronising or assume you can get away with anything because you have the authority, but you need to be in charge and take responsibility of the situation, and the social interaction that takes place. Dealing with these kinds of audiences and these kinds of situations is a new experience for me, and there is a learning curve. It's very interesting, though.

(Pic: two mute swans, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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