Tag Archives: intelligence

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.


L’intellectuel s’assume

Le personnage de l’intellectuel(le) mérite bien son petit billet. D’autant que son identité est venue se loger à plusieurs reprises dans ma vie, ces derniers temps.

(Pour simplifier, et par référence à un contexte universaliste, j’utiliserai le terme «intellectuel» au masculin comme s’il était neutre.)

Oui, bien entendu, je suis moi-même un intellectuel et je m’assume en tant que tel. D’ailleurs, j’ai d’abord pensé intituler ce billet «Confessions d’un intellectuel solidaire» ou quelque-chose du genre. Mais la formule «Confessions d’un <nom><adjectif>» est déjà assez fréquente, sur ce blogue. Et je ne pense pas seulement de façon introspective à ce personnage.

D’ailleurs, c’est en lisant certains trucs au sujet de la fameuse Affaire Dreyfus que m’est venue l’idée d’écrire un billet sur la notion d’«intellectuel». Il s’avère que l’adoption du terme «intellectuel» pour désigner une certaine catégorie d’individu puisse dater de la France de la fin du XIXè siècle, y compris dans son usage anglais. Cette période historique m’a fortement influencé, surtout par la lecture de divers écrivains français de l’époque. Mais c’est moins par désir de reconstituer une réalité historique que je me mets à parler d’intellectuel que par intérêt pour la construction de personnages sociaux, quels qu’ils soient. Penser au fait que l’intellectuel est construit me permet de remettre en contexte social un ensemble de réalités qui m’apparaissent intéressantes. Surtout qu’elles peuvent facilement être liées à la «culture geek» qui m’intéresse tant, en plus de me toucher directement.

Évidemment, ce n’est pas la première fois que l’intellectuel comme personnage se retrouve sur ce blogue. Mais le contexte semblait particulièrement approprié, aujourd’hui.

Faut dire que je suis allé à un petit brunch avec des amis du primaire. Ça ne surprendra personne de savoir que ces amis me considéraient déjà comme un intellectuel à l’époque. Pas qu’ils aient utilisé le terme. Mais l’étiquette était là. Sauf que, contrairement à ce que j’ai ressenti il y a près de trente ans, cette étiquette n’était pas la base d’un rejet.

D’ailleurs, je pense souvent à la théorie de l’étiquetage. Elle était même présente dans un cours de sociologie que j’enseignais l’été dernier. Pour simplifier: les étiquettes qui nous sont collées ont des implications durables dans nos agissements sociaux. Ou, pour citer Howie Becker selon un dictionnaire suisse:

Le comportement déviant est ce que les gens étiquettent comme tel ; le déviant est celui à qui on a réussi à coller cette étiquette

(Évidemment, j’étends la notion d’étiquetage hors de la déviance au sens strict.)

Dans ce contexte, le comportement d’intellectuel est celui qui est étiquetté comme tel. L’intellectuel est celui à qui on a réussi à coller cette étiquette.

Version personnelle (que j’ai même eu l’occasion d’exposer à un ami du primaire): je me comporte en fonction de l’étiquette d’intellectuel qui a été posée sur moi, dès le jeune âge. Pas que cette étiquette est abusive: elle colle parce qu’elle trouve une surface qui s’y prête. Mais le personnage de l’intellectuel n’est pas naturel, universel, atemporel ou dénué d’ambiguïté.

Parlant d’ambiguïté, faudrait penser à le définir, cet intellectuel.

Selon Wikipedia:

Un intellectuel est une personne qui, du fait de sa position sociale, dispose d’une forme d’autorité et s’engage dans la sphère publique pour défendre des valeurs.

Pas mal. C’est un peu la base de mon premier billet sur les intellectuels. L’engagement public prend diverses formes et on comprend le lien avec l’Affaire Dreyfus.

Mais les usages communs du terme (et d’«intellectualisme» et “intellectualism“) semblent aller dans diverses autres directions. D’abord, la notion d’une intelligence «supérieure» (que les cognitivistes relativisent si bien mais qui semble consensuelle, socialement). Cette perception de l’intelligence est liée à une forme d’élitisme, l’intellectuel fait partie d’une élite particulière et exclue parfois ceux qui n’en font pas partie. Puis il y a la notion de «rationalité», l’intellectuel conçu comme étant «loin de ses émotions». Ou la maladresse et le manque d’aptitudes manuelles, le terme «intellectuel» alors utilisé pour exprimer un certain mépris. Pour aller plus loin, on peut même dire que le fait de souscrire à un certain dualisme «corps/esprit» est souvent teinté d’«intellectualisme».

Ces dénotations et connotations me semblent toutes appropriées pour décrire un type précis d’intellectuel: le «geek» (j’aime bien «geekette» pour le féminin; il y a relativement peu de femmes geeks). Le personnage du geek est une part important du stéréotype contemporain lié à l’intellectuel. Contrairement au «nerd» des années 1980, le geek a désormais une place de choix au sein de la culture populaire. Et la réhabilitation du geek constitue un mouvement contraire à une vague d’anti-intellectualisme très patente aux États-Unis et dans d’autres sociétés post-industrielles.

Penser au geek en tant qu’intellectuel permet de situer le personnage dans son contexte social. D’un point de vue professionnel, le geek typique est souvent ingénieur, informatien ou scientifique. Le contexte scolaire a souvent accordé beaucoup d’importance aux notes qu’il obtenait. Il est peut-être très apte à entreprendre diverses activités manuelles, il peut même «travailler de ses mains autant que de sa tête», mais son intellect demeure valorisé. C’est «un cerveau», un “brainiac”. Pas que son «niveau d’intelligence» est nécessairement plus élevé que la moyenne, mais le type particulier d’intelligence qui le caractérise correspond largement à l’idée qu’on se fait généralement du «quotient intellectuel»: capacité d’abstraction, sens logique, rapidité à résoudre des équations ou à se remémorer une information, minutie…

Pour revenir à la construction sociale du personnage de l’intellectuel. Malgré certaines transformations au cours du dernier siècle, l’intellectuel conserve un statut social particulier. Dans un modèle d’économie politique (à la fois dans sa version capitaliste que socialiste), l’intellectuel fait partie d’une espèce de classe sociale avec ses caractéristiques particulières. C’est un type de «col blanc» qui ne fait pas un travail très routinier. C’est aussi l’individu qui bénéficie du privilège lié à l’éducation post-secondaire dans les sociétés post-industrielles. C’est celui qui a le loisir de lire et de parfaire son apprentissage. C’est le public-cible de «La Culture», au sens raffiné du terme. C’est peut-être même un snob, un personnage hautain, l’opposé du «vrai monde».

Et c’est là que le mode introspectif me fait réagir: je suis peut-être un intellectuel, mais je suis pas snob. Si je suis «anti-» quoi que ce soit, c’est anti-snob. Et je ne considère pas l’intellectuel comme plus intelligent qu’un autre. Je considère surtout l’intellectuel comme une création des sociétés post-industrielles, basées sur la division pointue du travail social. Même que, ce snobisme, c’est ce qui me dérange le plus du fait d’être intellectuel. C’est probablement pour ça que, même si je m’assume comme intellectuel, je tente souvent d’effacer cette étiquette. «Je suis un intellectuel mais je suis aussi un bon gars.»

Dans mon cas, le fait d’être considéré comme un intellectuel a beaucoup de lien avec mon éloquence perçue. On m’a toujours considéré comme éloquent. Enfant, déjà, je «parlais bien». Du moins, c’est ce qu’on a dit de moi (pas plus tard qu’aujourd’hui). Bon, d’accord, comme l’art oratoire a toujours été valorisé dans ma famille, j’ai probablement été porté à m’amuser avec le verbe. Aussi, je lisais déjà beaucoup, enfant. Et j’écrivais: à l’âge de dix ans, je tapais à la dactylo un petit texte au sujet de la perfection (qui semble logiquement impossible puisqu’elle est une absence de défaut). Et j’avais l’occasion de m’exprimer. Auprès d’adultes, surtout.

D’ailleurs, c’est probablement un point très important. Tout jeune, j’avais des rapports assez étroits avec plusieurs adultes (des amis de mes parents, surtout). J’étais souvent le seul enfant parmi de nombreux adultes. Plusieurs d’entre eux étaient profs (comme mon père). On m’écoutait avec intérêt. Dans une certaine mesure, j’étais presque pavané comme un animal de cirque qui pouvait discourir sur tout et sur rien. Mon père a souvent parlé de tout ça comme d’un problème fondamental. Peut-être par extension, mon étiquette d’intellectuel était perçue comme un problème. Fondamental.

Je considère aujourd’hui que je me suis bien développé. Je suis ce que j’ai toujours voulu être et je peux parfois faire ce que j’ai toujours voulu faire. Je devrais pas avoir honte.

D’être un intellectuel.

Curmudgeon Phase

Just a placeholder but I do want to write something longer about attitudes toward “people with attitude.”

I get the impression that, at least in intellectual circles in the United States or other Anglo contexts, there’s a common (to my mind mis-)conception that curmudgeony people are somehow “smarter” than anyone else. Not only do I think this would be an inaccurate characterization, but I think it’s embedded in broader issues about anti-intellectualism, social change, and philosophy.

Sure, some of the best-known curmudgeons have had some interesting ideas to share. But I see no connection between a miserly attitude and any form of insight. I even think that some people are adopting the attitude to position themselves as “intelligent people,” regardless of how intelligent they are (in quality as well as in “perceived measure”). To go even further, I think that the negative attitude in question is often but a phase in a longer process of intellectual discovery and that “enlightened” people often have a much more serene attitude.

In other words, I sometimes get the feeling that some people use an opinionated tone to fake being smart.

There. I’ve said it.

Now, I don’t mean to say that curmudgeons aren’t intelligent. My concept of intelligence doesn’t even work that way (I think there are different forms of intelligence, that intelligence can’t necessarily be measured, etc.). But I do think that some of the actual impostors (not those relating to the impostor syndrome) are using what they perceive as a “status symbol of intellectual prowess” to bolster their self-confidence in contexts which give a lot of prestige to so-called “smart people.”

As dismissive as it ends up sounding, I almost take the “curmudgeon phase” as the wit-focused equivalent to the awkward period of physical changes during puberty. It even reminds me of an exceedingly pointed mockery, by a member of Montreal’s intelligentsia, that a well-known Montreal journalist was “living beyond his intellectual means.” Though the mockery is very nasty, I happen to think that it encapsulated something of the journalist’s attitude which is worth considering. That journalist isn’t really that cranky (especially when compared with “professional curmudgeons” in the United States) but he clearly has “an attitude.” And I really don’t perceive that attitude as a sign of intellectual superiority. (Not that I have a clear notion of what “intellectual superiority” should entail but, hopefully, ya catch my drift.)

Some non-cranks seem to share the curmudgeons’ association of wits with ‘tude. At least, something similar may have been at stake when Douglas N. Adams, whom I’d have a hard time perceiving as a curmudgeon, wrote neurotic elevators and other technological annoyances into his Guide. Now, neurosis and ill-temper aren’t connected by necessity. But the notion that sentient technology would likely have a very negative attitude toward life (as well as toward the Universe and even toward Everything) seems to me to relate to the idea that it isn’t really possible to be both exceedingly intelligent and unbelievably happy. Slartibartfast‘s distinctions between happiness and truth contributes to my impression. And it seems quite likely that DNA wasn’t that serene a person, despite all the happiness to which he has contributed.

Ok, I guess that’ll have to do for now. It’s actually a relief to be writing this. As I’m becoming much more serene, I want to let go of this negativity which I’ve been encountering in some self-important circles.


“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?” does sound less dismissive than the “if you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?” that I’d like to level at some ultra-competitive materialists.