“The Spirit Is Willing But the Flesh is Weak”: Why are Freshman Lectures So Empty?
story | Wisha Jamal, Staff Writer and Alex Goh, Contributing Reporter
photo | Alex Goh
At 9.30 am on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Common Curriculum lectures are held in the Performance Hall, offering freshpeople in-depth perspectives on texts from Herodotus’ Histories to Aristotle’s Politics. However, each week, the number of empty seats becomes noticeably higher. It appears that the Class of 2022 are following in the footsteps of their predecessors, despite lecture times being shifted half an hour later than they were for previous batches.
Why is a substantial chunk of the Class of 2022 skipping morning lectures?
To get to the bottom of this, The Octant went straight to the top; we interviewed Associate Professors Neil Mehta and Andrew Hui, who are course facilitators for the common curriculum subjects Philosophy and Political Thought 1 (PPT1) and Literature and Humanities 1 (LitHum1), respectively.
Both lecturers agreed that the problem of low attendance was perennial, with Mr. Hui characterizing the problem as “ubiquitous”. He stated that “in every place [where he has] taught, students just seem to think lectures are dispensable. It’s not unique to Yale-NUS.” Mr. Mehta noted that attendance tends to dip “especially at the end of the semester.” And he is not wrong. If you visit the performance hall during the lecture timings, you will notice the empty spaces where students used to be growing larger.
When asked why they skip lectures, one first-year responded,”It’s too early. And most of the time it’s not very useful, especially if you have already done the readings.” Another first-year offered an alternative account of the lecture. “It’s an hour spent on context,” they said. “I don’t need that to understand the Ramayana.”
Some other first-years said that to improve attendance, lectures should focus more on content and information dumping. Yet, one adamant soul said, “I don’t think there’s much that can change.”
In an attempt to rectify this issue, course facilitators have been employing numerous measures to raise lecture attendance. “Over the last couple of years, we have worked to ensure that lecture material is incorporated into seminars and to teach students how to learn the most from a lecture,” Mr. Mehta explained.
As of this year, PPT1 faculty have started using pre-lecture “reflection questions” to record the attendance of students, and according to Mr. Hui, individual LitHum1 faculty will often have quizzes in seminars to determine whether their students showed up for lectures.
When asked to assess the effectiveness of the measures used in previous years, Mr. Mehta said “I think that what’s most effective is to do all of these things together. Students are most likely to attend lectures if they see the relevance of that material to what’s happening in seminars, if they know how to grasp that material, and if we show them that we care about lecture attendance.”
Mr. Hui had a slightly different take regarding the imposition of these measures. “This is a liberal arts college and I don’t feel we should impose coercive measure on students, otherwise it might backfire and students get resentful,” he said. “At this point students are empowered to take their education in their own hands. There is only so much faculty can do.”
“But of course,” he added, “other faculty might feel differently.”
First-years’ disregard for lectures seems to be a problem with no end in sight. It seems that every year, Yale-NUS College will tweak the system in hopes that students will stop being callous with their education, and every year, the seats will grow emptier as the semester nears its end.
Will freshman lectures always be so empty? One hopes not, but Mr. Hui says it best: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!”
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