If you have taught even a single class, then you know how hard it can be to stay enthusiastic when some/most of your student’s faces look like they are bored to death by what you’re saying. First off let’s clear the air, this happens to every teacher in every class at some point or another. This is not a sign that you are a bad, boring, or ineffective teacher. It is also not a sign that your students are somehow rude or unmotivated. A semester/quarter long class is an exercise in endurance for both teachers and students. Given the inevitability of these moments I suggest that you use them as an opportunity to teach your class something about Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Yawns, Heavy Sighs, and Screwed Up Faces

Before class starts on the day that I want to teach Goffman I pick 3-5 students who I’ve developed a relationship with and I ask each one of them to come sit up at the front of the class with their chairs turned so they face the rest of the students. I ask each of these students to silently take notes about their experiences viewing the class from this angle. I ask them to write down what people’s facial expressions look like, what they can see the students doing with their hands, and to write down anything they see that would make them think that a student is not really interested in the class or paying attention.

When class starts someone typically asks me why some of the students are sitting at the front. I come up with some fib on the spot, typically about norm violations. For the rest of the class I make no mention of the students at the front of the room or even look in their direction. I want the class to forget that they are there and act normally.

When we’re almost near the end of our discussion of Goffman I ask the class to work on a two minute paper or answer some questions in small groups. Then I quickly discuss with my observers what they saw and help them frame their observations in the language of Goffman. When I tell the class that the panel of students at the front have been taking notes about their facial expressions and body language they typically break up in laughter. Without fail the observers have found the experience eye opening and they say things like, “People in this class act like they are invisible” or “No one in here is good at hiding their phones while they text.” When I ask the panel if, based on the facial expressions and body language of the students, they think the class was interested in todays discussion of Goffman the panel almost always says, “no” or, “hell no”. The rest of the class is shocked to hear that their perceptions of their facial expressions and body language were so far from the perception of the observing students.

What I love about this activity is that I am not the one who has to tell the students how poorly they present themselves. If I were to simply tell them what I see everyday it would sound like nagging or maybe even offensive, but when they hear it from their peers they take the feedback with no argument. I also love this activity because it is like a tool kit that you can use later in the semester. If you look out onto your class and see a ocean of yawns, heavy sighs, and screwed up faces you can say, “Do you guys remember that Goffman activity we did because looking out at you all today it seems you may have forgotten the lessons learned.” Students immediately perk up or put away their cell phones.