Look, I was a college student once, sort of, and I did plenty of college student things that I wouldn't necessarily care to share with you today. (Primarily because the statute of limitations might not yet be up on a few of them.)
So I'm going to make this suggestion in the kindest and gentlest way possible, fully aware that I could be speaking just as well to my goofy 19-year-old self as I am to students today.
Buena Vista University could use a class is listening.
This week, I sat in on a seminar - a really interesting one at that - but I found it difficult to focus on what the presenter was saying.
Two guys next to me were stone asleep not 10 minutes into the thing. I briefly considered looking for a pulse to see if they were still among the living.
In the row in front, a couple of dudes were whispering like Campfire girls amped up on a s'more sugar high, poking each other, making faces and gesturing to their BFF across the room, and constantly playing with their cellphones like monkeys with a red rubber ball. A little further down the row, a guy - we'll call him Ringo - was drumming away on the desk. In the back row, a sleeveless character was violently rocking his chair back and forth, nearly hitting the wall. A couple had their heads on the desk, a few others were deeply engrossed in gnawing their fingernails, and one had oriented himself in order to look at a wall instead of the speaker.
A few others were engaged in the classic collegiate symbolism of making sure everyone in the room is enlightened to the fact that this is the last place on earth they want to be: rolling eyes, staring slack-jawed at the ceiling, slumping in seats with arms crossed like vampires warding off garlic. Oh please, don't let us learn anything.
I know that pose, I use it every week during our staff meeting at work. The body English is unmistakeable.
The presenter, a post-doctoral expert who had come all the way from Illinois, was informed and passionate. She deserved an attentive audience.
Don't get me wrong now, a lot of the students in the room were great listeners, polite and attentive. They probably learned something that night. When others in the room leaped up to stampede out babbling loudly the second the clock signaled the end of the session with the presenter still speaking, the ones who were trying to get something out of the event "shushed" the others. The offenders didn't notice, or if they did, didn't care.
I get it. This is college, pressures, homework, hostage learning. Not every subject is going to intensely capture every student.
But, listening is a skill - just as much as speaking a foreign language, programming a computer, mastering a musical instrument, or playing football.
If there is such a thing as a predictor of success, the ability to listen might, in fact, be alone atop the list.
Now I'm not saying you're hopeless if you have a habit of screwing around during class, but you're sure not helping yourself either.
Think your professor is going to be inclined to bump up your grade or spend extra energy on you, if you spend class time with dramatic yawns, loudly chewing gum, propped up on an elbow, and checking the latest scores? Wouldn't count on it, homeboy.
In another seminar a few days earlier, the BVU faculty host singled out a student using a cell phone during the speaker's presentation. "Put ... that... down," she said, emphasis on the last word, and there was no mistake, this is an order and not a suggestion. I wanted to run down there and hug her for it.
A lot of college students only realize when they are done with college that they paid a lot of money - or their parents did - for an education. In the world after college, smart and talented people are not going to throw themselves at you to try to help you learn and experience new things. You get those few short years of that supernova of learning, and when it's over, it's over.
In the moment, a class, a lecture, a seminar, a performance may be just something that you have to go to, a chore. Only much later you may realize what a luxury it is to be able to hear a story directly from the well-versed expert in the subject. Facetime - it's so much more real than seeing it in a TV documentary, book or online article. I wish I'd paid more attention to the opportunities I resented as a 19-year-old.
I know that BVU requires students to attend a certain number of cultural offerings for credits. Tough call for a college there.
If you don't force students to attend, presenters coming in from around the country may be left speaking or performing to empty rooms, and some of your students may graduate no more culturally aware of the world than the day they arrived. And if you do require attendance, you will have the eye-rollers who don't want to be there, distracting at best, embarrassing at worst.
Maybe we all need a class in how to listen (or at least how to look like you are). Like it or not, your listening skills will define your life. After college, you will need that skill in your relationships, your workplace, every aspect of life, every day. If you're going to act like some of these students did, in a job interview someday, you better hope dad owns the company.
In the absence of such a class, here's a few things I've learned the hard way.
1. You're not going to die if you can't check your damn cell phone every minute of the day. There's nothing ruder than slumping over staring at a phone when someone is trying to talk to you. Cut it out.
2. Eye contact matters. I tell young reporters to make sure they leave every interview able to describe the color of the person's eyes. Do that with everyone you meet, and you will know people better and learn more. Words may fool you, but eyes tell you everything.
3. If someone is trying to inform you, be courteous enough to bring something to write on. Almost no one in this lecture did, and that just tells the presenter that you don't plan to take anything away from the experience.
4. Engage. Someone is trying to reach you here, do your part. Sit up straight, be open. Use your expressions to communicate back. Show some appreciation, let the person know their message matters. The more you show interest, the more effort others will give sharing with you. I was at two seminars at BVU in the past week, and one kid - just one - who was at both bothered to thank both presenters, introduce himself, and ask a question. I'd buy stock in that guy's future right now.
5. Don't overlook anyone. You may learn more from a homeless person on a street than you can from the most powerful senator, you may get sharper insight from a 6-year-old than from someone with great celebrity or wealth. You'll only know if you listen to them.
6. I wish someone had told me this stuff when I was 19. But if they did, I wonder if I would have been listening?