Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students show so little passion?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

In my home country, students feel very comfortable challenging professors in class, and the professors expect and encourage this. I was disappointed to find that students here did not engage in the same lively back-and-forth, nor are they very politically engaged. Back home, students were at the vanguard of political movements and often protested in the streets. I wish my students here showed a little more fire!

I guess there are pros and cons to the level of political engagement I saw from students back home. Public universities in my country are often shut down by student strikes and political protests. In fact, that’s one of the reasons my parents sent me to a private college. While I’d like my U.S. students to care more about what’s going on around them, I can see how it’s difficult for students at this university to focus on much more than their studies: academic work is fairly all-consuming. I also recognize that students at some other U.S. universities are more actively involved in social protest. In fact, on TV the other day, I saw students at a state university getting pepper sprayed by police. So maybe it’s not so different after all… Still, I keep working to get my students more engaged with political and social issues. I use readings that draw on controversial social topics, and I’ve begun to use more debate techniques, to encourage students to take and defend a position. I think I’m seeing some progress.

Other strategies 

  • If you’d like students to challenge you more in class, tell them explicitly what you’d like them to do and (perhaps more importantly) why (e.g., “Experts can sometimes lead whole societies astray, so I want you to question authorities, including me. If I say something in class that you don’t accept, I encourage you to speak up so we can explore the issue in greater depth.”)
  • Ask questions that encourage students to connect the material they’re learning to their own lives and world, to consider the ethical implications of theories, policies, and technologies they’re studying, etc. Don’t assume, though, that students follow the same current events that you do. Instead, ask them what they know relevant to the connections you want them to make.
  • Students may confuse disagreement with rudeness. It’s important to model polite, respectful disagreement yourself. It’s also helpful to provide students with language for expressing polite disagreement (e.g.,: “The point you raise is a good one, but...”, “I agree with much of what you’re saying, but have to challenge one idea…” “This is an interesting line of reasoning, but what about...”)
  • Respond positively when students disagree constructively with you, with one another, and/or with the authors you’re reading (e.g., “That’s a really interesting point, Ellen. What do the rest of you think?” “I love that you’re willing to debate these issues with one another. Keep that up!”).
  • Show students examples of “good” arguments in writing or on screen, and engage them in a discussion of what makes an argument compelling, civil, logical, or emotionally resonant. Use the discussion to explore the kinds of discourses students find compelling as well as to highlight what you consider effective.
  • Ask students what issues they care most about and how they think change (social, political, environmental, economic) is best brought about. You may find that they do care deeply, but express their concerns differently than you do or focus on different issues.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.