I recently asked my students to read Margaret Atwood's "A Letter to America" for the next class period and to come prepared to speak about it. Just to be sure there was no confusion, I reiterated several times the part about being prepared to make comments--aloud--on the reading. On Thursday. Read Atwood's two-page essay and come prepared. To speak. Have something to say about Atwood's perspective and how she couches her argument. Thursday is when this is happening. Atwood. Two pages. Read them. Make comments.
Come Thursday, however, the most thoughtful--and damn near only--response offered was: She's old and Canadian and obviously she's upset that things aren't the same as the good old days.
Not wanting to bore you with the details of how poorly I handled the situation, it should suffice to say that at one point I asked if they were actively committed to stumbling willy-nilly through their respective worlds like blindfolded sheep. Several students chuckled at this non-rhetorical question, and so I also laughed but mostly to help mitigate the poor form of my reaction.
Auto-browbeaten and otherwise non-plussed, I shared my lament with several colleagues (because whining and bitching to one another is apparently one of our chief coping mechanisms and ostensibly the best argument for communal office space). In so doing, one Steve Rucker--he being a scholar, gentleman, and otherwise real congenial bastard--shared with me his take on this problem. Fortunately for you, he elaborates this in his April 2nd blog ("I am the Joe DiMaggio...")--which I hadn't then yet read--and so I won't recount it here.
What appeals to me about Steve's approach, though, is that it attempts to demystify what seems to me are some of the more counter-productive aspects of the typical student-teacher dynamic by establishing a substantial degree of pedagogical transparency. Perhaps because I've had a consistently rough go at generating student participation (excepting the sport vs. game debate), and also because I share many of Steve's sentiments regarding what may be the source of their reticence to speak up, it strikes me as logical that elucidating one's teaching philosophy to students may go a long way towards alleviating their fears. Maybe more so, I think, if you subscribe to a Social Constructivist model, since alerting students to the notions that 1) you don't perceive yourself as the sole bearer of Truth within the classroom (ie, acknowledging your fallibility), and therefore 2) they are expected to be active in the construction of the truth-making process should help significantly undermine their fears of sounding "stupid" or what have you.
I feel like it's too late in the semester for me to implement this kind of pedagogical transparency with any sufficient impact, though I anticipate giving it a whirl next semester for sure. In the meantime, I'll be sure to stay apprised of how it's working out for ol' Steve "DiMaggio" Rucker.