I’ve had a problem for many years, and it’s one that many university educators are similarly perplexed by, too. Why is it that our students are more willing to work part-time jobs until 1am in the morning, then come to our classes and believe that they can sleep? I tell my students to either be awake and be present, or be marked absent, even if they are physically in the room, though asleep.
The answer came to me in a podcast by Lauri Taylor a sociologist who presents the Thinking Allowed programme on BBC Radio 4. In one of his weekly programmes titled, “Baristas; People’s History” he interviews an American researcher, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, who wondered why on an exceptionally snowy day her class was empty, yet the local franchise café was very well staffed… by the university students. Her subsequent research seemed to explain everything, even though her research was limited to the north-east side of the US, it still seems to apply here in Japan, too.
Brands (or rather, companies), like Starbucks have an exceptional brand image which seems to be the main attraction. The staff are predominately middle-class or aspiring middle-class. Their physical appearance suggests an affluence both financial and cultural. They appear to enjoy their jobs, too. However, the salary is low, there are no benefits like medical, health, maternity leave, and such, the hours are long, and the work is hard (I’ve done this kind of work, and it’s really quite taxing on the body). And did I mention the low salary that these affluent middle-class kids would be getting. They apparently don’t actually need the money, but the company has a preference for such people, despite the lower and working class students actually needing these jobs. So the question remains, why do young affluent people who don’t need the money so much, do this hard work?
The answer is that that’s where their friends are. It’s a social atmosphere for them. They say that they are needed there, unlike in our classrooms. This morning it rang particularly true, when in one such franchise café the staff seemed genuinely happy about their lot in life. They didn’t give me an airline hostess type of smile, but a genuine one. They had energy, and they happily coordinated with each other. They seemed to enjoy their jobs. I’ve had a sense that I’ve been competing against part-time work in my classes, and I think I’ve started to find a winning formula, but I have never really understood why it would be a winning formula. I’ve learnt to make my classes a social atmosphere, and include more pair and group work. And in a Scott Thornbury way of thinking, value the students themselves and their personal contributions to the class. It’s actually quite simple. I get them to do just five minutes of small talk at the start of each lesson. I give them some prompts, some structure, and some ideas of answers and how to proceed with extended answers. I also have students to think about and engage with social issues that they, as future leaders of society, would need to be engaging with. So now, I have a much better idea of what’s happening, why, and so now I can fine tune my approach. What is needed though is specific research here in Japan with our students. However, I wonder if this affects everyone in Japan and other countries, too.