I go for a fairly down-to-earth approach. I start off by explaining the rationale for the reading circles: first the general function, to give them a set of tools they can use when they have to work more independently next year. I follow this with a more specific argument: that this term’s Reading Circles are a way of helping them prepare for their final assignment, a more immediate appeal to their self-interest. Then follows a hint of the lash — I tell them that their work has been sloppy and that, in particular, nobody has posted their sources to the class Facebook page. This leads me into one of my favourite rants, that university is all about following instructions and nobody will care about their creative ideas if they do not complete the assignments according to the specifications. This last section is a bit more heartfelt. It is actually a little too close to home, as I spent most of my undergraduate career learning this lesson the hard way.
After that, the students are quieter and a little sheepish. After class ends, Facebook notifications pop up as they post their missing homework, slowly at first, then all in a rush, a little like microwave popcorn. Then, through some kind of morphic resonance, the other class, far less delinquent in the first place, begins to post homework that is not yet due. I hear from my fellow teachers that their students also became unusually conscientious at about that point.
Was it something I said? Did one of those arguments reach them? Did I, in fact, “make a difference,” to quote the mantra of a more idealistic colleague? Or was it just the fact that I expressed dissatisfaction — would they have reacted the same way whatever I had said? Maybe it’s neither of the above, just a coincidence that they chose this moment to do the work. I decide to believe the first explanation — it works for me. I too need my suspension of disbelief.