My informant is a professor at a university in the United States. He told me this legend, which is performed by professors to other professors at casual university events.
“The students are famously docile. They don’t—they’re not self-starters in any way, k? And the story is told that one teacher once went into a dark windowless classroom, uh, turned on the lights, and found that the entire class was present in the room already, but that no body had taken the initiative to turn on the lights, ok?”
I asked him to tell me how he first learned the story and if he passed it on.
“Now, this was told to me during my first year there where like most of the loser teachers, I had a windowless classroom and I was shocked. And I told it to many, many fellow faculty people coming in in order to explain the kind of work you have to do to get these kids animated, that kind of thing. Um, and, I—it so captures the truly shocking passivity of these students that I really believe its essence, but when I think about it, it sounds farfetched even about the most passive students I know, k?
I asked my informant what the story means to him.
“Of all the folklore that I’m thinking of, this is the one that’s planted deepest in me. And what interests me is that I tell it in order to confirm a belief of mine, and to explain something that remains mysterious, painful, and shocking, which is the passivity of those students. What interests me is the personal investment in the fiction which makes you overlook the problems with it because it’s so delicious to tell. It’s one-to-one but it’s actually performing a kind of healing work, I think, for each person who hears it and tells it. It explains to them why they’re having such a difficult time. That’s—that’s the gift of it, right? It’s like waving a magic wand and saying ‘This is not your fault.’ That’s the use.”
I believe this legend has stuck with my informant because it confounds him. He is someone who is so good at engaging with students and creating a lively classroom that the idea of a completely passive class challenges what he’s used to. I also think this legend not only comforts professors having a difficult time engaging with their students, but also gives a sense of communal struggle among the faculty. It says “We’re all in this together,” and in that way, makes each professor feel less alone in their efforts to bring their classes to life. It’s also a more acceptable way for them to vent their frustration about the students. Outright insulting the student population would be considered inappropriate. But, by masking their frustration within a story about someone else they can convey their opinion without coming off as rude or disdainful.