In Lastoursville, Gabon, I had it good.  Every morning at the mother-infant clinic where I taught health and nutrition, I had a captive audience of young mothers who’d come to have their babies weighed.  It was the law of the land:  Every month the mothers had to make the arduous trip from their villages in the outlying areas to this central hospital in Gabon’s rain forested interior to see where their babies fit on the “courbe de croissance” (growth curve) chart taped to the wall.  If a baby was found to be underweight, which meant seriously ill, he or she would be admitted to the hospital on the spot.


While they waited in the large anteroom for their names to be called to have their babies placed on the cold, metal scale in the nurses’ adjoining office, the mothers sat respectfully and listened to me.  If awake, their babies nursed contentedly; but mostly they slept soundly in their mothers’ laps while I rambled on in my feeble French about such topics as the World Health Organization’s designated “Three Food Groups” or how to make a rehydration drink to prevent their children from dying of diarrhea.


Okay, it’s true I did bribe them to pay close attention.  I offered to give them small packets of vegetable seeds (in recycled Lipton tea packets) at the end of my lecture, if they agreed to: (a) listen to what I had to say, (b) share what they’d learned with a friend back in their village, and (c) plant the seeds in a protected (from roaming goats, for example) little kitchen garden.  This ploy worked.  Free seeds and the prospect of a vegetable garden providing healthy produce for their families made them sit up, look up, and stay tuned.


These fond memories from fifteen-or-so years ago make me wonder.  What might I do today to bribe my current college students to sit up, look up, and stay tuned?  Alas, my competition is ubiquitous and stiff:  screens.  Not just TV screens and video game screens and computer screens; now, even in off-the-beaten-track Taos, NM, students are glued to handheld screens, tucked in their laps during class.  At the start of the semester, I look out at my full class of freshmen English students and see half with heads down.  Strange thoughts flit through my mind, derailing me from my lesson plan:  Are they praying?  Sleeping?  Playing with themselves?


Too curious for words, I wander over to their tables and glance down.  No, of course, they’re texting.


By mid-semester, half the class – roughly that texting half — has dropped out of my English 102 because they couldn’t seem to tear themselves away from their various, distracting, all-absorbing screens long enough to do the required coursework.  Reading, I’ve witnessed in recent years, has become “uncool” to many young college students, and writing (to use a college-level word those students would not know to use) irrelevant.


Do I sound old and curmudgeonly?  Well, as we say in feeble French, “tant pis.”


But getting back to bribery:  Would bribery work?  Brow-beating certainly doesn’t.  Lectures about the good ol’ days, when I was an undergraduate and had to read a whole book a week for my English classes, fall on deaf ears and deadpan faces.  Lofty oratory about democracy being dependent on an educated, informed, literate citizenry only works with the few (mostly older) A students.  They nod.  But what about the rest?


Perhaps I could bribe them with food?  Maybe I could say, “If you sit up, look up, and stay tuned, I’ll reward you with homemade brownies at the end of class?”  I suspect some of them have never tasted a rich, chewy, nutty, homemade chocolate brownie.  Maybe that’s the ticket for today’s students?



If you have a better idea, I’m open to it.



Easy, One-Bowl, Homemade Brownies

In a large, glass bowl, melt 4 squares unsweetened chocolate and 1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter (cover the bowl loosely with Saran Wrap to prevent splatter) in the microwave oven for a minute or two.  Remove bowl from microwave and beat in 2 cups sugar, 3 eggs, and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract.  Stir in 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup chopped nuts (such as walnuts) just until blended.  Pour into a well greased 13 x 9” baking pan and bake in a preheated 350-degree conventional oven for 30-35 minutes.  Makes about two dozen brownies.