By Sarah Myers
Discussion sections and seminar classes are unavoidably weird. The professor or TA running the show is incredibly knowledgeable about the class’s subject, but they spend hours listening to undergraduate students who may or may not have done the reading offer their own analysis. Participating in these sorts of classes makes me uncomfortable not because I’m a quiet person but because I talk too much.
Avid Daily readers may remember Rachel Ochoa’s recent article on the dynamics of seminars. I would like to extend her comments a bit. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time in classes where few or no students volunteer to participate or answer questions on a regular basis. I am intimately familiar with the feeling of sitting in a dead-silent room after an instructor asks a question and no one attempts to answer it.
I’m not sure why this is a problem. Most of the students I’ve met at Stanford have a lot of interesting things to say. All of them are more than capable of doing the assigned readings and understanding them. Some readings might be harder than others, and everyone has tough weeks when readings for certain classes get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list (or, I hope everyone does, because I do). But this dramatic reluctance to speak up is consistent throughout various classes I’ve taken this quarter.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to these silences. Admittedly, I tend to wait about 30 seconds and then raise my hand. It’s possible that my threshold for awkward silences is lower than most. It’s also entirely possible that I am too uninformed to know what I don’t know – that I am so bad at understanding the readings that I don’t realize I’m not understanding. I may or may not have stress dreams about that scenario. Maybe other students are happy to know an answer or have an opinion without sharing it. That’s certainly a possible difference, given that I joined The Daily in order to write this column and share my opinions. I am not a silent thinker.
Recently, though, I’ve been worried about my relatively high participation. On one level, most seminars or discussion sections give students a participation grade, and it’s reasonable for me to do everything I can to improve that grade. On another level, what if I’m hurting other students’ grades? What if some of my classmates are waiting for 35 seconds of silence before they feel comfortable answering the question? What if I’m saying something they planned to say? What if I’m taking up space in a way that pushes out other people?
I’ve tried to change the way I participate in class to address these concerns. I let the silences last longer before jumping in. I’ve gotten much more strict with myself about answer length – I am quite familiar with the type of student who makes their answers into mini-speeches, and I know that it’s not a great way to make friends or invite others to speak up. Ultimately, though, I can’t force everyone else to talk if they don’t want to. I also probably shouldn’t assume that their reasons for not participating are negative ones, or have anything to do with me. Perhaps it’s enough to accept that I like to participate a lot and other people don’t, and that’s alright.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.