Shut Up and Listen: Rethinking Classroom Discussions

Hi. I’m Amy Lowndes, and I am here to tell you to shut up and listen.

Okay, this might seem a bit hypocritical coming from an opinions columnist, but hear me out. Too many seminar classes at the 5Cs have participation grades.

Pomona’s speaking intensive requirements are particularly rigid; horror stories abound. In some classes, for example, students grade each other on discussion performance, effectively turning grading into a whisper campaign. Other professors have grades partially dependent on checking students off for speaking a perfunctory sentence or two each class.

Tiny seminar classes are the stuff of an admissions brochure-maker's wet dreams. At liberal arts colleges, being able to clearly articulate points in an academic discussion is, no doubt, an important and useful skill. There is heavy mythos surrounding open dialogue, free speech, and learning from each other's (so-called equal) perspectives.

But why the practically single-minded focus on verbal 'participation' in classes?

Not only do indiscriminate participation grades penalize introverted people, they disadvantage those who do not want to take up unnecessary space by talking when they may have little to contribute. Though they may be gaining the same amount from the conversation, they are judged as removed and nonresponsive, as opposed to thoughtful and respectful. If these students are made to feel uneasy, it will likely come across in their speech, making them hesitant or awkward.

There are other problems with placing such a high premium on verbal participation. First, it comes at the expense of the discussion’s quality. A myopic focus on verbal participation also renders active listening – an equally important aspect of education – invisible.

Inevitably, some students will better understand the discussion or be otherwise more qualified to speak on a topic – what one person can contribute to a certain discussion, another might not be able to.

For example, people of color have the lived experience to discuss topics concerning their own marginalization and lived experiences in a class discussion concerning marginalized histories and topics. A queer student in a politics of sexuality class likely has more relevant information to contribute than a straight student.

In classes like these, it takes a concerted effort to ensure these voices are amplified rather than further marginalized. Shutting up is simple; attempting to understand is harder.

Choosing to not interrupt those that are speaking and really pay attention – kindergarten manners – involves conscious effort. It means not always listening to respond, but listening to expand your mind. It also means attempting to understand and not doubting the validity of peoples’ personal experiences and struggles they choose to share.

Furthermore, if one is constantly formulating a half-comprehensible soundbite while their peers are speaking, they are unable to actively listen. Freedom from the pressure of always having a response enables better listening and more intellectual growth.

Active listening is a skill, though it is rarely framed as one. The 5Cs are an incredibly vibrant, diverse community, and every person here knows something you don’t. It is to the benefit of everyone in the classroom if words are chosen carefully; sometimes that entails being quiet and taking the time to listen, not speak.

Not all discussion is created equal; anybody who has sat through the even the most preliminary freshman seminar class can confirm that. When every student in the class is required to fulfill a meaningless word quota, the most relevant voices and perspectives are diluted. By relaxing participation requirements at the 5Cs, students could devote more energy to truly listening to important perspectives.

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