The Anechoic Classroom

After 24 years of teaching I have any number of cheap gimmicks to get students talking in class: group projects, problem solving exercises, staged debates and a few time-tested chin-scratchers that can prompt them to heave their hearts into their mouths.  I've even been known to fake the occasional bout of laryngitis. But I confess to being stymied by the spring section of my first-year honors seminar.  A more somnolent lot you will not find.

The cynical explanation for a class of non-talkers is they aren't doing the reading and don't wish to be found out.  I know this group is doing the reading, however.  I can tell by the quality and thoughtfulness of their written work.  I know you sometimes run across the odd silent student who seldom says anything but is actually processing things on a deep level.  But I've never run across an entire roomful of such people. I don't think that's it.

Okay, theory number two: they are terrified of saying something dumb. In Why Read, the University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson dubbed this "The Tyranny of Cool," and I've blogged on it before.

I recall something like it when I was an undergrad.  I would get so excited by an idea and overrun it with heedless enthusiasm.  This of course was very uncool.  Thank heavens, I never had a professor take me aside and ask me to sit on my hands, but I was painfully aware of the eye-rolling and sighs from my classmates.

So I resorted to writing "S.U." (Shut Up) at the top of all my daily notes in a British literature course, only to find myself 20 minutes later experiencing the sickening self-realization that I was once again breathlessly in mid-sentence.  Perhaps a little of this dynamic is going on in the honors seminar.  I've seen a few of the students hold back and self-edit, but no more than you would expect with any group of image-conscious 18 year-olds.  No, I don't think that's it either.

So this leaves me with theory number three: I'm the problem.  They're deferring to my authority as the professor.  That's not surprising, I guess. The teacher-centered model has long been the default setting in American higher education.  Here the professor's expertise is the single-most important thing in the room, not student learning.  It could be that my students just expect me to be in charge, to determine the questions and to put my "expert's" imprimatur on the official interpretations.  And, quite frankly, that's an all too seductive trap to fall into as a professor.  Who doesn't like it when others genuflect before your brilliance?

So there's only one thing to do:  I have to take myself aside and ask myself to sit on my hands. I have to hand them the power.  Come Monday, it's S.U. all over again.


T.J. Brayshaw said…
Let me know how that goes. I try it now and again, but they have a much, much greater tolerance for long awkward silences than I do!

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