Down with Speaking Out in Class (Please!)
By Shivani Deshmukh, UG22
Even though it is embarrassing to admit, I can count the number of times I’ve spoken in class this semester on my fingers. If class participation wasn’t hard enough offline, in an online semester, speaking out in class has been made exponentially more difficult. There is, of course, an understanding among students and teachers that being online has rendered communication all the more difficult. Despite this, it is still extremely daunting to speak up in front of fifty grey boxes hiding real people – all of whom, I presume are rolling their eyes at my inability to pronounce Nietzsche.
For many, class participation is an ‘easy’ grade. After all, you’re being graded just for spewing out a thought. What can be so hard about it? I can, with full guarantee, tell you that there is so much that’s hard about it. Is my mic not working? Can they hear my sister arguing in the background? Wait – can they hear me at all? Why is no one replying to me? Did I say something extremely stupid? These are only some of the thoughts that plague my mind on the rare occasion that I do unmute my mic. When I’m done, my heart all ready to tear through my ribcage, I think to myself – was this worth it? Do I need that participation grade? In such an online setup, class participation is calculated solely on speaking out in class frequently thus, needlessly penalizing shy and anxious students.
Of course, one can argue endlessly about the merits of class participation. Assuming all students have equal access to online lectures and uninterrupted internet, it rewards students who pay attention. It rewards students who do the readings, put in the work to assimilate their thoughts, and are diligent with their work. If nothing else, I assume class participation assures the instructors that their course isn’t lulling everyone to sleep. But class participation usually advantages already outspoken students, who find it easy to be confident and outgoing, while proving an extremely arduous task for those who do not. Many will argue that class participation is also a low-stakes exercise – it prompts shy, or anxious students to speak up, at no real cost. None of us are being punished for saying something wrong, after all. Class participation, in an offline setup, prepares students for the ‘real world,’ whatever that is, where speaking up and framing your point is a necessary skill. But do we need it now, in an online semester, when everything is so much harder as it is?
Many courses place undue emphasis on class participation, with the grade for the same going up to 30-40%. This places great importance on simply speaking up, often encouraging mediocre input and speaking for the sake of it. Class participation, when it is a ‘low-stakes exercise’ does not guarantee that the class, or even just the people speaking, are informed about the content they’re speaking about. It’s true that students don’t need to be absolutely, fully informed on a topic they’re speaking about, since we’re all just here to learn, but speaking out, in some way, wrongly indicates that the people speaking know the required reading material better than the people silent. In a class that emphasizes class participation, there is also a greater emphasis on speaking, rather than listening. As an anxious person in such classes, I can say that it takes away the focus of listening and understanding to speaking and blurting out whatever half-baked thought I’ve had the luck to formulate when called upon.
This being said, I don’t believe that class participation, especially in an online semester, should be removed completely. I do believe that participation, conversation and maintaining dialogue around a text in question are necessary for the functioning of a class. I do believe that professors need some reassurance that their students don’t hate them, or their class, and it isn’t a complete snoozefest. I only think that speaking out in class shouldn’t be mandatory.
Just as I’ve been a part of classes that intensively graded class participation in the form of speaking, I’ve also been a part of classes that either did not grade spoken participation or had a very small percentage allocated to it, often combined with the grade for attendance. These classes, in my experience, have had equal if not more participation than classes where participation was graded. In these classes, participation has also been more focused, because there’s no pressure on the students to just speak unhinged, all for a grade. Again, an argument can be made here, that only a few active students will speak – who is to say the rest are listening, or even present behind the grey veil?
However, participation for the sake of quantifying attendance and attention need not be spoken. Participation can be calculated through a myriad of other ways, such as short discussion posts, response notes, office hours, attendance in DS’s, reading summaries, focused group discussions in breakout rooms – to name only a few. Of course, many of these methods may not work for other students – this is not a one size fits all solution, which is why class participation needs to be calculated in several ways. Rarely is it ever necessary to force a student to speak up in front of 50 odd students.
Now, as we get more and more used to being online and living out our Fun and Exciting college lives through a screen, I’m quite relieved to see that many more methods such as these are being adopted instead of having to speak up during class. It’s such a relief to know that I don’t have to unmute if I can’t get myself to. No more stifling a sob while speaking, and I can still get that sweet, sweet participation grade.