Ask and learn

In a recent English class, a student raised his hand during the professor’s typical preamble to discussion. Generally, it’s given that the professor has the floor at this moment, but despite the apparent interruption, our professor paused and nodded to the hand-raiser, who then asked, “Sorry – what does that word mean?”

I was floored. It seemed like our professor was a bit surprised too, but he gave a succinct definition of “deracinated” before carrying on. I sort of knew what it meant – I could have given some vague definition – but I was amazed that, in the three years and change I’ve spent Williams, I had never heard a student ask for a word’s definition. This is even stranger given that I have spent much of my time here in small Spanish seminars, recently grappling with Gabriel García Márquez’s inexhaustible vocabulary, half of which can’t even be found in a dictionary.

Professors have said a million words that I don’t understand, and I always just let it go. But hearing this question posed for the first time (and as a senior no less), I noticed more and more how reluctant students are to ask, not to mention answer, the most basic questions. At the start of every semester, professors beg for students’ questions and are met with little response; likewise, when they ask for an “obvious” answer, we are reluctant to respond.

The refusal to ask or answer the most basic questions seems indicative of one of our school’s biggest flaws – the classroom’s transformation from a place of learning into a place of competition. During my freshman year, my JA described Williams to me as “the safest learning environment” we’ll ever experience in life. To a certain extent, she was absolutely right. To the best of my knowledge, students aren’t stealing textbooks to hide crucial information from others; students don’t leave exams to a chorus of “what’d you get?” and for the most part, students don’t know their friends’ grades. Ostensibly, no one appears to be vying with others for a high grade nor judging others for a lower one.

Maybe, however, we have merely shifted our competitive focus to things that we can know without seeming too interested in the academic business of others – the most obvious example being class performance. Preparing for that aforementioned English class does feel a bit like I’m gearing up for a big event: My pulse quickens as I rack my brain for my answers to the reading questions. Is all of this born out of my desire to learn, my urge to get at the root of the problem, my need to unpack the answer to that question to dodge complete explanation? No. More often than not, it’s to prove myself to my peers. Like my JA said, there are no “real” consequences for saying the wrong thing in class – you won’t lose your “job” for coming up with a bad theory – and certainly, in that way, we do have a “safe learning environment” (forgive the touchy-feely expression). You will, however, endure a certain amount of ridicule for that bad theory.

The common exchange goes something like this: “Oh, is she smart?” “No – she was in my English class and said like two things all semester, both of which were pretty useless.” I hear it frequently around campus, from the mouths of others as well as from my own. We condemn people’s intelligence simply because they’re giving the straightforward question or answer or perhaps not speaking in class at all – whichever way, we forgo any other possibilities that these students might have for keeping their mouths shut. We never stop to consider that maybe their thoughts are so complicated that they have to parse them out on notebook paper first. Or maybe they haven’t done the reading because they’ve been cloning fruit flies in the basement of Schow. Or maybe they’re terrified of their peers’ critical reactions when they don’t contribute something so illuminating that it validates their presence in this class and at this school.

Our class contributions should not be the test of whether or not we deserve to be here. We’re all here, and we all deserve to be here. Of course, comments should add to a discussion, but there’s no need to view everything said as a chance to “win” class. Let’s all make an effort to stop relying on class participation as an indicator of intelligence and start seeing it for what it is – trite as it may sound, a chance to learn openly and without shame, worry or fear. Maybe if everyone does their best to undercut the charge associated with speaking in class, we’d hear from more people, and questions we’d never thought to ask – or thought to, but refrained from, for fear of looking stupid – would be posited. Not to mention that we might learn what all those big words actually mean.