In high school, I remember a close friend getting an admissions package for some university that had the slogan, “Speak up. Speak out. Dig in. Dig deep. Make it count, “emblazoned on the front. I hadn’t applied there but I liked the slogan so much, I cut it out of the book and put it on my wall. I thought the “Speak up. Speak Out,” part was mostly fitting for those that liked the sound of their own voice and not really for the rest of us but I appreciated the sentiment that there were things worth speaking up and out about.
Fast forward to my fourth and final year at U of T in an intellectually rigorous cognitive psychology class with a well-respected prof. Though I had a few friends in the class and knew the professor well, I found the idea of speaking up in the class daunting that day. I was puzzled because frankly, in other classes, I am usually one of those not afraid to engage in a hearty debate.
Maybe it was something to do with the contingent of cognitive science students that seemed to have near-infinite knowledge of the subject. Or with the loud laughs of approval (read: intimidating bonding ritual) coming from a guy sitting in front of me every time the professor made a joke. Or perhaps the fact that so few women in the class seemed to be talking that day and I didn’t want to ask a dumb question and have Laughing Guy think I was speaking on behalf of my entire gender.
Whatever the reason, I realized that much of it was likely in my own head. But the thought that it might be in many other students’ heads made me mention it briefly to the professor after class. He recognized the challenges some students face in speaking up in a Socratic-style class and asked for suggestions.
I spent the week probing friends for their thoughts on what makes a classroom conducive to broad participation. Some thought that gender does play a large role in who speaks up and noticed that, even in classes with more women than men, there was a disproportionate number of male voices in discussions. Perhaps some of it had to do with who felt comfortable speaking up and whose hand was selected by the prof. Indeed, other universities are taking gender participation by the horns. The Harvard Business School recently changed their “curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success,” according to the New York Times.
Many friends found the prof to be pivotal in creating an environment that encouraged participation (or didn’t). Truth be told, I found the classroom experience better the next week. You could tell the prof was also making an effort, telling students, especially those that asked questions on break, that their comments were welcomed and appreciated.
Frankly, much of why I found the class better the next week was probably because I had had the chance to talk, vent and strategize about this participation problem. I had talked to others who had felt intimidated, slighted or scared in conversations before: they were shy, took classes outside their major, weren’t native English speakers, or any number of other reasons.
So by the time I had had all these discussions, I was ready to start with baby steps the next week: I asked a question on the break, got my little pat on the back from the prof and resolved to ask something during the lecture in future. I kept that little bit of advice, ‘your question probably isn’t as stupid as you think it is,’ and took my chances.
Some days an insightful criticism of a reading or idea comes more easily than others. But most days, even if I don’t show it, I still get the butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling before I raise my hand. But part of this ongoing challenge to myself to speak up – and to make intentional space for others to do the same – comes from knowing that engaging in the discussion, as opposed to just watching it, is one way to dig in, dig deep, and make it count.