Class Participation, Preventing Meaningful Contributions

One of the beauties of classes at Boston College is that the professor is rarely the only person speaking. If you walk into most BC classrooms with under 40 students, you will quickly encounter a sea of raised hands and a chorus of diverse voices, each of which is equally eager to be heard.

From what I’ve observed, the student body does not need to be reminded to “speak up.” The question I want to ask, however, is why are we speaking? Are we participating in class discussions in to order to further intellectual conversation? Or are we projecting our voices into the void merely for the sake of being heard?

If you sit back in your chair and truly listen to some of the discussions that take place in class, you may notice that the nature of the conversation is often circular. Sometimes 10 to 15 students can disguise the same thought in different words, articulating it as though it is being expressed for the very first time in history.

Even when students do bring unique points to the table, their arguments often will fall on deaf ears, for many of their classmates are already preoccupied with formulating the next thought they’d like to voice. A seemingly passionate, 75-minute discussion among a group of 25 students can flash by in the blink of an eye—yet, by the end of it, nobody can name what a single one of their classmates said.

One could say that this is evidence of a generational deficiency in listening skills, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not that we’re uninterested in hearing each other speak during class discussions—frankly, we’re not even that interested in contributing to the conversation ourselves, at least to the excessive extent which some students do. Having been conditioned to value our academic transcripts, however, we cannot deny that we are interested in earning the highest possible grades that we can. Much of our in-class speech, then, is motivated by the mere desire to receive an A in participation.

That tiny bullet point on the bottom of your syllabus, which claims that participation is a whopping 25 percent of your final grade, has you in its grip even if you don’t know it. It is the force which drives your hand into the air each class and propels words off your tongue. Or, if you are like me and lack the natural impulse to speak up during class discussions, it hovers in your mind like a ghost, haunting and taunting you: “Why didn’t you just share your opinion?” Why didn’t you jump in? There goes another quarter point off your final grade.”

Suddenly, sitting in the middle of a discussion on Shakespeare’s sonnets, you find yourself silently solving an equation in your head, trying to calculate how highly you must score on the next paper in order to compensate for your quiet demeanor.

When did the act of intellectual conversation morph into a high-stakes competition to prove yourself? When did listening fall onto the backburner of the liberal arts’ values?

I am not arguing that the administration should abolish participation grades altogether and allow students to idly sit back and daydream throughout the entire course of a class. In order to ensure that class discussions remain effective and that students are speaking for the right reasons, however, I think that we should consider modifying the meaning of participation grades. They should refer not to how frequently one spoke throughout the course of the semester, but rather to the effort and intentions which motivated the student’s speech in the first place.

Not everyone is able to devise an eloquent argument, effortlessly throw their hand into the air, and boldly speak their mind each class without pausing to take a single breath. There are, of course, some students who are blessed with such confidence and mental agility, but basing the grading system on this rare breed completely overlooks the other demographic of people who need may need minutes to string their thoughts together before translating them into speech, who do not feel compelled to hear themselves talk every class unless they have something valuable to say, who may simply be more adept at the art of listening.

The problem is that in many discussion-based classes, these students inevitably receive lower grades than their counterparts simply for adhering to their natural tendencies. By the time they’ve conceived a worthwhile point and summoned the courage to voice it, the chatty-Cathy to their right is already on the edge of her seat, flailing her hand in the air to follow-up her last profound point.

Regardless of which category of students you identify with, the reality is that in the “real world” of business and politics, there are always going to be some individuals who talk more than others. For better or worse, these are the people who will receive the most attention, regardless of their character. The bottom line is that those who make a lot of noise are going to be heard.

Let us not forget, however, that there is a profound difference between being heard and resonating with others. True success, whether it be in a classroom setting or in the working world, is attained not by receiving the most attention, but by achieving a sense of connection with those around us, especially those with whom we’re working toward a common goal.

Communication is more than pompous word vomit, and contribution does not always necessitate public recognition. Sometimes, it is the silent hard working hands that make the greatest difference—sometimes, to “contribute” simply means to sit back and listen to the person across from you.

There are infinite ways to participate in the bettering of our world. Some of the most valuable are those which cannot be evaluated, nor contained within a mere bullet point on a syllabus. Sometimes, words fall short. Sometimes, the math equation fails. When it comes to determining the value of one’s presence, I believe we must recognize that there are some things which simply cannot be expressed in concrete terms. Instead of trying to measure what is beyond our grasp, I think we should rest in the conviction that everyone, including even the quietest individuals, has something valuable to contribute to the conversation, and they do not need to speak up to make their mark on the world.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor