Sometimes it would be great if we could all just shut up and listen in class.
Hopefully I have your attention now, so I’m going to add some addenda to that click-baity opening line.
Now, I don’t mean that we should worsen the already excruciating silence that sometimes follows an amazing lecture or guest speaker during Q&A. Nor should we actively blend into the nonexistent background in a five-person seminar. Nor should we stop asking questions in an utterly baffling Math 51 lecture (doing so has left me in a dire situation at the moment).
Nope. None of the above. What I’m advocating for are the benefits of being quiet once in a while, being a very good listener and being a not-gratuitous speaker.
I want to put forth a defense for those kinds of people that enjoy being silent, people that objectively feel like they’re gaining more when steeping in the brilliance of discussion and speaking occasionally when they have formulated a valuable thought. I can see the objections to this advice popping up quick: How can you know a thought is “valuable”? Who decides? And, assuming a thought is “valuable,” isn’t it also worthwhile to make mistakes and take risks?
My answers are: indeed, indeed and indeed, respectively. But, I stick to my defense for learning through listening. This is particularly aimed at classrooms where gratuitous cold-calling occurs or ones where the teacher tracks your participation via tally-marks to determine a percentage of your grade (The horror!). While the intentions behind this — presumably to ensure everyone understands and contributes — are noble, they sometimes disrupt a key process: the process of processing.
Often times, people like me struggle to articulate our responses and thoughts, which are truly complex and valuable (I think), in eloquent or even comprehensible ways on the spot. Maybe being scared of messing up is a part of this, which definitely should not stop us from participating; however, equally, there is a rational instinct to form a full, truly meaningful thought in our own time. If we’re so keen on thinking before speaking in social contexts, then why shouldn’t academic contexts — which are ‘social’ in a more structured way — have the same rules apply?
My dad used to tell me this quote: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” I’m not sure who said it (Twain? Lincoln? Arbitrary white male thinker?), but I like it and live it in the classroom, albeit on the basis of being efficient and thoughtful, rather than overly self-conscious. There is a line between the two, and it would benefit both teachers and learners to acknowledge and respect it.
Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.