Neither a Wallflower Nor a Paris Geller Be

The use and abuse of class participation in the college classroom.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

For college students, October is when the excitement wears off and gives way to Nietzschean ressentiment. Don’t worry, this is human, all too human—your professor is probably not a sadist and you are not necessarily a slacker. Pointed resentment at a specific cause (deserved or not) is just part of the natural stress rhythm of a semester. And one of these causes is the minefield of required (or at least expected) class participation. This is because in the seminar-style classroom, student engagement makes or breaks a course—and that’s precisely why it can go so awry.

We all know (or perhaps are) the nonparticipators who become spellbound by their shoes the second the professor asks a question. They can certainly make a course onerous. But you know who is just as bad? The classroom dominators: Election’s Tracy Flick. The Onion’s immortal philosopher-king Darrin Floen. Gilmore GirlsParis Geller. These characters are eternally recurring tropes because, believe you me, real versions of them fill the hallowed halls with the largely unaccompanied staccato of their dulcet tones this very second. Sure, a classroom full of 20 blank stares is bad. But a classroom with 19 stares and one know-it-all who won’t shut his cakehole is worse.

So how is a student to know what constitutes good participation? How much cakehole movement—and what kind—makes a class great and participation grades soar? In recent years, some professors, myself included, have adopted what pedagogues call a “student-centered” approach, and we pepper our classes with group work, impromptu mini-presentations, interactive worksheets, and all manner of coerced (I call it “curated”) participation. This helps encourage the blank-starers and tamp down the Floens at the same time. But many professors prefer a more traditional seminar, where those who wish to be engaged can do so, and everyone else is free to text in peace. And it is in these courses where the shy and reticent fade into the background, and the Paris Gellers are given largely unchecked rein. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are fairly easy ways to make class time more equitable and interesting (and get better grades, in case you care—who are we kidding: You do).

Let’s say you’re so shy you simply freak out speaking in front of other students. Great news: There are ways to participate in class without actually talking in class. I know it’s tough, but screw up that courage and sidle up to the prof with a very quick substantive question, either before or after class. Preface it, if you can, with “I might not talk in class much because I’m shy, but I wondered…” Most profs are nice people (many have even overcome considerable shyness to teach!), and the wide-eyed earnestness of a timid but studious young person can melt our overworked little hearts.

There’s also office hours and email—if you write us (or, better yet, come to see us; nobody ever does) with a substantive query about actual class material and not just your grade or some sob story about your hamster, a choir of angels will begin singing in our heads. Private meetings might not “count for your points” (as we say in what has become an ever-more transactional classroom), but they will let the professor know that you made an effort to engage with the material, which can count come grading time if you’re just on the cusp. A bonus result of this method, by the way, is that even the shyest student will find that once she gets comfortable with the professor (and knows the prof will be receptive to her), talking in front of her peers gets easier.

All right, let’s say you’re not shy; you just don’t feel like talking in class, because the Darrin Floens you’ve encountered over the years have put you off of the act altogether, or you didn’t do the reading, or Nietzsche-style, you have decided that in the mere expectation that you participate, your professor is oppressing you (or, perhaps, repressing you). Your first step is to try not to be too resentful, and your second step is to strategize. In many seminar classes, participation is a fairly large chunk of your grade (in mine, it can be up to 25 percent), and so it helps to think of the requirement as an easy “A for effort” that’s yours to lose, rather than a curtailing of your human rights.

Here’s an idea. While you are doing the reading (oh, also, do the reading, at least some of it), you will likely find that two or three questions come to your mind. (If no questions come to your mind, you are not reading, you are watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix with a book in your lap. Not that I blame you! Team Jess.) Write those questions down so that you can just ask verbatim during class. Even if your prof’s lecture is going in a completely different direction, don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say: “This might be in a completely different direction, but…” and just ask. Especially if you don’t talk a lot, your professor will be delighted. If you do this and get “shot down” (“Hmm, I’m not sure about that”), do not let this dissuade you. You are not actually being shot down! You are being challenged to explain what you mean. Take up this challenge, and even Darrin Floen will be impressed.

But what if you are your course’s Darrin, or Tracy, or Paris? (If you have something to say the majority of instances the professor asks for input, you probably are.) Watch out, because the participation score can loop back around—that is, overdominance of a class can actually hurt a grade.

So, ye veritable Ayn Rand of the seminar room: Shut it sometimes. I do not mean to say we don’t value your enthusiasm. We do. But we are not Socrates, and you are not Glaucon. The classroom is not and should not be an uninterrupted dialogue; your awkward little desky-chair is not your personal brilliance dais. So please, do both yourself and your classmates a favor and use your powers for good. For example, channel your energy into interacting with your peers and helping less-vocal students speak up. Do this by keeping it zipped even if the class has been silent for three entire minutes and your professor is humming the Larry David stare-down leitmotif. Allow the uncomfortable silence to build; let your classmates know you are not going to bail them out, even if you’re quite certain that actually, you can. This will demonstrate real leadership and engagement, rather than self-aggrandizing performance at the expense of group welfare. And that can take you a long way—I’m talking past the better grade you’ll surely be getting.

For the purpose of class participation—whether by the shy, reticent, or (over)enthusiastic—is not to win some sort of brilliant-remark contest. It is to try out new ideas, debate, and discuss—to join a group journey where, yes, some members of the group are smarter (or more willing) than others, but where the accomplishments of the group matter more than the individual’s will to power.

Why is class like this? Because life is like this. The reason professors in smaller courses require participation is not because we know you hate it (or love it). The purpose of college is to create conscientious, thinking individuals who know how to function in society. Which—unless you plan to be a boorish, uncompromising pain in the ass for the rest of your life, in which case good luck—is what it means to function as a working human adult, in any career.