Silent students shortchange themselves, and others

Brian Biggs for the Boston Globe

It’s mid-September, which means that if you’re in college or graduate school you better start speaking up in class, before it’s too late. Higher education is brutally expensive, and these days you can substitute some of its previously exclusive elements, like lectures, without leaving the magnificent electronic isolation of your own home. But one important thing you can’t do online is participate in conversations with flesh-and-blood human beings who form a genuine community of inquiry, which is one of the very best ways to learn.

Increasingly, the traditional university's unique educational value is exemplified by the seminar or other discussion-based class, and what you're paying for boils down to the admissions and hiring policies that put the other people in the room for you to engage. But to be a contributing member of such a fellowship of reason, and not an impediment to it, you need to ante up your share of useful thinking. Which means that you need to not only prepare well and listen, but also speak up.

Three decades in college classrooms have taught me that if you don't talk in class during the first two weeks, you're probably going to remain entirely silent for the rest of the semester. This brief period at the beginning of the semester in which students either do or don't become a person who talks in class is an unforgiving fact of academic life.


The stakes are higher than just good grades, of course. The classroom affords you opportunities to practice exploring and building complex ideas with other people, a skill that matters beyond the academy — in the workplace and family life, for instance. You can't develop competence in human exchange, a crucial talent that my friends in the business world complain is increasingly hard to find among even their most brilliant young colleagues, by posting strong opinions in electronic anonymity.

Think about that when you're sitting in class and suddenly realize that you have something to say that would answer or pose a relevant question, identify a problem, sharpen a point, or otherwise be of use. This realization probably causes your heart to thud and your ears to burn. Some large precentage of students think of themselves as abnormally shy, but they're not. Even people who speak easily elsewhere are anxious about talking in front of others in class.


If that anxiousness makes you hesitate too long, the moment will pass, and you'll end up swallowing the thing you had to say, which will spoil inside you like bad meat. Each time that happens, it becomes less likely that next time you'll manage to put your hand up and speak your piece. After about two weeks, you'll stop taking seriously the possibility of ever saying anything in that class. A kind of verbal writer's block sets in. In addition to the usual worry about public speaking, you now also worry that if you suddenly say something after eight weeks, it can't possibly sound smart enough to justify the long silence that preceded it.

But if you speak up early in the semester, and especially if you volunteer to talk at a time of your choosing, you become a person who has spoken in class. Such a person, now a committed member of the community, no longer regards it as public speaking; the anxiety swiftly diminishes, and you settle down to doing your share of the work at hand.

This is why I require my students to speak up at every class meeting, particularly during the first couple of weeks. This policy makes me the worst kind of zealot — a convert. As a student, I sat there quietly, trying not to be a bother to anyone. I didn't realize that I was guilty of intellectual bad citizenship, forcing others to carry around my insensate, spoiled-meat-stuffed bulk for the rest of the semester.


Making students talk goes against my strong instinct to let people do what they want, but I've come to understand that, at least in a seminar, inert silence kills intellectual community. In this nose-to-screen age we may not give face-to-face community the attention it deserves, but it's essential to learning, among other meaningful enterprises.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is "Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.''