Silence is Not Always Golden: Class Participation in a Pandemic

Silence is Not Always Golden: Class Participation in a Pandemic August 6, 2020

Classes start on my college campus three weeks from this coming Monday. Let’s just say that things are up in the air at my college, as they are in various ways at all institutions of higher learning across the country.

  • On a daily basis we get updated information about how many students are returning to campus and how many will be taking their classes remotely, how many professors are choosing to teach their classes remotely, as well as who will be starting the semester with face-to-face classes.
  • We are bombarded with links to various videos with advice about how to teach a class of twenty with fifteen masked students in the classroom along with five on Zoom projected onto a screen.
  • We receive dire updates about the financial hit the college will take if we, either through our own choice or state or local mandate, have to go to 100% remote classes sometime during the semester (as we did last March).
  • Faculty get into squabbles about matters both great and small on Facebook and Twitter, shaming and virtue signaling each other in ways we would never do face to face, squabbles that are clearly energized by fear and trepidation cloaked in academic-ese.

And that was just last Friday.

As I’ve described in a few recent blog posts, all of this is providing me with opportunities to practice Stoicism and various aspects of my Christian faith in real time. Don’t waste energy worrying about or trying to control things outside your control. Consider the lilies. Don’t worry about tomorrow (because each day provides you with more than enough to worry about on its own). It helps that I had eight weeks of forced distance teaching and learning for the second half of last semester.

I know already, for instance, that I’m going to have to be even more creative than usual as a teacher if I am going to preserve and strengthen a feature of my classrooms that I have emphasized more and more over the years: Student participation. It’s a challenge to get discussions going on difficult topics (which seem to be the only kind of topic I teach any more) under “normal” circumstances.

But how is that going to work in the shadow of Covid-19, with in-person students distanced six feet from each other and wearing masks, while others are Zoom-projected on a screen in the corner of the classroom? I have faith that I will figure it out—just as I figured out how to nudge a cosmically quiet student toward class participation a couple of semesters ago:

Can I schedule an appointment for Friday? Please.

I had been waiting and hoping for an email from Maria (I’ve changed her name) for a couple of months. She was one of my seminar students in the required interdisciplinary course for freshmen I teach in, sitting right next to me on my left as one of fourteen students around the seminar table. Although participation was twenty-five percent of each student’s final grade, Maria never said a word during the first half of the semester. Ever.

Students also had a weekly seminar paper of 750 words or so due on one of several assigned topics related to the week’s seminar text; the cumulative average of these ten seminar papers was thirty percent of each student’s final grade. Seminar papers are due in an online drop box one half hour before seminar, with a twenty percent penalty for papers submitted after the deadline. I had thirty-two students in two seminar sections of this course, and at the time I received Maria’s email two months into the semester, no student had submitted a seminar paper late. Except Maria. Of her first seven seminar papers, four of them had been late and been penalized twenty percent.

So, I had been expecting and hoping for an email from Maria for a while. I responded to her by return email with what some might consider “tough love,” but in a way that my more than a quarter century of college teaching tells me is most effective in such situations—set the parameters for the upcoming conversation as clearly as possible.

Hi Maria: I’d be glad to meet with you on Friday. If you can come during regular office hours, you don’t need an appointment—just drop on in. I suspect you want to see me because you are doing poorly in class.

Before you come, here are a couple of things to think about. I’m happy to meet with you, but realize that I have nothing to offer that would be helpful without your prior commitment to, first, submitting your weekly paper on time from this point forward and, second, to participation in seminar. Without those two commitments, both of which are entirely within your control, your course grade is unlikely to improve noticeably. That said, I will spend as much time as you like with you on reading, writing, and quiz taking strategies that may help going forward this semester.

Struggling students, especially freshmen, often assume that their professors have a simple key to success in each course, a “silver bullet” that will immediately slay the poor grade monster, but that their professors keep this secret and simple solution to themselves just because they enjoy seeing students struggle. Such students often arrive at their professor’s office hours and wait in uncomfortable silence for their professor to finally have pity on them and solve their problems for them. My message to Maria was intended to set the stage for a different sort of conversation on Friday.

Maria started our conversation by taking responsibility for her time-management problems that had led to her immediately losing twenty percent of her grade on four of her weekly essays thus far. “You’re right,” she said, “that’s totally my fault. I promise that I won’t turn in any of the three remaining papers late.” “That great,” I replied, “because as my comments on your first seven papers show, you’re really a pretty good writer. I hate to see yourself keep shooting yourself in the foot.”

The participation issue was a much stickier problem, because Maria is shy and introverted. I knew this the first day of seminar when she sat down at my left, just by the way she carried herself. I can recognize a fellow extreme introvert from one hundred yards away. It takes one to know one. “I’m really nervous about speaking in public,” she said. “I’m really shy.” “I know you are,” I responded, “but I’ll let you in on a secret. So am I.” This is often a startling revelation to my students—how could someone who does what I do for a living be an extreme introvert?—but in conversations such as this one with Maria, it can be an effective teaching tool.

I told Maria about my own undergraduate years at a Great Books college where every class was a seminar, there were no lectures or written exams, and each student was graded solely on participation, writing, and oral exams. I knew that I had to overcome my natural fears and learn to speak regularly in class if I was going to survive.

My strategy, I told Maria, was to make a deal with myself. “I committed to speaking twice in each two-hour seminar—once in the first twenty minutes or so, and once in the last half hour. It was really, really hard for the first few weeks, but over time it became a habit and I got used to hearing the sound of my voice in a group. So, I’ll make a deal with you. We have five seminars left in the semester. I’ll be looking for you say something just once in each seminar. If you do, I’ll weigh that very heavily when considering your end of semester participation grade.”

Maria found this proposed deal attractive, and we negotiated a bit. “Would it help if I called on you in seminar?” I asked; “GOD NO!!!” she gasped, as if I had proposed she sing an a capella solo at the next class meeting. “How about if I’m the one who reports on my small group’s work the next time we do that?” she asked. “That’s fine—anything that lets your fellow students hear the sound of your voice. And guess what—as far as I know, no one’s ever died from participating, at least not in one of my classes.”

We shook hands on our deal, and she left my office with the first smile I had ever seen on her face. I’m happy to report that Maria’s last five papers came in on time, and she did say something in each of the remaining seminars (although I thought she was going to pass out the first time). I will not have Maria in class this coming semester, but my hope is that our twenty minutes or so in my office began to open her eyes to something many students never learn—you have everything you need. One of the keys to success both in the classroom and in life is realizing that each of has the tools necessary for flourishing already inside us. It is up to each of us to take ownership of what we already have.

This awareness is nowhere more important than in the life of faith. Persons of faith often treat God as some sort of divine problem-solving vending machine. Insert the right prayer, action, or attitude and receive the desired response. But just as Maria found out about the academic life, we find out in short order that this is not how things work. High points of the Christian liturgical calendar such as Advent and the Incarnation remind us that we already have everything we need in order to introduce the divine into the world.

That everything is us—Meister Eckhart wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” He also said that the virgin birth is something that happens within us, and that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. That’s worth remembering the next time we wonder why God isn’t doing what needs to be done. God is in us. We have everything that we need.

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