The Participation Problem

by Natalie Masetti

I’m sure most of us have been in this position: settling down in a classroom during shopping week as peers fill in empty seats, listening to voices rapidly hush as the professor walks in and takes their place at the head of the room. Then the professor begins, usually excessively expeditiously, to discuss the syllabus and class expectations. Undoubtedly, a discussion of participation will arise. 

The professor will almost always tell their students that “participation is part of your grade.” They will probably say “you can come talk to me if you have a problem with this.” People who do have problems with participating may not go to the professor, a stranger, and discuss these issues for a variety of reasons: shame, nervousness, etc.

Other issues will pop up as the semester goes on. Perhaps you’re a freshman in a class with many upperclassmen–students who have at least a year of study and practice above you–who will have a plethora of insightful, powerful, and intuitive comments on the discussion. You begin to look at your ideas like a child stares at raw broccoli: with disappointment, suspecting that they could be better but not sure how to make them better, too afraid to taste them and try.

Or perhaps your class has that one student who always has the answer. Following a professor’s question, their hand is immediately in the air, confidence exuding from the five stiff fingers. Your answer knocks around in your brain, and you listen with disappointment as this student says exactly what’s in your head. You resolve yourself to answer the next one, but you find that apathy has taken over: the rapid-hand-raiser will beat you to it every time.

Your confidence may also take a hit: suddenly you’re afraid to speak at all, afraid to answer even simple questions. You ask: What if what I am about to say is wrong somehow? Breath gets trapped in your throat: your hand stays down and you stay silent. Or you blurt out a mash of words, followed by a quiet “I’m not sure if that made sense.”

Suddenly, participation becomes much more than 30% of your grade: it’s an almost daily anxiety-inducer. Some professors may claim to be accommodating, but talking out loud with anxiety can be daunting, explaining yourself even more so. I think that some professors need to make a greater effort to understand the process behind participating for students with anxiety. Furthermore I think students with anxiety need to feel more welcomed in classes where participation is essential. A fellow student, Charlotte Scott, has added an important comment: some professors offer ways in which students can participate that aren’t speaking, including sending an email with comments to the professor after class to count towards the participation grade. This needs to be a more prominent aspect of classes at Haverford. I’m not sure how to make this change for us as Fords, but a discussion of participation and a change in the current procedure are undeniably necessary to ease the anxieties of many students.

Thank you to my friends Janani Suresh and Annecy McGeary brought these situations to my attention, and I’m glad to have had the chance to write about them.