Whoever first said to think before you speak evidently never took a course that graded their participation. Before I came to Cornell, I dreamed of college classrooms with endless conversation. Now, in my final semester, my learning usually happens when I’m silent — truncated by empty comments born from the hollow frames of other empty comments.
A word salad of unprofound buzzwords emerges when an unprovocative reading meets a room of seasoned skimmers who yearn for an A. Participation may count for 25 percent or more of a final grade, leading to a performance to cushion it. Participation for the sake of participation wastes tuition dollars, time and a professor’s expertise. We must swap our limited definition of participation for one that rewards silence, encourages listening and steers us to material that cues discussion on subjects worthy of contention.
In theory, to reward a student for their verbal contributions is a gift on any syllabus. I raise my hand, share an argument, pose a question, participate in an exchange of ideas and, come the end of the term, a final evaluation will factor in my engagements. That’s cool, but that’s also fantasy. This isn’t “Dead Poets Society” — this is Cornell. One reading will not prompt students to sing “O Captain! My Captain!” As one student shares how interesting the captain is, another questions whether we really know who the captain is, while another piggybacks off of that point knowing full well they read the wrong PDF and a poor soul who thought the course title sounded exciting searches whether the drop deadline passed.
The idea that any words uttered in the classroom — yes, any — will be accounted for in a grade gives a home to insubstantial regurgitations. Problematic, we must acknowledge, we must combat, unlearning, responsibility, current injustices, social justice issues, the system. Buzzwords oversimplify differences and keep us on the fringes of critical thinking. They make us think we really said something — and that should terrify us. They enable white reckonings to dominate already white spaces. Half-baked ideas coated in glossy terms make room for the same underdeveloped iteration over and over, leaving BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students to step in and serve as spokespeople of their marginalization.
Rest assured that no one ever walks around this campus and forgets their otherness. It’s exhausting, and in the classroom, graded participation turns otherness into a job — one that demands students to correct stereotypes and set the record straight on how they earned a seat at the table. When Sun columnist Sidney Malia Waite ’22 entered a labor history discussion, in which she was the only Black student, the dialogue unraveled into a defense of slavery as an economic decision. Her T.A., who did not stop the conversation from reaching this point, looked in her direction comment after comment, as if waiting for her contribution. Waite sat shell shocked. “My throat closed up. I didn’t dare speak,” she said.
“When I see the heads in a class, like I hesitate to really speak my mind about things, not because I’m intimidated, but because I’m tired,” Waite said. “I don’t feel like getting into a ‘conversation’ about things that just really aren’t debatable.”
The quietest I have ever been in a Cornell classroom was in a history course on modern Iran. I took the course because it sounded like fun to learn about my birthplace from a source that wasn’t my family. Every lecture, I listened to peers apply theoretical jargon and suggest Western approaches as simple solutions to the most tangled realities. In my mind, I was loud, denounced falsehoods, interjected. When I met a student concurrently enrolled in Farsi, I asked what drew him to study the language I speak at home. I felt eager to meet someone interested in the geography, people, food and poetry that raised me. Maybe through friendships, I thought, I would feel more inclined to speak. He said that one day when the U.S. intervenes in Iran, he hopes the State Department and CIA will look to him for leadership. He sealed my silence that day. I wish I never asked. I wish I remained ignorant of why he was there. I wish he knew the value that his silence in every lecture would have meant to me.
Three years later, I still revisit whether I should have said more in that course. But getting to the point of raising a hand is only half the battle. Once a student decides they will have a stake in a conversation, they must also ascribe to codified elitism to be taken seriously. Yale Daily News columnist Tiya Proctor Floyd ’24 said that when she decided to use African American Vernacular English in a Yale classroom to push back on “a lifelong effort to strangle expressions of Blackness,” the results were as expected.
“Where I was used to being part of a dialogue, I found my comments cut out and set aside, unacknowledged,” she said. “The way I chose to express my thoughts made a world of difference in how seriously my peers took what I had said — no less relevant to the material and no less developed, but dismissed nonetheless.”
I spoke to Floyd and asked her how she thinks our classrooms can avoid stifling participation by students of color when they choose to speak. “We can stop applauding white students for their acknowledgement of very basic principles and ideas,” she told me. “Professors rarely discourage these behaviors, and any criticism from students of color will inevitably be coined aggressive or contributing to an unwelcome classroom environment.”
As we hold on to graded participation, we lie to ourselves about steps we have taken to get uncomfortable. Communication is speech and silence, but graded participation fills students with anxiety to pick either or. Will we be assertive or complicit? Will we be visible or invisible? But as Trinh T. Minh-ha says in “Woman, Native, Other,” “Silence as a refusal to partake in the story does sometimes provide us with a means to gain a hearing. It is a voice, a mode of uttering and a response in its own right.” So, if you choose silence as discourse, you are not necessarily complicit, and you are certainly not invisible. Above all, you are still a participant. And you should not be penalized for choosing silence.
To reimagine participation, educators must also receive training in teaching diverse classrooms. We must normalize inviting trained speakers to shed light on lived experiences, instead of looking to students of color to fill the gaps of others’ learning. We must fortify every part of a student’s exposure to class material from the assigned reading to lecture video, so that when the time comes to share an idea, the student knows their commentary adds nuance and is not an attempt to absolve themselves from white guilt or prevent, god forbid, an imperfect GPA.
So, how will you know when it’s your turn to speak? If your contribution is to sandwich the words systemic and institutional between -isms, perhaps you don’t have a point. That’s okay. Listen, read, marinate in what you don’t know, reflect to your instructor or your friends after class, ask questions. Your silence in a moment of shock at the way things actually are is participation too.
Paris Ghazi is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] La Vie en Prose runs every other Wednesday this semester.