When we leave grade school and go to college, we can be a bit too dependent on voices of authority. We are usually taught to look to big names, established academics, people with degrees and professional accolades. In doing that we ignore the value of our peers and discredit our own scholastic abilities. Every person in the room is a resource for information, offering their own knowledge and experience with a topic. Over time, I could begin to see that I, too, am a resource and by participating in a classroom discussion, I make myself available to my classmates.
I didn’t always think of myself that way, though. Before college, I thought since I lacked a lot of knowledge I was bound to be wrong, but being right isn’t the point of discussion. It’s not a debate or a test. It’s an opportunity to ask questions and speculate different answers. Realizing that I could do that took the support of great professors at the community college I transferred in from and those here at Arcadia. For example, when I took Feminist Theory, I didn’t have extensive knowledge of feminism or waves of the women’s movement. I did have feelings and memories. When Dr. Ana Maria Garcia encouraged us to speak up, insisting that we never apologize or say that what we think “might be stupid,” I did, and I found that I had something to contribute. In the moment, I could reflect on what I saw as a child and what I encountered as an adult, and analyze those things through feminist perspectives with the help of my classmates. It was a great way to learn about feminism as we could follow the train of thought that created a theoretical perspective, and also reveal potential shortcomings.
After that first step, believing that you are source of knowledge for others, there are certain things to keep in mind. By observing how professors guide discussions and how students interact with each other, I’ve noticed how the benefits can be maximized. I’m glad to say that most of the time, discussions are awesome, but it is possible for them to become dull or get out of hand.
Here are a few tips on how to be a great contributor in classroom discussions:
When a discussion really gets going, new questions, reactions, and connections come to mind at full speed. Naturally, we want to talk about what’s going on in our heads but sometimes we are too eager to do so. When we speak too quickly, it’s easy to railroad someone else without noticing. Students at Arcadia are friendly and forgive the occasional interruption quickly, but slowing down and not treating every thought with urgency encourages other people to get involved. Most times, people stick around after class or catch up in the hallways just to continue having a discussion, so your voice will be heard by someone anyway!
Share the Floor
There are plenty of people in the room with great ideas, pressing questions, and interesting stories to tell! Part of sharing the floor with all of those people is just holding back so other people have the opportunity to speak. Give up some of the time you’d like to spend talking and spend it listening instead. A second, much-appreciated part, though, is having each other’s back. Several times I’ve seen a student raise their hand to speak only to be forgotten in the steam of the discussion. At that point, other students speak up for them and make sure they get to say their piece.
A fear of being wrong prevents many students from chiming in. If you have an idea, but you know you’re not well-versed on the particulars of the topic, it’s fine to state that. In fact, most students and professors respect people who see their own blind spots and still engage. By saying, “I don’t know much about this but XYZ,” a new avenue will open up or someone else in the class will be able to shed some light on the topic. Chances are there are other students in the room who don’t know either.
Accept Different Opinions
There are a lot of things we can all agree on but not every issue is black and white. With so many different perspectives present, there are bound to be people who disagree. Bringing those disagreements up is never a bad idea as long as everyone is treating each other with respect. I’ve never heard a student personally attack another even when the topic stirred emotions or touched on issues of morality. Instead, students simply state that they disagree and explain why, and everyone in the room hears them out. We’re facilitating a flow of ideas that could bring us all to different conclusions but ultimately teaches us to think critically and creatively.