Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Credit for participation

I'm back from the Institute for Advanced Flavia Studies, and boy: was it an incredible week. Apart from all the scholarly work and hard thinking we got done, I found it interesting to be back in an intensive seminar environment for the first time since graduate school--and to see how everyone's personality emerged over the more than 30 hours that we spent together.

This is the sort of thing that I would have read quite differently in graduate school. During those first two years of coursework, the only yardstick I had for measuring myself--my intelligence, my ideas--was how well I performed in seminar, and I was fixated on how much and how fluently many of my peers spoke: when one of our professors asked them to "say more" or "expand that idea," they could! They could make big connections or assimilate new information on the fly!

I was never a great talker in seminar, and I lived in fear of being asked to "say more"; it was all I could do to get up the nerve to make an observation that I hoped was both relevant and not blindingly obvious. And it was hard for me not to read my limited oral participation as evidence of a fundamental lack: if I only knew more stuff, I'd be able to make more connections, more quickly. And if I were a more confident and articulate speaker, it would mean that I was smarter, that I had it--that thing real academics had.

Of course, as time went on, I learned a few things. I learned, first of all, that verbal quickness is a specific, discrete skill: one that can develop over time, but that bears no precise connection to intelligence and certainly not to originality or depth of thought. I also learned that no one--not the admissions committee, not my professors, and certainly not I or my fellow students--was capable of telling, in Year One or Year Two, which grad students had the most promise or potential, and who was going to make good on it. Intellectual growth spurts can occur (or not) at any time.

And now that I'm a teacher, I value oral participation differently. As a student, I saw it as being about individual intelligence: if I were smarter, I'd talk more. . . but I could learn plenty just by listening silently. As a teacher, I see participation as a dynamic, collaborative form of intelligence: talkative students are not always the best students, but they're actively engaged, and whether their observations are stronger or weaker, they can usually serve to advance the conversation. I now see, too, how much non-participating students (even or especially the smart ones) can hinder a class by depriving it of their voices.

So although I'm still not great off the cuff--I don't process aural information well or quickly--this past week I tried to hold up my end. I spoke rather a lot on the day we were doing material most related to my own work, but on the other days, over the course of 6 hours, I typically spoke only 3 or 4 times, usually rather briefly.

I consider this progress from graduate school, but I still envy the more verbally fluent. Yes, some of my co-participants thought aloud, and at length, rambling a bit until they got to a point--but it was usually a very interesting point once they got there. Yes, some of them recapitulated historical events or literary plots that we all knew, and that probably didn't have to be detailed aloud--but those reminders weren't tedious, and most of the time were generally useful. Yes, there were plenty of dead-ends, comments that no one chose to pursue--but you've gotta float some trial balloons.

I sympathize with my quiet students, of course. But sometimes I wish I'd been forced to talk more, both in college and in graduate school. If nothing else, it would have been useful to have learned, sooner, that it wasn't all about me.


squadratomagico said...

This is beautifully stated -- your writing certainly is fluent! I identify strongly with this, as I, too, am a latecomer to verbal, on-the-fly acuity. Like you, I need to process things for a while before I can synthesize them with other ideas and articulate something new. I've developed this skill somewhat over time, but it's been a struggle. I am not a "natural" at verbal self-expression.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Talk is cheap. Nice post, Flavia.