If You Stare Too Long into the Paris Gellar, The Paris Gellar Will Stare Back

Today my article in Slate is geared toward students (I love students! I need to gear more articles toward them. Because I love and miss them so!), and it’s about class participation, and it has so many Nietzsche jokes, and so many Gilmore Girls references, because that is how I operate these days. Here’s a taste.

Let’s say you’re so shy you simply freak out speaking in front of other students. Great news: There are ways to participate in class without actually talking in class. I know it’s tough, but screw up that courage and sidle up to the prof with a very quick substantive question, either before or after class. Preface it, if you can, with “I might not talk in class much because I’m shy, but I wondered…” Most profs are nice people (many have even overcome considerable shyness to teach!), and the wide-eyed earnestness of a timid but studious young person can melt our overworked little hearts.

…and then later:

So, ye veritable Ayn Rand of the seminar room: Shut it sometimes. I do not mean to say we don’t value your enthusiasm. We do. But we are not Socrates, and you are not Glaucon. The classroom is not and should not be an uninterrupted dialogue; your awkward little desky-chair is not your personal brilliance dais. So please, do both yourself and your classmates a favor and use your powers for good. For example, channel your energy into interacting with your peers and helping less-vocal students speak up. Do this by keeping it zipped even if the class has been silent for three entire minutes and your professor is humming the Larry David stare-down leitmotif. Allow the uncomfortable silence to build; let your classmates know you are not going to bail them out, even if you’re quite certain that actually, you can. This will demonstrate real leadership and engagement, rather than self-aggrandizing performance at the expense of group welfare. And that can take you a long way—I’m talking past the better grade you’ll surely be getting.

To me this is just a mild-mannered, slightly snarky take on an issue that every professor in the humanities has to deal with at one point or another (usually quite often!). Let’s see how my coterie of academic haters manages to work itself up into a frothy-mouthed tizzy over it. Bring it, fuckers — I’ll defer to the asshole brigade on peer review when push comes to shove, but when it comes to teaching, I knew what the fuck I was doing.

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12 thoughts on “If You Stare Too Long into the Paris Gellar, The Paris Gellar Will Stare Back

  1. For what it’s worth, I think you’re giving good advice. I’d only add what profs. can do to help with both of these issues, but that’s not your point: you’re giving advice to students. I suspect misdirected or critical comments will come from people who wanted you to direct your advice to professors and not to students.

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  2. PS If I’m getting 19 blank stares I’m usually grateful for the unstuffed cakehole :). But I do try to get others to chime in: “Okay, anyone else?” “Does Anyone Else have Anything At All to say?” “You can use your first lifeline.”

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  3. Having had a family member with extreme anxiety, and students who would let me know they had these issues, I used to factor this consideration into class. The faculty where I was (note: past tense!) seemed totally amazed that a student was affected this way – most saying, but when they enter the workforce, they need these skills. Not so easy! I would do private oral presentations for the student with a support buddy present. Also, found other little tasks during the class sessions that could still be counted as participation. Many academics often don’t discuss this issue; either ignore, don’t recognise, or can’t be bothered with students affected in this way.

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    1. I had a student with crippling, paralyzing shyness, like full-on disorder-level shyness, and I really tried to do as many alternative things as I could to help her participate in class. She ended up having a buddy as well who often acted as her advocate and I think that helped her a lot.

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    2. Depending on my mood I cringe, wince, scowl, or sigh every time I hear the “when they enter the workforce” BS. The best way to prepare students for the workforce is to let them get a job. They don’t need to pay us to make them show up on time and follow the rules. If we’re not offering them more than that, what’s the point (for us and for them)?

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      1. Also, this may be the student eval comment I’m proudest of:

        “I am not very vocal in class but I do all the homeworks the best I can and after he read them he talked to me before class and said he recognized me engaging w/ the material even though I do not demonstrate it in class. I appreciated this and I think he does a good job being flexible to different students learning techniques” .

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    3. Yeah, about the workforce thing: I have a full-time job with a retirement plan and everything, and it involves way, way, WAY less public speaking than school did. Like, basically zero. And I saw my boss turn down an extremely well-spoken and personable applicant precisely because she was so outgoing and wouldn’t be a good fit for the job, which is just not the kind of job that an extrovert would be happy in. As a life-long shy kid, let me say to the shy kids: There are places in the world for people like us, there is meaningful work you can do and be fairly compensated for, and you do not have to become someone you’re fundamentally not in order to succeed in life. (Note to Rebecca: this was not meant as an accusation or criticism of you at all! I just, um, have a lot of feelings about this that made me go off on a tangent.)

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      1. Well in the piece it was in the context of telling blowhard students to zip it occasionally, which yes, they can learn on the job –but possibly by being fired. If my advice helps keep someone employed I could give a single flying fuck if I’m intellectual enough or not. Sorry my priorities are so bad I guess?

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  4. Can I just say, you’re an awesome person for being understanding about this? Because when I was in college, I was forced to have a meeting with my professor about my lack of participation in her class. While I was very nervously trying to explain my social anxiety, she stopped me in the middle of my sentence to correct my grammar. (I had used the word less instead of fewer.) I completely shut down after that and never spoke again in her class. So, I just want to say, it’s really nice to see someone who is actually willing to make an effort to make her students feel comfortable!

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    1. Just remember that most of us are like ME and not like her. 10% of the time you might get some jerk like that, but 90% of the time if you just nervously sidle up (or into office hours) and explain that you’re shy, they will understand! They might not raise your grade, but they will definitely not lower it and they might allow you to do some extra work to make up for the difference!

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