Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Chatty Cathy

It may surprise some of you to learn that I can occasionally get a reputation as a "talker" in some of my classes. It's been that way most of my life. I remember storming off the front porch of the manse from a Bible study because the leaders' suggestion that we have "talking coupons" that limited (or encouraged) how many times group members could contribute. I drove to a park and fumed, wishing that some boy or another would have followed me to comfort me in a big romantic scene.

Didn't happen.

I think I came to my senses (or got cold as the sun went down) and I think I might even had gone back and talked out my feelings with the group leaders. I can't even remember who they were now but in retrospect I sympathize with them. What do you do with a girl who is so excited about learning and talking (which I need to do to learn) and the subject matter at hand to the point that you have no space to draw out the quiet kids? Teenagers are not well-known for their non-solipsistic tendencies nor their grace. At least, this one wasn't.

But for the most part, I've gotten good feedback for this trait. For the most part, people calmed my need to be known as smart by expressing appreciation for my comments. I remember that during a discussion, Mrs. Grisanzio once passed a question about Biblical language in the Grapes of Wrath over to Doug and I to answer since she couldn't. I remember my US History survey course professor complaining that the class stared back at him like sheep, but made an exception for me. A classmate in grad school once introduced me to his roommate as "one of the smartest people at school" and he's had no exposure to me except what he hears me say in class.

I'm pretty lucky that I really struggle with my homework in grad school and that I've met LOTS of people that I knew in my gut were way smarter than me or we'd have a real hubris problem on our hands here.

Almost universally, outspoken 10-year-old girls stop speaking out as they hit puberty. No one is really sure what mix of nature and nurture causes this but it's fairly well documented. I won't deny that it happened to me. But not in the classroom. It never crossed my mind that it was even an option to dumb it down so the boys would like me. I was having too much fun.

But as I aged and began noticing things like social dynamics and, you know, other people, I began to notice that if I didn't talk ALL the time, it wouldn't be terrible. Actually, I think I've gotten pretty good at choosing my moments to contribute in large-group discussions, leaving time at the end of the question for others to answer instead of jumping right in and thinking out loud less because I've formulated questions or comments in my head before I speak.

This is what I tried to do in class tonight. The class is double the size that the professor wanted due to a technical snafu. He expressed doubts that the large-group discussion format that he preferred would work. He elicited comment and after someone else spoke, I noted that I had experienced good discussions in that room with that size group before. My friend Andrew (who can be unassuming in large groups) countered that sometimes in those discussions, only dominant personalities got to speak.

Point taken.

I thought about that for awhile and simultaneously thought about the content of the class: race. I have a fair amount of experience in this area, for a white girl from the suburbs. A little humility is probably warranted.

That caveat combined with Andrew's plea caused me to make a New Year's Resolution not to comment at all, but only to listen in this class. Maybe I could make it the entire quarter listening to the perspective of others, giving shy folks room to express themselves, not making a fool of myself by saying ignorant things and impressing everyone in the room with my martyrdom, which they would see as grace and restraint. Maybe, just maybe I would say something every once in awhile and my previous silence would give my words more emphasis.

A nice little fantasy, isn't it?

If I'm honest, I made it half an hour.

But then, I didn't talk again for another hour! And I wrote down what my classmates had to say the whole time.

I swear. That's it.

And.

And.

The professor made an off-handed commented that my second comment was good and another student referenced my first comment like an hour and a half later.

It was pretty cool.

However, with only three comments in the entire class (this includes the first meta-comment about comments), the professor was saying by the end of class, "I'm sorry, Rebecca. I want to hear from the other students."

What the hell?!?

Some people said 6, 7, 8 things! Others talked for 5 minutes at a time, repeatedly! And he wasn't apologizing to them about calling on someone else.

What did I do wrong? It's true that I was raising my hand more at the end. But not forcefully and I never got called on. I sit in the center of the second row (of four). Would that make me seem more participatory than my peers in the wings of table configuration?

How did I get a reputation as a talker?

When I hadn't talked?

So, I'm in a strange place of being completely excited about the class and completely nonplussed regarding my place in the class. The professor is brilliant and has a personality that makes me laugh because of his jokes, as well as his idiosyncrasies and nuanced slips into slang. The topic is fascinating. My classmates have valuable things to say. But the valuable things I think I have to say are being ignored.

As with most contradictory things in my life, I'm sure there is a lesson here. I will continue this experiment of shutting up and be more diligent about raising my hand only when what I want to say is glaringly missing from the conversation and when it is actually necessary to contribute. I think the two things I said tonight fit into that category. I think I ruined it when I was indiscriminate with my hand-raising at the end. I will continue diligently writing down what my classmates say in my notes to learn from their experiences. I think that can only be valuable.

And I'm moving to the side tables.

1 comment:

Buttondown said...

I attended this same class and can attest to the fact that you did not dominate the discussion more than any of the other typically dominant personalities (myself included.) I was surprised when the professor picked on you at the end. But I was more distracted by 1) the incompetence of the administration that allowed 50 people to register for a class intended for 15 and 2) the frustration of trying to restrain myself in the face of so many provocative comments.

I was earnestly trying, as you were, to keep my mouth shut. When Andrew made his comment about dominant personalities, I thought he was talking about me, not you. And I don't have to worry about that whole female thing - I am a white guy who admittedly talks to much.

The capper for me was when Andrew then turned around and talked more than your or me. Then, he attacked one of my statements, saying my experience at my old company was wrong. HOW CAN MY EXPERIENCE BE WRONG? The statement was so angering and stupefying I shut down. The whole situation left me feeling defensive, frustrated, and worn out.

I'm most probably going to drop the class. I think the professor is great, but for the first time at grad school, I heard way too many comments that made me feel old, or my classmates seem really young and naive. Your comments excepted, of course. And I could not discern what purpose the conversation served other than to expose our prejudices and preconceived notions and discomfort in talking about race. But I don't see it solving anything. I think I'm going to switch to the Crime class. Just as frustrating a problem, I know, but maybe more solvable. We'll see.