University News

Comfort speaking in class varies with gender, ethnicity

Fall poll reveals class participation discrepancies among undergraduates

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2016

For many students, speaking up in class can prove an uncomfortable task, despite the fact that most classes at Brown — and nearly all that have section requirements — factor participation into final grades. According to The Herald’s 2016 fall poll data, just over 14 percent of students responded that they feel somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable speaking up in class or section.

Specifically, 40 percent of men reported feeling very comfortable speaking up, and only 11 percent of men indicated they feel somewhat or very uncomfortable doing so. By contrast, only 29 percent of women feel very comfortable, while 18 percent of women responded that they feel somewhat or very uncomfortable.

In terms of race and ethnicity, 86 percent of white students indicated that they feel somewhat or very comfortable speaking up in class, while less than 80 percent of Hispanic, Asian and black students feel the same way. Twelve percent of white students feel somewhat or very uncomfortable speaking up in class while 17 percent, 15 percent and 22 percent of Hispanic, Asian and black students, respectively, feel that way.

A host of reasons contribute to feeling anxious in class, including fear of being wrong, fear of criticism, fear of being invalidated and fear of being inadequate, wrote Jackie Twitchell, interim co-director of Counseling and Psychological Services in an email to The Herald. These feelings can apply to everyone, but some reasons specific to race and gender may help explain why women and people of color feel less comfortable speaking up in class.

“Being part of a majority group decreases threat, while being part of a minority group increases feelings of threat,” Twitchell wrote. “Stereotype threat can lead to increased anxiety and difficulty reaching one’s peak performance level.”

Katrina Jacinto ’20, who is Filipina, said she feels the stereotypes associated with being a woman and a person of color affect the way others perceive her, making her more conscious of herself in a classroom setting. “When I started speaking up more (in class), I was very conscious of being perceived like the teacher’s pet or a smartass or trying way too hard to appear a certain way,” Jacinto said. “And that’s something boys don’t have to worry about because they’re just sort of awarded for being assertive and for being intellectually dominant, whereas for girls, there (is) a bit more pressure on us to really think about what we (are) going to say.”

Jacinto added that a fear of invalidation is more heightened for her as a woman. “(Male) experiences are immediately taken as valid,” Jacinto said. “I’ve had people tell me that I sounded too emotional, or that I was getting too caught up in what I was saying — and somehow that invalidates what I say.”

The way people perceive the statements of people of color is also affected by their identities as people of color, Jacinto said.

Jimena Terrazas Lozano ’19, a Mexican woman, also said she feels as though others invalidate her input in class. “(Men) sometimes make me feel like my input is not valid,” Terrazas Lozano said. “I’m speaking, and I raise a point, and they totally don’t even respond to what I’m saying. … Or if I say something, they repeat my own words in their own accent” in an effort to explain their understanding, even when it is obvious that they understand the comment.

Another possible reason for people of color and women’s discomfort participating in class is the resurgence of negative memories that may accompany certain class discussions for them as people of historically marginalized identities.

“Students report distress in classrooms that address oppression and inequality because the classroom content brings up painful lived experiences and requires a great deal of emotional processing in addition to learning classroom content,” Twitchell wrote.

But despite all the fears and worries students experience with participating in class, speaking up in class still remains an important component of education. Emily Owens, an assistant professor of history who currently teaches HIST 0557B: “Slavery, Race and Racism,” a first-year seminar that requires participation as part of the grade, believes speaking up is a life skill that translates beyond the classroom.

“A major part of what the liberal arts project is helping students learn how to think. To be able to communicate what you’re thinking verbally (is) a really important skill set,” she said. “College environments are … a really safe way to practice learning how to talk to your peers. It’s really important for my students to be practicing that now, so when they go out into the working world or wherever they end up, they’re prepared to have those kinds of intellectual conversations.”

Classroom conversations can also help students understand the content of a class more deeply, said Professor and Chair of Anthropology Daniel Smith. “To be in dialogue with someone, to be listening to each other — it is a big part of how students learn,” he added.

Stephen Parman, associate professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, noticed that in his courses, classroom discussions often become very stale and silent. But during online discussions, the conversation elicits innovative ideas, he said.

The anonymity of online conversation helps people overcome their “social anxieties that have sort of been programmed in when they were young,” Parman said. People have this idea that “this is how women should act; this is how men should act, … (but) you yourself at your computer, somehow those buttons aren’t pressed, and people seem freer to come out of their shells.”

To feel more prepared and confident in classroom discussions, faculty members, students and experts suggest a variety of methods. Jacinto advised students to write down their thoughts before speaking, adding that it also helps participants compose themselves before taking action.

Owens recommended similar preparation; in her own course, she requires students to come to class with a question prepared to bring up in discussion.

Twitchell stressed the importance of confronting anxiety, whether it be through talking to faculty members, practicing talking with peers or learning relaxation techniques. “Addressing the problem head on — rather than avoiding it — can make all of the difference in feeling engaged in the education experience,” Twitchell wrote.

Terrazas Lozano said she believes students benefit from being brave and raising their hands. “You’ve taken the time to listen, so what you’re thinking is probably thoughtful,” Terrazas Lozano said, adding that thoughtful commentary is always insightful, “in contrast with the people who are just speaking for the sake of speaking.”