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Mouths run amok

If you haven't anything intelligent to say, say nothing at all.

The Daily Jolt asks students to send in absurd remarks made by their professors, but recently I found myself taking furious notes to get down the verbatim commentary of a fellow student. In my West African literature class, a male student commented on a Senegalese novel in an approving tone by saying, "Every man in the book is basically a douche bag." A few students giggled, but no one challenged the student for using the unfortunate term - the professor, who grew up speaking British English, likely did not understand the comment's meaning.

I will not dwell on the most directly offensive - and ironic - aspect of the comment itself, which is that my classmate was using such a misogynistic slur in the course of lauding an author for her feminist critique. Suffice it to say that misogyny in the classroom can take on surprising forms.

In the humanities at least, where I have spent most of my time, there is often an atmosphere that encourages participation as a reflexive, thoughtless activity. This is not necessarily, and certainly not exclusively, the fault of professors. Many professors I have had who encourage participation are clear to emphasize that it is the quality - and not the quantity - of participation that is most important. At the same time, there are many professors who let students get away with creating a classroom atmosphere where any comment is acceptable.

Potentially, a class in which everyone participates is much better than one in which only a few dominate the floor. It is just as important, however, that we conduct ourselves in classroom discussion with a certain amount of respect - respect not only for other students but also for the professor and the materials we read.

This respect is certainly compatible with criticism. But criticism that arrives, as it so often does, out of the mouths of those who may have read 10 percent of the material about which they comment, or even from those who have not read it at all, is obnoxious.

In part, frivolous comments are an unfortunate but not unavoidable outgrowth of the idea that every voice deserves to be heard. I consider this idea not an absolute truth but one that is based on certain justifying assumptions. For example, every voice deserves to be heard because everyone has spent some amount of time thinking about what he or she to say, or because every speaker takes himself or herself seriously. Unfortunately, it often seems as though I cannot take such things for granted.

All this is not to say that thoughtless or sloppily expressed comments come only from those who rarely participate - in fact, it is often the reverse. Many times, those who do not often speak up in class do so not out of fear or a lack of self-esteem, but because they only want to speak when they have something important or well thought-out to say. I've often heard professors remark that some of the best papers come from people who speak up the least in class.

Professor Nancy Armstrong, chair of the English department, told me she thinks Brown students are among the best she has taught in terms of the way they approach class discussion. Still, she said she believes that such discussions "should be an exercise in collective problem-solving and that students should put aside their own narcissism in order to pursue a group objective."

I tend to have a more pessimistic view than Armstrong as to how often this narcissism occurs. But I think we agree that seeing oneself as part of a cooperative community of learners can greatly improve the kind of contributions students can make to discussions. Despite its politics, I increasingly see Brown as an intensely individualistic atmosphere, particularly in the sphere of academics. It's no surprise, then, that grandstanding and frivolity infect discussions to the extent that they do.

I do not believe the standard I would like to see in class discussion is beyond the capabilities of any Brown students - indeed, I do not believe it is beyond students at any college. At a very basic level, terms like "douche bag" - unless one is talking about the actual bag, not the slang - should be left out of the discussion.

But the presence of such language is part of a larger lack of informality that students must address - we must appreciate the seriousness of our professors and our work, and approach our class discussion, as well as our education more broadly, as something more than the vehicle for another dirty joke.

When we do not, our education truly does suffer, and this may have something to do with the fact that so many of us dread discussion sections or seminars with a lot of discussion. To me, the problem is not a lack of entertaining comments - there is plenty of entertainment elsewhere - but a lack of seriousness.

With this plea for formality, I do not put forward the ideal of a classroom full of students speaking in Derridean academese (indeed, I shudder at the thought). I also do not suggest that all informality must be excised from the classroom - that professors and students cannot joke with one another, or that there is something wrong with calling a professor by her first name, if the professor approves. Rather, what I wish for is a class of students who think before we speak, and who remember that each time we talk, everyone else is expected to listen.

Peter Ian Asen '04 hopes that neither of the student speakers at his commencement tells anyone to "shove it."




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