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Davidson '14: The exceptional classroom

Whether it's through furtive texting, Facebook dithering or online shopping, virtually everyone has been guilty of defiling the sanctity of the classroom at some point. Less blatant, though perhaps more insidious, are the more subtle patterns of disengagement — muffled snacking, side conversations and, most vexatious, packing up before the end of class. These practices remove us from the classroom and cheapen our academic setting.

The way we carry ourselves in our classrooms means everything. Ironically, this most basic element of our academic experience often goes unmentioned. Yet it could not be more important, because from it emanates a distinct impression of our collective attitude as a university. This impression is received not only by the world external to Brown, but also by the Brown community.

With this in mind, I want to argue that we ought to consciously reject this trend of disengagement and instead adopt an ethos of gratitude. By gratitude, I mean a deep appreciation for the opportunity of being enrolled at Brown and for the resources necessary to create such a valuable opportunity.

How might such an ethos of gratitude manifest itself in our classroom behavior?

First, we would need to rethink and intentionally adjust the way we carry ourselves in the classroom. This effort needs to focus around demonstrating gratitude for three principal resources in the classroom: professors, the academic material itself and fellow students' expectations of academic excellence. This will not only instill a new ethos in our daily academic experiences, but it will also distinguish Brown from other schools that fail to operate with this principle in mind. I would humbly like to offer some proposals for reaching this goal.

While each teacher has idiosyncratic expectations for student behavior, I believe there are two behaviors that should be universally required of students. First, a student's oral participation and body language should suggest active engagement. The refrain of "I'm just a little tired" is hardly a legitimate excuse for a torpid disposition. Skipping is probably less deleterious to the classroom experience than lackadaisical participation. Second, unless a tight schedule prohibits doing so, arriving to class on time should become a serious expectation of students. Casually strolling 10 minutes late into a 50-minute class is either disrespectful or worryingly incompetent. This said, fear of being late for the next class is not an excuse for noisily packing bags and exiting before the professor can complete his or her lecture.

Next, we need to respect and appreciate the ideas of our courses. There is no excuse for glibly dismissing the material of academia or for tepidly engaging the vital content of our education — after all, that's why we're here. The most damning criticism of higher education is that there is a chasm between the passion demanded by the topics at hand and the students' interests in this topic. We should preempt this skepticism by elevating the quality and intensity of our discussions both inside and outside the classrooms.

Finally, we must respect the Brown classroom and our fellow students. Brown's vaunted academic setting is the beacon that justifies the high tuition and hard work necessary to matriculate here. When students fail to do the assigned reading and offer instead a hackneyed dime-store platitude or, alternatively, leave a seminar discussion in an awkward silence, they do not just harm themselves. They are doing violence to others' reasonable expectations for their university experience. We absolutely owe it to each other to make sure that these expectations are met, if not exceeded, by invigorating class discussion and furnishing Brown with its one truly essential resource — engaged students.

There is an important proviso I must conjoin to my argument here: I do not intend to prescribe an ethos to the discursive setting of the classroom. Gratitude does not in principle legislate classroom conversation to be conducted in a certain manner. For example, a grateful student can also be fiery or bellicose when arguing in a seminar. While some might object to this, my rebuttal is that the most important thing is to engage passionately with the material and the pedagogical setting of the classroom, be it in a deferential or aggressive manner.

For those who think these suggestions are trivial, I say that triviality is never an excuse for inaction. To those of you who think the premise is moralizing, anachronistic, parochial or hailing from a spirit of conformity, I must politely disagree. After all, it would be difficult to find a case when embodying respect — not to be confused with uncritical sycophancy — for professors, the curriculum and the expectations of fellow students represents an oppressive hegemony.

My dream is that a visitor to Brown will see something extraordinary in the way we carry ourselves. In time this reputation would amplify itself, signaling to all prospective students and faculty that Brown is the destination for those who seek a collegiate experience that embodies this ethos. How excellent would it be if Brown could pride itself on being the only school to consciously reject the emerging practice of classroom non-behavior and disengagement, instead embodying an earnest ethos of gratitude? This would make Brown truly exceptional.



Houston Davidson '14 aspires to live up to his own standards. Responses welcome to



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