“Not much of speaker, huh?” was the reasonable excuse that one of my GenEd professors gave me for not remembering my face or name when I greeted her and expressed my long admiration for her a few semesters later on campus. Disheartened, I realized that getting an A in the class or staying late for one-on-one discussions with my teacher wasn’t as significant as speaking in class when it comes to leaving lasting impressions.

Most GenEd classes at JMU are characterized by two pronounced features: the ginormous class sizes and hour-long lectures, often topped by odd night-class timings. And thus, the professors often come up with various audience-involvement tactics to prevent their lectures from becoming movie-theatre experiences for students to drool on. But lately, class participation’s indeed become a part of the course curriculum and sometimes, it even accounts for a small percentage of the final grade — this is a fairly arguable tactic.

Mandatory participation’s often justified as a means of obtaining a reader’s response from students or a way to encourage students to “contribute” to the discussion. Student participation or “contribution” shouldn’t be reduced to just speaking in class. Verbal confidence isn’t an equivalent to a quiet and meticulous study regimen. The whole phenomenon of educators choosing a competitive classroom environment over a cooperative one seems very archaic to me. 

Classroom environments relying solely on the rat race of competitions and the instant rewarding methods to spark interest among the students can’t be a long-term strategy for learning. Moreover, it seems like a punishment for reticent students who need a lot of preparation before speaking because they choose to speak carefully. A competitive speaking environment like this might be making students’ shyness seem like a permanent character flaw that’ll destroy their futures.

As soon as the teacher raises a question of potential participation points, the whole atmosphere of the classroom changes from a comfortable learning space to a standoff of raised hands. While one part of the crowd’s engaged in a grueling race of vocalizing their thoughts before their peers, the other part slouches into a heart-pounding, nail-chewing dilemma, torn between their fear of social judgment and self-loathing for their inability to save their participation grades, despite being thorough with the readings. It’s unfortunate that the absence of speaking’s often assumed as an absence of academic rigor or learning. 

And as far as eradicating the fear of public speaking is concerned, fostering a cooperative learning environment where students can work in small groups or pairing them with partners can serve this purpose. Sometimes, even just opening the entire classroom for a light discussion without the catch of bonus points can help, so that shy students don’t lose their voices among the competitive cheers of “me, me.”

If the goal’s to actively engage students in learning, then speaking in class shouldn’t be the only factor for that. Affirmative nods, rigorous note-taking and consistent above-average performances on written responses or tests; there are myriads of different ways students can voice their thoughts on classroom topics. 

We live in a culture that thrives on cutthroat competition, where the civility of silence and modesty often gets lost — but the classrooms shouldn’t be a victim of it. I just don’t see the effectiveness of forcing competition into an intellectually stimulating classroom environment where all students should receive an equal chance and platform for voicing their ideas in any way they want. Students who regularly participate often leave a strong impression on their teachers, but the ones who don’t and choose silence and patience in highly competitive environments should also be remembered for their impactful contributions. 

Rishmita Aich is a senior media arts and design major. Contact Rishmita at aichrx@dukes.jmu.edu.