What is your favorite sitting position in the classroom?
A. Legs spread, hand slung over the chair next to you, lazily twisting up your wrist instead of raising your hand to respond to a question.
B. Slightly in front of everyone else, even when the class is arranged in a semicircle/round table/other ostensibly egalitarian form.
C. Just sit somewhere, I guess.
When a professor asks a question posed to the class in general, do you:
A. Rack your mind frantically for something to say so that you can be the one to speak, regardless of whether or not you actually have something to contribute or ponder over.
B. Go on a rant about something irrelevant just because you have the floor.
C. Speak if you have something to say or know the answer.
Who’s your favourite rap artist?
C. …anyone but Macklemore
Satirical faux-Buzzfeed quizzes aside, classroom culture at Amherst is something that seriously needs to be addressed and investigated. As a second-semester senior, I’ve occupied a range of different classrooms over the years, accompanied by a host of classmates that have ranged from overbearing and annoying, to thoughtful people who have become my friends for life. The question of how to constitute a healthy classroom, and how to contribute to one yourself; how to ethically conduct oneself in a classroom setting, has been on my mind a lot recently.
The Amherst classroom polarizes: I’ve often seen people inhabit two ends of a spectrum that seems to begin with unending arrogance and ends in intense insecurity and self-scrutinization. And it wouldn’t be surprising if we were to discover that one was linked to the other: when certain students vocally and vehemently take up space in the classroom, it makes it extremely difficult for those who already question their own inputs extensively to feel comfortable expressing themselves in a hostile, combative or survival-of-the-fittest sort of environments. This division, of the speaks and the speak-nots, is undoubtedly coloured by racial, gendered and class overtones as well: speaking from the personal experience of sitting in several economics, political science and LJST classrooms, it is often surprising to me to learn that the gender ratio of the classes is quite even, when it appears that men take the floor far more often than women do. Certain disciplines have a history of domination under cis, white male opinions, and hence it is not surprising that, though ostensibly unintentional or well-meaning, those are the voices that feel most comfortable speaking out in classes under those disciplines. The media, too, contributes to the continuation of the silencing or discomfiture of marginalized voices: TV channels, especially news channels, are dominated by white male talking heads (although there are notable exceptions), and other floors of political debate too are dominated by white male voices (senators, “experts,” representatives of institutions, etc.), simply because white male voices dominate institutions of power, politics and economy.
Class, too, plays a role in who’s comfortable speaking out in the classroom and who isn’t. Coming from a higher-class background imbues one with “cultural capital,” giving one more authority to off-handedly address topics that aren’t always accessible to people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds — how a trip to Paris feels like, for example, or a work of high art, or your experience horse riding or caviar-eating over the summer. Further, a more privileged class background also could point to a history of supportive classrooms and public speaking and public debate opportunities that not everyone is afforded, making it easier for one to take up the floor and take up space without immediate realization that one is doing it. Class, race, gender, etc are not indicators of who has more knowledge or capability of mastering a subject, then, but simply things that condition one’s experiences and affect their likelihood of speaking out in a classroom setting that 1) discusses something most often discussed in the public by people of a certain type of privilege and authoritative tone, demeanor and voice, and 2) privileges a confidence, tone, manner of speaking and presentation that is more accessible to people who’ve grown up comfortable with certain opportunities than people who haven’t. Silencing in the Amherst classroom, then, isn’t always intentional or deliberate: it is simply what happens when there is a collision of institutional oppressions, individual insecurity and unacknowledged privilege in a space that is already affected by the various power dynamics that constitute an elite institution and academia itself.
Since we inhabit a liberal and reactionary campus, allow me to make some disclaimers. The power dynamics at play in the classroom that I wish to point out are not damning or all-encompassing: of course there are white male voices that are thoughtful and conscientious about their place and privilege in discussions; of course there are people of color or people of non-privileged backgrounds who are comfortable speaking up and may in fact take up too much space in the classroom. This doesn’t change the fact, however, that there are certain institutional factors that inevitably structure the world outside the classroom, and find their way inside the classroom as well. These are verifiable both empirically and experientially in the Amherst classroom: certain people find it easier to speak than others, and sometimes by virtue of the way they speak or the kind of class atmosphere created by their tone, make it difficult for certain other kinds of people to speak. This is no doubt reinforced by Amherst’s own place as an elite institution and the rhetoric of leadership, hierarchy, exclusivity, meritocracy and superiority it constantly employs. The inaccessibility of academia, too, and its incestuous or self-absorbed nature, contributes to this distorted power dynamic as well (and by inaccessibility, I do not mean difficulty, but the fact that it is written in certain forms of jargon easier understood by those conditioned to it previously; written predominantly by certain authors who write in a jargon more familiar to certain classes of people; and are written holding certain assumptions that are again, only held by certain classes of people).
We cannot change institutional oppressions through individual actions alone, nor can we make extensive change within the already elitist space of academics and Amherst. I feel, however, that keeping in mind the skewed power plays that creep in from the outside world into the Amherst classroom, and also keeping in mind basic rules of etiquette and respect in an attempt to foster an egalitarian community in an egalitarian world, we are ethically obliged to question and reform our behaviors in the classroom to ensure a more respectful classroom setting. How can we do this? Well, the solution, especially if you talk a lot in class (and I do this myself), isn’t always obvious: and it certainly isn’t to cut down, martyr-like, on your own class participation in some sort of charitable move to letting the non-speakers speak, as though all they were waiting for is the benign step down of the vociferous participators. Instead, I think, it is to question thoroughly your own motivations, always, for speaking in class: is it to assert your presence, intelligence and authority, or is it to genuinely push the class forward to make a new discovery or a new insight? Further, is your voice dominating, and dominating particularly because of some privilege you have that might help in making your voice seem more authoritative? Are you giving enough space in your discussions for others to participate and amend, or are you speaking to win? Are you speaking in an attempt to exert hierarchy — over the text, over the professor, over fellow students — or speaking to participate? How much are you doing to make the class a community that can move together in examining, deconstructing and getting the most out of the assigned material, and to make it a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for fresh participation?
I think these are the important questions we must all constantly be asking ourselves as we take classes at Amherst, especially examining them in light of our backgrounds and privileges. I think we have an ethical commitment, not only to our peers but also our education, to combat power, domination and hierarchy in the classroom as best we can and as much as we can by being the most respectful member of the classroom we can possibly be.