“You cannot be a powerful life-changing presence to some people without being a complete joke and embarrassment to others.”
Mark Manson (link)
Got classroom participation?
As practise for elsewhere?
Been There, Done That
Class one plus two
You may recall that after the Americans tossed out King George, there was a fear that in a few years, a few decades, or a few generations, they might go trumping along and elect an Uncle Joe or a Big Brother or some other “king in all but name.” Part of the reason they didn’t elect a Donald Duck to rule their pond was their experience with participation in all sorts of nonpolitical things. A French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1830 still-in-print classic Democracy in America, reported back to Europe that the Americans were big on forming associations… independent of government.
Needless to say, an association can mean speaking up in participation.
De Tocqueville pointed out (in my own words) that if government does not allow people to make decisions—with a sense of agency—in small things, then, for a big thing like voting, the people would fail: Their vote decision, however important, would lack the personal responsibility and intelligence that comes only after instilling a feeling of agency.
I think what you don’t want is a North American looking towards the expansive frontier with the same slumped shoulders as a proletariat looking at the factory walls saying, “I only work here.” For any democracy, to have the population saying “I only live here” is a disaster.
My university student newspaper had a front page banner slogan, “The price of democracy is participation.” Nevertheless, some of the students, during their classes, would sit slumped like high school kids, feeling no sense of agency. Mere passengers. Bumps on a log. Children in adult bodies. Others, though, would make their education serve them. They would listen… and, if need be, they would also talk, they would participate.
Been There, Done That
Out in the real world, at a community centre one night, during a break, someone told me I always speak concisely. Yes. I developed the skill of brevity partly by writing as a student newspaper reporter, partly by practising brevity as a student speaking in class, and partly from using a walkie talkie.
So there I was, in a liberal arts class, learning of Outstanding Lives. We studied three unusual people: Mahatma Gandhi, (Indian, assassinated) Simone Weil, (French, did not survive the war) and Thomas Merton. (U.S. monk, died with head wound but no autopsy) Having missed the very first class of the semester, I ended up sitting at the front, off to the side. (But we could turn around)
My choice of seat worked out fine, as I ended up being literally touchy feely with a fellow mature student who sat beside me. She told me the others thought we were lovers. A young married woman next to her ended up inviting me as her “plus one” to a dinner for Dean’s list students. We three participated in class, as did a knot of people in the middle, and a knot of people in the back, and, well, as did everybody in that room, for that happy semester.
Down the years, I have never attempted to ever be part of any “popular” or “in crowd.” Of course not: We intellectuals, and/or nerds, are traditionally independent. But for this class, I remember once, outside of class, a popular looking young woman saying sadly of we three (or more) “Why are you guys such friends (and not me)?” The main answer, which I didn’t share, was that my affectionate friend and I both had “a past.” I was sure happy I lucked out.
Of course it wasn’t pure luck, because I had used my sense of personal agency:
So there I was, in my professor’s office, during the first week of classes: He already knew me because I attended the very first class of his other section (class two) for Outstanding Lives.
“May I transfer to your other section?”
“It would fit your schedule better, eh?”
“No, it knocks out my lunch break! But the section I attended is no good… On that first day, I swear I participated almost as much as the rest of the class combined!”
What I didn’t tell my prof was that I had sensed, that first day, that I wasn’t respected. I would hope I wasn’t as bad as in Mark Manson’s quote “…a complete joke and embarrassment to others.” I had tried to lead by example, even heroically sacrificing some dignity, you might say, so as to encourage others to speak up too, but in vain. Not being one to cast pearls before swine, I transferred out before trying to help my peers a second time. I never dreamed what a splendid decision that would prove to be.
Class one plus two
We met up, both sections, for the final examination. While my own class had warm bonds, like under a warm yellow light bulb, I noted the other class as being awfully silent with each other, awfully drab, like being under a dull fluorescent light. I had no sympathy for them.
A few weeks before the final class I privately asked my prof, “Did your other section ever start participating?” “No.” I asked what it takes: He told me that if you can get three or four students to talk, as a critical mass, then you may have a class radiating excited conversation for learning.
So how do you participate? By Listening well, that comes first. Encourage your peers with eye contact, head nods and smiles.
I might add that some folks learn by solely listening, not talking. I myself have often been thanked after community centre meetings, where I barely said a single word, for contributing my intent energy for listening.
Next: “Think before you speak.” People aren’t concise because they “wing it” but because they think it over first: As you rehearse what to say, try not to move your lips. (Joke) Army guys with back pack radios, and I was one, are taught to swallow their pride and write down their sentences on a field message pad, if that’s what it takes, before they speak. Looking back, I don’t recall anyone doing so.
The army teaches BASS: Brevity, Accuracy, Speed and Security.
BASS for civilians: I already covered how to be brief.
Accuracy could mean citing your sources as you talk, as if in a newspaper article. “According to…”
Speed means, again, don’t try to slowwwwly think “standing on your feet,” not while you are monopolizing everybody else’s time.
And security? Among civilians, that could mean don’t blab anything behind someone’s back you wouldn’t say to their face. I ask you: How could anyone, in a public setting, accidentally say something prejudiced against another race, religion or creed?
Bonus tool: Unless you’re out in the field carrying a big pack with a built in radio transceiver, just relax and be yourself. We are all looking for authentic people.
“Here’s a piece on talking, written by a transcriber. The best part is the numbered advice near the end. (link)
~Here’s a (link) to the shortest textbook I ever bought, a “life changing” thesis written by Simone Weil during the Nazi occupation of France, with the Greek parts translated by essayist (Settling the Colonel’s Hash) and novelist (The Group) Mary McCarthy. I have mentioned Weil and her thesis before, first in Troy, the Iliad, and music, archived January 2014, and more recently in Yankee B.S. and Doctor Who, archived December 2017.