Freedom to speak up and to shut up

Kajahni Tharmarajan | Fulcrum Contributor

THE QUESTION RINGS out loudly through the lecture hall and is met with silence. Nobody has the guts to venture a possible answer to the professor’s inquisition. He looks around with a sneer on his face, scanning the room for a victim.

I slump lower in my seat and avoid eye contact. Shrinking my body, I lower my gaze to the scribbled notes in front of me, trying to look extremely preoccupied by what I have just written. My feigned attempts are hopeless: out of the 300-something students in the room, the prof is staring at me.

“Well?” he asks.

My cheeks are now the temperature of burning lava. But I’m not embarrassed—I’m furious. I mask my annoyance with a shrug and a smile. My peers are yelling out the answer, and the prof attempts to shush them.

“I want to hear her answer,” he says.

I obligingly articulate my classmates’ suggested answer. The attention is finally steered away from me as the professor fires off another question.

It takes several moments for me to compose myself and for my body temperature to return to normal. I’ll have you know I’m not a shy person. At a party, I will freely introduce myself to a new group of people—without liquid courage, thank you very much. I organize social gatherings. I take a special thrill in engaging in debates, whatever the topic may be (even if this requires a little bullshit on my part). I’m even one to volunteer my thoughts in classroom discussions regardless of the size of the room, if I’m interested in the subject. Heck, I’ll speak up several times in a span of twenty minutes if I so desire.

The point is, I have nothing against classroom participation—if it’s voluntary. Singling students out accomplishes nothing more than making the student uncomfortable and leaving them tongue-tied even if they do know the answer. Do professors who do this enjoy the sight of their students squirming? Perhaps they’re exacting some revenge for an unfortunate classroom event from their own childhood? Or is it a desperate attempt to liven up the mundane lecture-hall environment? Whatever the reason, it’s unnecessary.

Since we’re paying the big bucks for our education, I think we’ve all earned the right to go through lectures unscathed by surprise interrogations and individual call-outs. If I want to give a bloody answer, I will. Don’t get me wrong, I love my fourth-year seminar classes where class participation is mandatory, and I encourage students to participate and contribute in class if the spirit moves them. But it should be entirely up to the students whether they want to speak up—or shut up.