Seminars and sections often fail to achieve their potential as places for engagement, passion and communication. It’s not for any lack of intelligence in the student body. Rather, our attitude toward the classroom disables us. Our search for knowledge is often overshadowed by both desire to perform well and fear of failure. To confront these psychological inhibitors directly is often too psychically daunting. Instead we repress the insecurities we feel about being at Yale. Nevertheless, these insecurities emerge subconsciously to shape our classroom behavior.
The reality is that we are all only students: Our knowledge is incomplete, and the time we invest in a single class is limited. But this is a truth we work hard to hide. We speak our insecurities only obliquely, through our vocabulary and tacit practices.
The term “section asshole” is the most visible clue that something in our attitude toward classroom discussion is off balance. The term itself isn’t inappropriate, but its frequent use is troubling. Conversations about section or seminar too often revolve around identifying section assholes. We use the concept to make sense of section by categorizing people into binaries: who is and who isn’t one.
“Section asshole” holds so much meaning for us because it represents something we both desire and detest. At best, the section asshole is someone we want to be — someone recognized for intelligence and eloquence. But at worst he or she is someone whose desire to proclaim her or his own self-worth undermines the pursuit of collective learning — and ticks off fellow students in the process.
The fear and desire for this label has become a focal point in our understanding of classroom participation. It produces a self-consciousness that checks displays of excitement or uncertainty.
When we have something astute to say, before saying it we automatically calculate whether it will seem obnoxious and overeager. And, reversely, we also check our speech in fear that someone out there — the lurking section asshole — will recognize the stupidity of our comment, demonstrate that we read only half the assignment and publicize our ignorance.
To the extent the label keeps people from making obscure references or tangential commentary, it is a useful label. But it also silences people for fear of embarrassment or ridicule. Look around a seminar and you will find a classroom full of alert but seemingly apathetic students.
Because of our performance anxiety, we have adopted a number of tacit rules to ensure our own security and the security of others.
Students rarely talk to each other in section. It is uncouth to respond too antagonistically to what anyone else has said. This protects us from the embarrassment of having our half-formed ideas exposed for what they are. But couldn’t we all admit that we are in the process of learning, and if we already perfectly understood, then the class would be unnecessary?
Students also rarely ask questions. To do so would show weakness. You can’t reveal you are lagging behind, else you become prey for the section asshole waiting to pounce.
And when a student does ask a question, it disrupts the appearance of order. We want to pretend that we each understand everything, and any differences of opinion are really differences in interpretation, not shaky understanding. A student’s admission of confusion often causes an almost comical flurry of students quick to supply answers. People have to disassociate themselves from those who would admit confusion.
Of course I am not giving a perfectly faithful depiction of seminar. Each has its own character, and despite our insecurities we all want good discussion. But I want to illustrate that almost all sections are not true discourses. Students don’t rely on each other, but rather, we talk past each other and often speak against the flow of conversation.
In section, looking out for yourself — whether that means saving your skin or showing your intelligence — takes precedence over fostering a collaborative atmosphere. Section should be a place where we raise questions and help each other come to understandings. Sneering at or fearing other members of a class will not create an environment that fosters the process of learning.
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.