Ibbotson-Sindelar: In search of better sections

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.

Comments

  • BR 2010

    Are section assholes then the Yale version of the schoolyard bully? They assert their power because they inwardly fear they don't have any?

    That's interesting, but, unfortunately, not true in all cases. Some of them really are just assholes.

  • Anonymous

    AMEN

  • TA

    Isn't this just a long way to say that undergrads are immature?

  • 09

    Well, TA, maybe you should take some responsibility for the state of your section. A lot depends on the ability of the professor or TA to put students at ease, the solution to a lot of the hindrances Tyler points out. For you to dismiss the by-products of the pressure-cooker environment of Yale as "undergrad immaturity" only reveals your own immaturity.

  • section leader

    From the perspective of a section leader, I must say we love the section asshole. We get paid either way, but staring into a sea of unresponsive faces is not what most consider a good time. I don't care if you read nothing (helps if you do, but not required), but we spend lots of time trying to make it engaging and with little feedback, of which silence is feedback although negative, we lose interest as well. Please talk, we are the ones who can help your grade, not your peers or the section asshole.

  • Undergrad

    #3--

    This attitude of yours is exactly why I really dislike dealing with TAs. The best sections I have had here were with TAs who hadn't somehow forgotten that Yale undergrads are serious, capable and intelligent and who had managed to avoid succumbing to the need to lord some kind of superior maturity or intelligence over us. It saddens and frustrates me that those TAs are so few. Please don't write us off as immature just because you are a step closer to the real world than we are. If you really want to be an effective teacher, don't dismiss us, and instead work to cultivate a classroom setting in which the phenomena presented in this article are not a concern--you do have some control over that, you know. And by that, I mean don't encourage the "section assholes", who are some of the least mature of them all, (it's okay to come out and say, "I think it's time to let someone else talk") and don't enable (ie, do call on) the ones who psych themselves out of making their contributions--which is similarly immature, though not as disruptive. You will see a great deal of maturity if you put us in an environment in which maturity is encouraged. Just because you are a few years and one degree ahead of us doesn't mean we are less capable of mature, serious thought than you.

  • TA

    These aggressive responses are odd. I personally don't have any overarching opinion about the collective section psyche of Yale undergrads. The phenomenon of the failed section, in my experience, has a lot to do with students arriving unprepared. Students don't do the readings (or whatever) and so come to section with no honest intention of making a contribution. Of course some TAs are better than others, some courses are structured more effectively, etc., but the section is a time when a group of the most intelligent and motivated people in the world (*and you really are*) should get together and discuss a chosen topic: be animated, be angry, be curious, be brash, be unconvinced, be patient, be impatient, be anything other than just sitting there. When this happens the TA becomes just one of a dozen people engaged in an informed conversation and even his stunning incompetence or dour attitude cannot stop the learning. So, the success of a section is a function of the collective effort of its participants. Now, Mr. Ibbotson-Sindelar does make a shrewd analysis here, but I do think he's essentially saying that sections fail because their participants are sophomoric in their attitudes toward these sections. Or he’s saying that Yalies are embroiled in a shared psychological breakdown? Anyway, he’s not trying to be proscriptive, but I will be: put in the work, show up motivated, be resilient when others in the group annoy, disappoint or bore you, and I promise SECTION WILL BE FUN.

  • Yale 08

    Dear TAs,

    Section is garbage. We all have much better things to do with our time.

    The beauty of Yale is that it really becomes a self-study college. Students do their own thing mostly.

    Want to be a superstar and take every insane class? Do it.

    Want to do an independent study on some random topic? Fine by Yale.

    Want to take all gut classes and boost your GPA for grad school? Yep, cool.

    Want to skip along taking a random mix of hard and gut classes, get a solid GPA, but throw yourself into a myriad of outstanding sports, clubs, etc? Perfect.

    But section has no place here.

    The standard dining hall conversation far surpasses any section, EVER.

    End Section, for the good of Yale

  • Y 10

    Why all the hostility against section?

    The irony is that Yale is meant to foster a love of education and dialogue, and all section does is unite students who are taking the same class to further discuss topics.

    Ignore the section asshole. Don't like the asshole? Set a good example by participating as a contrast.

    Don't diss the TAs. They love what they study and many of them are eager to discuss the topic further with students, and I'm sure they appreciate polite students more than an asshole in an otherwise silent classroom.

    If students actually prepared, they'd learn a lot from section. There are good sections like good classes and bad teachers like good teachers. Put the two together.

  • Yale 10

    Most TAs are clowns. It is a waste of my tuition dollars to have to listen to some sociology grad student stay one step ahead of me.

  • Anonymous

    If you're so much smarter than the TAs, please do tell your professor to sign you up to lead next year's section.

  • Anonymous

    I don't find section all that useful because even if everyone does the reading, we're still very uninformed about whatever topic it is we're supposed to be discussing. Perhaps this is less true of literature sections, but in a history section debating the merits of two contrasting arguments is rather hard given that we don't know anything about the period -- and if we did, why would we be taking the class?

    That's not to say section can't be good -- I've had very good sections where it was used to bring in additional material not covered in lecture, or to flesh out a small related point, and so forth. But I don't see section as a place for well-informed debate and discussion.