Jake’s Classroom Bestiary

"Some leviathans are benevolent, respectful of the safety and mutuality of the seminar environment."
"Some leviathans are benevolent, respectful of the safety and mutuality of the seminar environment." // Creative Commons

The dynamics of class discussion are one thing I think I will stop trying to understand. They are so strangely central to our academic upbringing, but I am certain I’ll never know what changes when we walk through the threshold of the classroom.

At this point, I realize that what follows could not be relatable, if the class discussions that I am having are unique, which I doubt (or at least, hope not). If this is the case, I am going to give a brief play-by-play of most of the seminars I have ever been in, with lots of wonderful exceptions.

First, I approach the classroom. If I see my instructor on the way to the class that (s)he is about to lead, I either stop or run because we have nothing to talk about except gene expression, and we both know a fake smile when we see one. So I arrive either slightly before or slightly after the professor. Without the professor present, usually a brief friendly interchange with classmates, who know the deal, follows. “Hello [insert collective term for the class, ranging from nothing to ‘class’ on a scale of colloquialness, which rather vaguely corresponds with the age of the professor, the youngest and oldest being most casual].” Then a rhetorical question is asked, followed by the grumbled complicity of an answer. The rest of the class discourse is material-based, but there are a few staples like class archetypes and ubiquitous comment segues. (Oh, and some professors end classes with anecdotes about time or something.)

Most seminars develop a social structure. Aside from the teacher, there is one individual who enjoys participating above all others — for clarity and evasion of gender pronoun messes, let’s call this person the leviathan. Some leviathans are benevolent, respectful of the safety and mutuality of the seminar environment, and they always eagerly listen to classmates; others are assholes, who suck. These section assholes have, for them, the best gems of insight, which are compromised by interlocution. But this is well-documented. On the other side of the table, there are those who speak bimonthly, or annually, as the case may have it. And in between there are a whole slew of niches: the yea-sayer, the nay-sayer, the scientific lens, the modern lens, the nihilist, the person who is two comments behind the discussion and just keeps saying things that were said … the list continues.

The way these roles interact is also, at times, formulaic. Ever heard this: “Oh, just jumping off of Sydney’s point.” It looks like we embed in one another these tipping-of-the-top-hat transitions, the subtext of which reads (in a old-timey voice), “I thank you for your input and would like very much to amend it.”  We fire these intellectual warning shots, “I just found it pretty interesting/cool/weird that I was able to have such a different reading.”

Social awkwardness doesn’t explain why this type of thing happens. It’s not like when you meet a new person you instantly formalize your language. Is it that we are scared into this polite, academic persona? I know your margin reads, “Well, this thing here is bullshit.” (Again, I might be fearfully alone in this, and I’m certainly not exempt from it.) If you are so gregarious and think such thoughts, what makes you scared to talk to a small group of peers you know in this slanted, academically intimate way? You aren’t mean or a genius, so just let everyone else think his or her thoughts.

I remember people maneuvering the exact same idiosyncrasies ever since middle school. Classroom etiquette has definitely seeped into the fabric of how I engage with things and people. I even remember getting laughed at when I raised my hand at a family dinner. A pitfall of not knowing why I do something, I guess, is not knowing what effect it has. As the disclaimer reads, I have no idea why my classroom experiences have unfolded like this, why raising my hand in class has made me so strange.

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