I’ve often wondered if there’s a term for that uncomfortable silence during section or lecture when an instructor asks a question and nobody responds. Everyone just keeps mum, silently hoping that the resident know-it-all will end the misery and allow the class to move on. It’s as though there’s a mini-battle of wills between professor and pupil until inevitably, someone blinks.
So why do situations like these happen? Instructors are partially to blame. Professors seldom deploy pedagogical techniques in the management of their classrooms. It astounds me how many professors, to this day, lecture to the blackboard instead of to their students. In a time when high schools are increasingly moving to technology-assisted learning and novel lesson plans, collegiate classrooms feel as though they’re stuck in the stone age with the tired lecture format. But even with the greatest of teaching tools, I would hazard a guess that Yale’s classroom culture wouldn’t change much.
The real reason such silences occur is much simpler: There is a great deal of social pressure to be academically disengaged — or to at least appear that way. Students don’t answer questions about their readings during section because we usually don’t do all the readings — and we don’t really care. Soon after we arrive on campus, Yalies are socialized into believing that active participation in class is taboo. This is why the term “section asshole” is so pernicious. I learned about the term on my second day of classes here. Though it was originally meant to poke fun of students whose contributions to class were more bluster than substance, it seems as though it has taken on a more colloquial meaning that vilifies anyone who actively engages with course material. But this raises the question of how such a culture emerged in the first place.
One explanation lies in the scope of Yale’s extracurricular activities. When I visit friends back at state schools in California and ask them what they’re up to in school, I rarely hear them rattle off a lengthy list of extracurricular activities. Most of them are in an organization or two, at most. The majority of their time is spent hanging out with a few friends and completing coursework.
Can you imagine that at Yale? Around here, there is, in fact, a correct answer to “What are you up to?” Save for midterm and final season, it’s not “doing classwork.” The socially acceptable response is to list the extracurriculars one participates in, and especially during freshman year, it’s not uncommon to hear students doing three, four or even five different things at once. A sizeable portion of Yale likely spends more time on extracurricular work each week than on any problem set or paper. Classes are treated like the vegetables that we swallow to get back to doing what we really want to be doing: preprofessional work and campus clubs. And when students are more likely to be working on an article for the News or a speech for the Yale Political Union, is it any wonder that the quality of our classroom discussions is lacking?
This isn’t to say that Yalies don’t care about learning, of course. Many students, myself included, join clubs precisely because they present opportunities for intellectual development. But when the sole focus of campus culture is extracurricular involvement, there are consequences.
Because time spent on extracurriculars is what gives students social capital, students who have less time to devote to clubs are at a disadvantage. With requirements like the student income contribution, the brunt of this disadvantage falls on students from low-income backgrounds. Many clubs have recognized this and are taking steps to rectify the situation: the Yale International Relations Association has a dedicated financial aid budget, and the News has set up a stipend program to help offset the student income contribution for its beat reporters and board members, for example. These are indeed important steps to take, but perhaps we’re only treating a symptom of a much larger problem here. Eventually, we ought to reduce the disproportionate influence of extracurriculars and refocus students’ attention on academic work. At the very least, we can make sections less awkward for everyone.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. He is also the treasurer of the Yale International Relations Association. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Nov. 3: The Yale Daily News Foundation stipend program is available to beat reporters and board members, not all staff reporters.