The Sounds of Silence

By Brian Hinrichs

Class of 2007

Binder snap. Paper ruffle. Cough. Sniffle. Sound familiar? Having read a question in “Dear Rosie” two weeks ago regarding a class full of awkward silences, I’ve been thinking about my personal experience with such situations. When it seems like people are just going to “not talk” for hours (Best in Show anyone?), I find myself instinctively raising my hand, sometimes without anything to say at all – pretty much making stuff up on the spot (which arguably is part of what being an English major is). Freshman year, I noticed my habit of doing this and since have consciously tried to stop; in general, I try to participate only when I have something meaningful to say, because in responding out of guilt I rarely communicate an intelligent point.

I’ve gotten better, but as long and hard as I try to wait, if no one else is saying anything, I know some internal force will inevitably propel my hand upwards.

Despite my own bad habits, I am struck by a few things. I believe most awkward silences stem from questions that are too obvious. Normally these are the warm-up questions to a discussion that a professor deems necessary, but because everyone knows the answer, each student assumes someone else will raise their hand.

On the other hand, there are the questions that genuinely leave a class perplexed. In this situation, the professor ideally rephrases the question until a brave soul starts hesitantly to lift a few fingers, still looking around for a more assured hand to rise up.

In the worst case scenario, the professor lets the silence linger, allowing for a quiet cacophony of nylon jackets rubbing, nalgene-caps unscrewing and stomachs growling for the breakfast they never had. In this situation, instead of cringing to appear deep in thought, it would probably be best to just ask the professor to either rephrase the question or explain it in more detail. Hopefully, your peers will catch on and do the same the next time quiet strikes the room.

Although I acknowledge that awkward silence can strike at anytime, and that it is equally frustrating for both professor and student, I cannot help but feel, especially as I take more upper-level classes, that in some cases it is not so much an uncontrollable, predictable phenomenon as an actual lack of participation from the students.

So many times I wonder, have people even touched the reading? Is anyone else interested or excited by this? If not, why are they taking the class? Of course, there are those days when you just do not feel like participating, for whatever reason. There is also the issue of distribution requirements, which can unfortunately leave a student taking a class simply for credit.

But so many examples come to my mind that no legitimate explanation is possible. I’m not saying that I’m the ideal student – it is sometimes easy for me to be quiet, to fall behind or to throw out meaningless points into the conversational abyss. At the same time, I cannot help but be saddened at how lifeless some classes that have all the other ingredients to be inspiring can feel.

If you just don’t care, then I have to say you’re wasting a lot of money and an opportunity that people around the world only dream of. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to ask questions or speak up even if you’re unsure – discourse is essential to education.

Mindless participation is not what I’m advocating, but your voice is more important than your stomach’s.