I think there should be a course on lecture hall etiquette but, unfortunately, no such thing exists. That’s why, this week, I’m going to use my status as a columnist to denounce what I consider the most common and irksome lecture hall faux pas.
You see, the overwhelming majority of students are well-meaning, unprepared types who would like more than anything to spend lecture browsing Facebook or drawing the Papa John’s logo. That’s not to say they’re all the same. Most of them are normal guys and girls whose minds are on other things — weekend plans or internship applications. Others are maybe not so normal.
Anyway, I have no grudge against that distracted crowd. No one’s focused all the time. In fact, you could make an argument that these folks are the lifeblood of a college lecture hall — if everyone had something to say, no one would be able to listen.
But we do run into a problem when no one wants to speak, when no one wants to answer the professor’s questions. After all, most professors believe in discursive learning — it’s the academic mode they’re used to and (at least in the humanities and social sciences) answers to the big questions are usually more like opinions anyway.
So, the awkward silence drags on after every professorial question until someone in the gallery can’t stand it anymore and speaks up. At this point, my approach would be to figure out the answer the professor’s looking for, give it in very simple terms and simmer down so the lecture can carry on. However, this is not everyone’s approach. There are other methods that I think alienate every person in the building, though I’m probably biased by my own burning sense of discomfort. These methods include the following:
Vague tangents: This is a time-tested strategy, and, unfortunately, a waning one. We’ve all come across this person, and most of us probably remember him well. He is the kind of person who really likes obscure technical terms, especially when they come out of his own mouth. He will answer the professor’s question rain or shine, and though it’s impossible to know definitively what he’s talking about, it’s almost certainly off-topic.
Incorporating one’s political agenda: Don’t get me wrong, English language tirades about Italian chauvinism have their place. I just don’t think that place is an Italian language class. Similarly, I don’t think Percy Bysshe Shelley gave much thought to the Iraq War, or that Machiavelli “proves that all politicians are the same.” College is a great time to explore the whole spectrum of ideologies, beliefs, causes, et cetera. Just keep them out of the classroom. Please. Will your political opinion really give everyone else a better grasp of the course material? No, it won’t.
Painfully uncontroversial claims: I would recommend always making as simple and direct an argument as possible if the professor wants one. Leave anything more sophisticated for your paper. However, please, do not make that argument if no argument needs to be made. In high school, one of my classmates made a very long, involved, moral argument against slavery. You do not want to be this person. Likewise, you do not want to be the UCSB classmate who made a passionate, four-minute argument against Thales of Miletus, a pre-Socratic philosopher who believed that the whole universe is made of water.
Look, my goal is to keep lecture moving, and there’s an art and science to making that happen. Sometimes, it’s best to keep quiet. Other times, it’s best to answer a question. Most of us understand, but some don’t. Some never will. Their goals are different — they want to advance their politics, sound intelligent or just hear themselves talk. As for the rest of you, do us all a favor and chime in once in a while. A muted classroom is open season for those few that just don’t get it.
Ben Moss saves his political tangents and obscure technical terms for his columns, not his classes.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of the April 22, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.