The Invisible Hand – Quentin Cohan

One of the best ideas my first grade teacher had was to make us raise our hands when we wanted to speak. Without this obvious and sensible rule, the ensuing cacophony of twenty or so six-year olds speaking simultaneously would have made even a deaf man wince. Conversely, however, raising our hands prior to speaking in class in college serves only to stifle productive analysis. A necessary prohibition in elementary school which served to limit chaos, now serves, a decade later, to restrict thoughtful debate.

Very rarely does conversation in a class follow the pattern of normal human dialogue in which one person says something, and somebody else responds to a point the first speaker raised.  Discussion in seminar classes tends to trace a slightly different trajectory: the professor calls on a student who has eagerly waited to share his or her brilliant revelation, the teacher then rephrases the point and calls on another student who says something equally brilliant but not wholly related. The discussion thus moves along without any of the centered focus or spirited debate that makes class engaging.

This happens for a few reasons. One is that in an attempt to sound intellectual and fully explain ourselves, we often ramble from point to point, stringing together ideas and phrases that dilute the original point we had so carefully nursed in our heads. It is a small miracle when somebody’s point ends grammatically, rather than with a defeated “so…yeah.” This sort of intelligent incoherence has the effect of preventing a direct response. If someone’s point is so deeply buried under words like “interiority,” and “dichotomy,” that nobody else can see it, then nobody else can really respond to it.

The other major existential threat facing classroom debate is that we still rely on raising our hands in order to determine who speaks–a system which adds additional difficulty to the task of listening to the speaker. While students awkwardly prairie-dog their hands so that the teacher will call on them, they are not listening as intently as they should be. The system of hand-raising has the effect of allowing students to listen to each other until we form our own thought, then raise our hand and tune out until the teacher calls on us. To borrow again from my elementary school days, my eighth grade teacher did not allow us to raise our hands while someone was speaking in an attempt to fight this very problem. She wanted us to listen to each other rather than focus on our own comments–which are often only tangentially related to the current speaker’s. Though it would take some adjusting, if we stopped raising our hands before we spoke, and instead waited for the person to finish and then jumped in, our class discussions would noticeably improve.

The most engaging debates in class almost always happen when two or three students start going back and forth at each other over a point they actually care about, rather than one the teacher has presented. If we didn’t raise our hands, then we would start responding more to each other then to the professor, whose role should be more as a moderator than as an active participant. Granted, this system gives the more aggressive students essentially free reign to butt in as they please, but this might force the quieter students to learn how to assert themselves, as well as teach the louder students how to sit and listen. If all else fails, the professor is still there to say “Quentin shut up and let someone else speak for once.” The best class discussions are the ones that flow organically because everybody is listening and responding to each other, a situation that arises much more frequently when we don’t raise our hands than when we do.

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