Classroom Capital


In a classroom, students have an amazing opportunity to interact with ideas. This is especially true in college (and even more so at my tiny school) because professors often generate discussions and let students tease out the implications of their long-held opinions. Discussion-led classes may be intimidating for some, but other students seem to thrive in this setting. They have something to say every class period, usually more than once. They have an opinion about every topic and frequently give in to the desire to prove someone else wrong–be it professor or fellow student.

Having endured several classes like this, I wonder why I don’t speak up more often. Maybe the best way to get my opinion heard is to jump into the fray…

Then again, as I look over my class notes and see the various angry scribbles in the margins about everything from child labor to the value of art, I realize that there are certain issues which actually required a response and others which weren’t worth the battle. I rarely talk in class discussions (unless singled out by a professor), but I almost always have a strong opinion about what we’re discussing. And I frequently disagree with my peers.

So why don’t I talk?

Well, I like to hear what other people say. There are many ideas bouncing around the classroom in any given discussion, and most of those ideas are being refined and modified during the lecture hour. I want to glean as much as I can from my peers and my professors before I enter the discussion. But this is a topic for another time. Actually, a good friend of mine wrote about this very thing. You can check it out here.

Now, after listening for a while, I tend to disagree with at least one of my peers. Usually there’s somebody who doesn’t just hold to a different view; they insult me with their opinion. I’m probably too sensitive in a lot of areas, but it does seem like my peers like to push a lot of the same buttons–the same buttons that drive me bonkers. This is when I have to make a decision. Will I speak up and show them for the arrogant fools they are? (Or perhaps I’m the fool…)

What I’ve come to realize from my school career (and I learned this fairly early in high school) is that a student has a certain amount of “classroom capital.” A given student can only say so much in a given week (or month or semester) before his peers stop listening. We’ve all known that kid who raises his hand within 3 minutes of the start of class and begins his own mini-lecture which lasts much longer than we’d care to listen. Perhaps if we’re honest, we can admit to being that kid. After all, the most effective way to learn this lesson is to make the mistake yourself or to have one of your best friends make it (in which case, you’re likely to be acutely aware of the stares and moans).

Each person in the classroom has a certain amount of classroom capital. The professor has the most–he has prepared material and is the most knowledgeable in the subject you are studying. In an upper-level class, the upperclassmen have more capital than underclassmen. This has nothing to do with snobby older kids thinking they know better than the younger kids. It has everything to do with the upperclassman’s greater experience and study. Underclassmen have not had the opportunity to learn and grow and experience as much as their upperclassmen peers. To defer to the junior or senior is a sign of respect and an acknowledgement that they have valuable experiences to share–whether in the classroom or in the dorm room.

This does not mean that a freshman or sophomore shouldn’t speak in class. Naturally, there will be classes which are almost entirely underclassmen. In these classes, deference should always be to the professor, but when class discussions come up, all students share the same capital. If an underclassmen is in an upper-level course, he should measure his words carefully, recognizing that most of the others in the discussion have more background knowledge and study which helps form their opinions.

So, should freshmen and sophomores even bother sharing their opinions in an upper-level course? Yes! Just because you haven’t been at school for as long doesn’t mean you don’t have a valuable contribution to the conversation. However, you must face the truth that you have less capital than your older peers. Capital is earned. You’ve invested a year or so in your college career; they’ve completed more than 2 years. You’re likely still taking mostly gen-eds; they’ve moved on to mostly major courses. You are still new to the nuances of your professors; they’ve had more time to get to know them and understand quirks. Your classroom capital is just starting; theirs has been earning interest.

Measure your words carefully. Speak up when you really care about something, but choose those battles carefully. If you’re going to disagree with the majority of your peers–and especially if you counter the professor–think long and hard before jumping in. Be ready to defend yourself, and be ready to die on that hill. Once you start speaking, if something really matters to you, you’re going to have to prove why it’s worth defending. It’s okay not to know, just like it’s okay to remain silent. Jot it down as a potential paper topic where you have more time to flesh out the idea. Mull about it and connect it to something else you’re studying–bring up the issue in another class meeting. Go to your professor in his office hours and ask him about your theory. Talk to your friends about the issue in the safety of the dining hall or the dorm room.

But beware if you speak too often in the classroom. The day may come when you want to say something that matters, but you’ve used up all your capital. Make sure you’ve retained enough that your peers will listen when you’re ready to die on a controversial hill. Sometimes it’s better to have considered something for a semester and to speak about it during the last week or so than to spit out your opinion in the first week, long before you’ve wrestled with the implications of your theory. Sometimes it’s better to simply concede the point and abandon that hill. You must choose carefully. You will sometimes choose wrong. But this is as important as anything else you learn in college, for it teaches you how to win a hearing, even when you sound radical.


One response »

  1. Thanks for posting this. It will help me curb my tendency to jump into every battle and to save my capital for the battles worth fighting. 🙂

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