“Why speak more than absolutely necessary in class?,” a law student might wonder with some justification. First-year exams are blind graded, and ill-phrased comments could result in embarrassment in class, or, worse, expose a student to subsequent derision among his or her peers. Women appear to take the potentially negative consequences of volunteering in class more seriously than men though. Several prominent studies have demonstrated that women speak less in law school classes, and word of mouth indicates that that tendency continues at least at some institutions. But why should this matter?
The most important reason, I would contend, is that participating at a moderate level is a civic privilege, and even a civic obligation, of the classroom. There are, of course, ancillary benefits: as a professor, I find it easier to draft a recommendation for someone who has added thoughtfully to class discussion, and, as a student, I discovered that speaking up often furnished a first step towards getting to know a professor who could serve as a valued mentor. On a more local level, assaying answers—whether right or wrong—helps refine legal thought processes, in the same way as the first efforts towards conversing in a foreign language, however riddled with errors they might be, represent a crucial step towards fluency.
The classroom is a community as well, and participating in class is particularly valuable as a way of entering into that community in a more active way. When I knew, as a student, that I might say something in class—even if I did not actually chime in—I would read the materials more critically, considering my particular vantage point on the topic. The possibility of participating increases investment in both the subject matter and the ongoing conversation about it. For an individual to dispense with a fear or aversion to speaking in class also benefits the larger community. Valuable comments that might otherwise go unsaid are thereby released for general debate. It is only as a teacher that I have begun to realize quite how significant a single observation can be in shaping or redirecting a conversation.
A more difficult moment arises when a student or teacher makes a remark or presents a hypothetical to which you assiduously object or which offends you in some way. I would encourage you to voice your views at that moment, rather than retreating into private dissent; your critique will thereby be heard, and you will probably find others who agree with or are persuaded by your argument. The class will, as a result, be vastly improved.
A word, therefore, to those readers who are entering law school: as disempowering as the first year might sometimes seem, you do have a vote—and it’s not with your feet but with your mouth that you can cast the ballot.
Bernadette A. Meyler
Cornell University Law School