Bernadette Meyler

Enfranchising the Classroom

“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 Assistant Professor Cornell University Law School



A Professor at my school remarked that in response to the fewer women students who speak up in class, he considered not granting the slight edge up in final grades for quality class participation that is otherwise typical under school policies, because he was concerned for the gender imbalance.  However, he then decided that that didn’t make sense, this is law school and people are going to need to know how to articulate themselves and how to construct their ideas on the spot, but he began waiting after he asked a question to the class in general.  A minute after the usual five hands were up, others start to go up as well, who are more hesitant but given the extra moment to collect their thoughts may be more apt to participate.


I completely agree with you that it is necessary for all people - even those who are naturally shy - to learn how to effectively present their opinions and to support them and respond to questions.  All through high school Model UN conferences and undergrad classes I was repeatedly disappointed by how unwilling so many girls are to participate in a class discussion.  And when they do participate, girls are very likely - far moreso than boys - to preface their comments with “This could be totally wrong” or “I’m not sure, but…” as if to apologize for their own opinion.  It was even true (in fact, particularly true) in a history class I had at Barnard College, where there were only women in the class. I also think it’s great that the professor in the comment above mine decided not to cater to an unwillingness or discomfort with speaking in class.  I don’t expect everyone to raise their hands every class, and I am easily annoyed by those students who do.  But I do expect everyone to learn how to speak up in front of a group.  In my opinion, it is one of the most important and useful life skills.

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