Anonymous

Why am I afraid to volunteer in class even when I know the answer?

By a 2L at the University of Michigan Law School

Why am I afraid to volunteer in class even when I know the answer?

Sometimes our most insightful realizations come to us randomly. Or at least mine seem to. This weekend I had a run in with a peeping Tom, the details of which are irrelevant, however, the important thing was that I knew that it was a situation in which I should call the police, but, instead, I clutched my phone and debated. In the aftermath of filing a police report, I began wondering about why I hesitated. As I thought about other situations where I knew I was right but was reluctant to act, volunteering in class immediately leaped to mind. As an undergrad, I was confident. I raised my hand and contributed to my classes regularly. What had happened to me in law school? The Socratic method and the desire to avoid being labeled as a gunner partially explained my reluctance as a 1L, but as a seasoned 2L in classes where the professors regularly asked for volunteers and I KNEW the answers, what was holding me back? And why does it seem like the people most willing to pop their hands up before the question has even left the professor’s mouth are guys? Come to think of it, the people most likely to ask or contribute off-topic information are also men. Is my reluctance to not speak in class stemming from a personal fear of being wrong, or is it a gender issue? The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that there was something to this. Sure there were strong and outspoken women in my classes, but very few of them were strongly outspoken IN class. Why?

6 Comments

Eralon

Seems to me like guys are always like this.  For me, there is a bit of reluctance to be seen as a gunner and a bit of reluctance and fear of being wrong.  What do you think professors can do to engage more women in classes?  I have a great prof who pretty much only cold calls on multiple people per class, and it seems to work well, but even with that, we still have our typical gunner guy who is constantly hand-in-the-air.  Do you think most profs are conscious of this?

lenagraber

Good profs are aware of this, and some of them adapt for it.  One professor at my school said he stopped giving slight grade bumps for good class participation because it was so gender-imbalanced.  Another said that after asking a question he would refuse to call on the first hand that went up, but wait a few extra moments for more students to consider the question and raise their hands, which he thought was considerably more gender-neutral. Fear of talking in class has a particular gender imbalance, for sure, but it seems to affect the majority of all students.  As a 3L next year, I’m going to be teaching legal research and writing, and my students will be getting the following lecture: Law school is your testing grounds.  It’s a safe space where you and everyone around you is grappling with new ideas, new ways of reasoning, and new concerns.  So jump into it.  This is where you’ve got to practice thinking on the spot and articulating your ideas.  That’s a skill to be developed, and much better to be inarticulate now than in front of a jury or an appellate bench where there’s real stakes.  Why the fear?  Many law students are very judgmental, and there seems to be a lot of fear of being judged. 
I think this is foolhardy, and not really rational.  When a student talks in class, most people listen and consider what’s been said.  Sure, a few people will be pettish and critical, but why should anyone care about it?  Is monitoring who talks when in class really a valuable use of mental space?  And is letting puerile classroom snippiness rule your behavior the choice you really want to make?  Most of my classmates are intelligent people and I give them the benefit of the doubt.  They don’t always say brilliant things, and neither do I.  But saying things aloud makes your ideas take on form and substance that will otherwise be fleeting and ephemeral. And so what if you’re wrong sometimes, or you just can’t quite express what you were thinking?  Feel foolish for a couple minutes, then let it go.  It’s normal.  And healthy.  You’ll get closer next time.  I learn more from missing the mark than from always being right.  Most people do.  And, perhaps more importantly, I also learn more from my classmates getting confused than always getting it right too.  Re: gunners.  Self-consiousness is important.  It helps us develop and improve ourselves, allows us to be considerate of others, and is essential to being a human.  Of course it can be tiresome to always hear from the same person in a large class, especially someone who talks very self-importantly.  But the best way to deal with that is to raise your hand before they do.  Then you don’t have to hear from them anymore.  Talking in class does not automatically make you obsequious or pompous.  It’s not really such a difficult balance to talk in class without being obnoxious or over-asserting yourself.  Rather it makes an impression that you are an adult who is brave enough and smart enough to grapple with these ideas and get somewhere. And to the women in my class: I am a woman and I make sure to talk in class as much as any male (without monopolizing the discussion or being pompous), because, firstly, this is how my professors get to know me.  This is how the sexist legal profession is faced with the reality of women lawyers who have cogent perspectives, and is forced to take me seriously.  Because if I don’t talk in class, or in a meeting, or in front of the partners at a firm, then I will be judged by the way I look.  But if I have something to say, something to provoke thought, then maybe, even though I am a woman, people will look me in the eye and think about what I’ve said.  This is something women should be taught in middle school.  But if they weren’t, and they haven’t started practicing yet, then there’s no time like the present. And, by the way, for the serious feminist, I’m considering founding a new national students organization dedicated specifically to having women dominate conversations in all law school classes to make up for several hundred years of history:
LSWGU: Law Student Women Gunners United!

sintecho

I’ve noticed that both women and men tend to socially penalize women who talk a lot in class. During one of my first law school classes, there was a really articulate woman who often volunteered information.  She was one of the only women the professor would call on, and he seemed to really value her comments.  I sat at the back of the class, though, and I noticed that whenever this woman would raise her hand, some men (and even some women) would look at each other and roll their eyes, or her name would come up in conversation after class with adjectives like “annoying,” “kiss ass,” and, of course, “gunner.”  She didn’t speak as much as several men in the class, but she was the most talkative woman.  The talkative men, however, were never made fun of to my knowledge.  I also observed a man in front of me IM someone else in the class, “She should shut her big mouth and concentrate on losing some weight” at one point while this woman was speaking.  I don’t often filter what men in class say through a lens of how physically attractive I find them, so to me this comment really underscored the fact that women are often not treated like peers by their male classmates and are objectified even when they are in a completely intellectual environment.  I admit that observing the way that this woman was treated (when I thought she was saying intelligent, appropriate things) scared me away from talking too often in class.  Have others had similar experiences?

lenagraber

Yes, absolutely.  Rarely are there comments about the way men look, whereas for women that is pretty ubiquitous.  Honestly, it makes me livid.  And of course it goes far beyond law school but to workplaces, politics, advertising, etc.  A professor at my school told a story about a meeting among the partners at his old firm, where they were deciding about whether to make a particular female lawyer a partner.  He was shocked to hear them discussing not whether they thought she was talented or good to work with but whether they liked the way she looked.  (This is why we need more women partners sitting in on those meetings!) At my school, men who talk get picked on too, but not as much.  In my 1L section, opinionated feminist that I am, I probably talked the most of any of the women, although still not as much as some males, who (I think) did actually get a worse rap than I did.  But again I don’t actually know what they were saying about me.  What I do know is that none of it actually hindered my making friends with fellow students who I thought were interesting, that my professors always know my name, and that other classmates have come to me and told me they appreciated my comments in class.  So, I argue that you just can’t let the 7-th grade attitudes and the eye-rolling get you down.  Why should you care what they think?  It sounds trite, but if that’s all they have to offer the class, then they’re not worth your attention anyway.  Are those people a group that one should crave respect from for some reason?

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