Do graduate students really have to raise their hands in class?

In a class full of highly opinionated young scholars, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise, but more structure is needed, says Desiree Thorpe

February 22, 2020
Raised hands to ask a question
Source: iStock

As a graduate student I find myself constantly raising my hand. And it feels weird. It is almost as if I am asking my college professor if I can use the bathroom. Raising your hand is a high school thing, right? I shouldn’t have to do that any more now that I’m in the hallowed halls of higher education. But after years of being in graduate school, I still can’t get my timing right and, therefore, continue to raise my hand to participate in class discussions.

Let me set up a scene that might feel familiar to other graduate students:

I am listening to my colleagues. They have just made a really good point, and I have something to say. But every time I start (without hand raise): “Well I – ”

Someone else begins.

So, I wait until the interrupter has finished, hoping that maybe then I can say something. But then another student, also waiting for their moment, jumps in.  

And so I wait and wait, and then realise that my best bet is to raise my hand or not say anything at all.

(end scene)

In my MA programme, class discussions were organised but when I entered my PhD programme I found students would talk while the professor was talking, even while other students were talking. I was amazed, to be honest. Did they not have any respect for their colleagues and professor? Or, is this just how larger programmes work?

And even though I’m among colleagues, the dynamic in the classroom is different than it is with friends. I can’t, for instance, do what comedian Chris D’Elia has done, holding out a long “ooooops” to make it clear that he has just been interrupted. In class that would be more disrespectful than interrupting.

But there are ways to avoid this – commonly found in methods to lead/facilitate undergraduate class discussions. In a recently released book, The Rhetoric of Participation,the authors state that “class discussions [either]…fail to take off; questions [are] met with silence; [or,] conversations [are] dominated by a few powerful voices (while the rest of the class watches sullenly)”.

One big difference in graduate classes, though, is there are not just a few powerful voices– typically everyone has a powerful voice and is ready to participate.

But even with a class of 16, graduate courses need structure for good, reflective discussion, just as undergraduate courses do. After speaking to some of my colleagues, we agree there is a risk that students will feel ignored, left out and frustrated when discussions are dominated by the same people.

Students can be waiting for someone to finish their point, but then get cut off when another student immediately jumps in. So they’ll raise their hand, patiently waiting while the cycle keeps going, which makes them feel unheard and not important.

And while students are left waiting to intervene, the discussion can branch off so much that they aren’t sure how to bring it back to the point they wanted to make.

When they attempt to bring it back, it almost feels “tainted,” as one graduate student has said. Since the topic was already mentioned and over with, it feels awkward to bring it up again, even if they have an entirely different perspective on the topic.

Another consequence of this style of class discussion is that students don’t get the chance to synthesise content. Because the class conversation is dominated by others’ opinions, students may not be able to wrestle with their own ideas and new content.

Some argue that online discussion boards and essays can make up for rowdy class discussions. I disagree because my experience participating in class discussion is entirely different to writing down my thoughts. It is a chance to finesse your public speaking skills, something graduate students really do need to build.

In Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, John C. Bean suggests asking “students [to] generate questions to be discussed”.

If everyone wrote a question for class discussion, what students want to say could be focused on in a more organised way. The one question asked could be the talking point that each graduate student makes.

I also really enjoyed the tactic used in my MA programme: we would all be assigned readings, we would write down what stood out to us for about 15 minutes, and then we would all take turns talking, sitting in a circle, respectfully listening and discussing different perspectives. 

My professors would intervene when terminology began to blur or when ideas were not understood, for example. Then they would give their input, and only after that would we go rogue and have a more freestyle discussion. 

Will problems still arise from these suggestions to organise debate among graduate students? Yes. But, just adding some structure and direction will allow more students to be heard and enrich the discussion with their concerns, questions and perspective.

Desiree Thorpe is studying a PhD in rhetoric at Texas Woman's University.

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