David Turkel graduated from Elon University in May 2013 with a degree in English. Now he’s a 2L at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He’s a pretty neat dude, I suppose.
Grading class participation is weird and mean. Let’s all agree on that before we go any further. Some people don’t like speaking up because they’re insecure, or because they think it makes them sound pretentious, or maybe some other reason. And that’s okay! Those people shouldn’t be punished for that.
But odds are, this isn’t very persuasive to some of your professors. Like it or not, they are going to decide 10% or more of your grade on your ability to make semi-coherent observations during class. But guess what? You’re a smart guy/girl! You can do that! Even better, you can do that without sounding like a jerk! Just follow these tips, and you’ll be on your way to scooping up max participation points without any hit to your reputation.
1) HAVE FUN:
This is the Rule 1 of talking in class. We’ve already established grading participation is stupid, but you’re not allowed to look at it that way. You’ve got to view it more optimistically. It’s not an unpleasant experience in forced speech harkening back to Mao-era China; it’s a chance to get easy points! Embrace it! Get excited about it! If you really want to go big — and you should! — then make a T-shirt with a picture of yourself raising your hand on the front, and then wear it to class.
2) DO THE ASSIGNED READING:
Yeah, sorry. You can’t really get around this part. This isn’t like, say, writing a paper, where you can just sort of check your subject out on Wikipedia, dig up a few quotations, and escape with a decent grade. Most professors are going to go pretty in-depth into the reading, so if you want to say anything worthwhile about it, you’re going to need something beyond superficial knowledge.
3) PICK YOUR SPOT:
Okay! We have resolved to have fun. We have finished our assigned reading. We have resolved to have fun again, because that’s the most important part. Now we need to figure out when we’re going to talk.
There are a couple of different ways to attack this. One is to utilize what I call the “Hungry Raccoon” strategy, which simply means answering the first question/discussion topic that you have some semblance of an answer for. So, you know: diving for scraps. There are two key positives about this approach: 1) it gets participation out of the way early, and 2) it will probably make you more comfortable participating through the rest of class, because the pressure is off.
However, if you’re worried about getting a reputation as a Gunner, then perhaps you’re looking for something more subtle. In that case, I’d recommend using the Angry Senator technique: that is, wait until someone says something stupid or something you fundamentally disagree with, and then jump on them for it.
The appeal of this strategy for the anti-Gunner is obvious; it gives you an obvious motivation to speak, and removes any inference that you’re only participating to impress the professor whatever. The downside is in the risk: if someone says something that inspires you to disagree with it, a lot of other people are probably going to want to verbally disagree with it as well. So your chances of getting called on aren’t as good as in Hungry Raccoon.
Bonus tip for those using Angry Senator: one of the keys to this technique is anticipating someone saying something you disagree with, so that you can get your hand up in the air fast, before they finish talking. This advice won’t work for everyone, but I always liked to look for someone who used words like “sheeple” without a trace of irony. Those folks will almost always say something you disagree with.
4) LOW-KEY DELIVERY:
This applies using any technique. Remember, we’re trying not to look like a jerk here, and the quickest way to look like a jerk in class is to respond to a question with an unnecessarily aggressive, excited, or combative tone. So: inside voice; measured tone; normal pacing; normal diction.
5) CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE WON!
You did! If you followed all of these steps, then you’ve not only participated in class, but you did so without doing any kind of damage to your reputation. Most importantly, you’ve got those sweet, sweet participation points. Drink it in! It tastes good, doesn’t it? Like ambrosia, or nectar, or perhaps even chocolate milk.
Of course, this article didn’t touch on some more sophisticated issues, like inter-class arguments or hand-raising techniques. But that’s just fine. If you want to get participation points, and you don’t want to look bad doing it, this is all you need to know.