In my last column, I wrote about the odd, pervasive silence with which we regard each other as we go about our days on this campus. Burying ourselves in our gadgets, we seek shelter from having to interact, from having to be vulnerable with our peers and colleagues, because of how tightly this environment makes us hold onto those whom we do consider dear friends.

In the time since that article’s publication, I have been pondering why this is the case, trying to locate precisely which aspects and areas of University of Michigan life help to foster this atmosphere most forcefully. It seems to me that the way classes and classrooms are structured plays an integral role in this cold, silent process.

I am talking specifically about lecture classes, which, as an LSA sophomore, I have found to be the most common format to educate University students. On a basic level, these classes foster little interaction between professor and student — one is rendered passive: a statistic, a filled seat. 

On a more nuanced level, though, the physical structure of classrooms can inform these classes’ deleteriously ostracizing and desocializing effects on individuals, influencing the greater campus atmosphere. The seats are most often set up so students do not face each other; instead, looking forward at the only person worth seeing — the professor, who will proceed to plant information in your head — information that you are, by virtue of the classroom’s size and the bleary, dreary atmosphere, discouraged to question or to modify. It’s as if you have nothing to learn from your peers or from yourself, for you are just another student, a kowtowing student. Instead, look at and learn from this polished, handsome professor, for she is the only person worthy of your attention in this classroom.

These classes, at the beginning of the year, most often begin with the professor reviewing the syllabus with their students — a ritual I have always found confusing and oddly belittling, as if I am not able to read and comprehend such a simple, mundane document on my own. In highlighting future deadlines throughout the term, the professor most often will discuss how one can go about getting a good grade — study for the exams, write a relevant paper. Rarely anything about participation. What kind of a long-lasting, real education can actually happen when the student remains dormant, seated, silent?

And in this classroom environment, introduced by an invitation to be a passive, disengaged student, I often find myself taking my computer out of my backpack, not because I want to, but because this is what my peers are doing; this seems to be the standard method. Inevitably, logging in to a computer means logging out of the conversation in front of me, as distractions of all sorts berate me as soon as I lift the screen. I know this long before I take out my gadget. I feel my stomach turning as I do it.

But I am torn because it’s as if the structure of these classes encourage distracting oneself, only prompting me to take notes when the professor begins a point with, “This will be on your exam … ” A student who does this, paying attention for just a few minutes every class, might very well get an A on their transcript. And in this world, that grade translates to an unmitigated success. Is this how to measure the value and effectiveness of education?

The attitude of conforming to the behavior of my peers represents the golden rule in these classrooms, where students seldom do the things that would make them, for a moment, stick out: ask questions of their professors, momentarily halting this monotonous and ineffective process of professor talking at student and student feigning attention. But it is in these moments of vulnerability that we learn: about ourselves, about each other. It is in these moments of asking for clarification that professors are actually doing their job, which is to teach, not just to speak or to present slides to you, slides that you could just as well watch on your own time.

Is it a coincidence that students act with an Armageddon-like urgency to get out of the classroom at the ends of these classes? Who could possibly be stimulated and excited by this type of academic work? But this reaction, too, is an intentional element of the process. For stimulation and excitement are not, in this context, the goal of these classes; the student, instead, ought to be obedient and silent, sitting at a computer tapping furiously, eyes on the end-of-term letter marking that will determine the success or failure of their time here.

In a social context outside of the lecture halls, our eyes similarly rest not on the present, not on the scores of students who roam around us as we walk along the Diag, and all the social possibility that lies there — no, no, no. Instead, we direct our focus only to those circles in which we are comfortable, those people who represent that end-of-term letter-marking — as long as those relationships are sturdy, I have not failed any social contract.

In both an academic and a social context, this is an exceedingly irresponsible way to inhabit our space. But it is the lifestyle that our University breeds and promotes; we are not taught to live presently — instead of engaging fully with our academic work, consider the exam, the final grade. Instead of striking up a conversation with any of the dozen peers sitting around you during Michigan time, sink into your phone, catch up on your friends’ GroupMe.

The silence with which we treat each other begins in our lecture classrooms, where conformity and silence are the rule, and asking a question the exception.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu. 

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