From eighth to twelfth grades, I was accustomed to never raising my hand in class. It wasn't because I was the obnoxious kid in the room who just didn't want to follow the rules, but rather because the high school and middle school I attended for eighth grade employed something called the Harkness Method (not to be confused with the Oberlin co-op), commonly referred to as just "Harkness," where students aren't supposed to raise their hands.
The Harkness Method requires all the students in the class, plus the teacher, to sit around an ovular table and participate in a type of discussion-based learning. As I said earlier, an important tenet of Harkness is that the students never raise their hands to speak. Instead, students are expected to speak when they (hopefully) have something to say, and if two kids start speaking at once, then one of them will say something along the lines of "you go first" to the other. With Harkness, you learn to be aware of your classmates and read the room to see when there's space for you to talk. It's sounds awkward to explain, but for five years it was all that I knew when it came to school.
Now flash-forward to my first semester at Oberlin, where I was struck with a sense of panic when I walked into my Russian History classroom and saw that there wasn't a table, but individual desk-chairs arranged in several rows. In fact, the only class I had that semester that resembled what I was used to was my First Year Seminar class, Exploring Chicago, where there were rectangular desks arranged in a square. I felt incredibly stupid that I hadn't realized that college was going to be different than high school, but it was because the only classroom I saw on my tour was one that was arranged in a seminar/rectangular formation. O, the naïveté!
It comes as no surprise then that I never said anything in my Russian History class discussions (which I counterbalanced with an eight-minute video essay of a final project that I narrated myself), nor do I think I ever spoke in my Intro to Sociology class either, during my second semester. One of the main things that stood in my way of speaking was that I was struggling to get used to not being able to see all of my classmates at once during discussions, which was what I had done for my previous five years in school. You would think I would decide to sit in the back of the classroom to address this issue, but unfortunately that isn't something I can do because I am partially deaf, and have to sit in either the first or second rows to hear the professor. But aside from that, I really wasn't comfortable with having to make a physical gesture in order to speak in class. This wasn't me being snooty, but rather me being thrown off kilter from a bout of adjustment disorder depression, which I suspect had messed with my self-confidence. In one way or another, raising one's hand is an assertion of one's space and/or existence, and I simply didn't have the will to do that just yet, which makes me really sad to think about now.
Eventually, I pushed myself to speak a few times a month in some of my classes that I took my first year, but with the exception of my First Year Seminar and Creative Writing class, I constantly felt like after I had spoken, my face would plunge itself into a fiery locale from Dante's Inferno, and blush as if I had just mispronounced Idris Elba's name in front of Idris Elba. I kept asking myself and the capillaries in my face, why are you doing this?! There is no reason to be embarrassed!!!! There is no imminent danger!!! Nothing happened aside from the fact that you contributed to the class discussion like you're supposed to!!! Stop making this harder for me!
I worried that this awful blushing thing was going to follow me around for the rest of my academic career at Oberlin, like Richard Nixon's perspiration problem, but I completely forgot about it over the summer when I was busy juggling internships. And by the middle of the summer, I had also gained much of my self-confidence back from putting myself on a strict running schedule, so I suppose a change in lifestyle and a newfound sense of physical strength were also key in turning things around for me.
And now this brings me to my next point, and the happier part of this post.
Although I was initially nervous that my face was going to do the blushing thing again in my classes this year, I feel super relieved to say that it's gone (with the wind). I regularly contribute to the discussions in most of my classes this semester, and I feel totally fine doing so! In many ways, I feel like I'm back in the groove of how I would participate in discussions when I was in high school. That said, it did take me at least a couple weeks to totally get comfortable with raising my hand again. In the very beginning of the semester, I barely raised my elbow off the table when I had something to say, and when I realized my professors weren't calling on me probably because they couldn't see my hand, I adopted a new philosophy for class participation: RAISE your hand, woman! Get your arm up in the air because you have something to contribute! [Shia LaBeouf voice] JUST DO IT! (Luckily, the shoulder muscles I got from running this summer primed me for raising my arm in class)
I now think back on my class participation in high school, where my mother would literally call out "remember, Harkness!" at me before I walked out the door in the morning, and I feel like I'm much more secure with the ways that classes at Oberlin differ from those of my high school. It only took me an entire year to get completely acclimated, but it's better late than never. I've been told by lots of people over the years that I tend to not say anything if I don't have something to say (or as David Byrne once sang, "when I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed!"), so I'm also glad, on some other level, that my classes are engaging me enough that I am stirred to speak in the first place. In turns out, I suppose, that the hardest part about adjusting to college class participation was not just the act of raising my hand, but working up the courage and the confidence to do so.
That said, watching this Shia LaBeouf video a bunch of times also helped too.
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April 29, 2023