Speaking Out About Speaking Up (In Class) – Marcelo Rodriquez Ferrere

As I was walking to my first Public Law lecture of 2016, I happened to walk behind a couple of second year law students. Naturally, being law students, the pair’s conversation was at an elevated volume, and so naturally, when I heard them mention my name, I eavesdropped. Sadly, my presence in their conversation was not for positive reasons. It turned out that I had a bit of a reputation, one that stretched beyond my voluminous hair, poor posture and, apparently, ill-fitting trousers.

That reputation was for – quelle horreur! – asking students questions during lectures, and singling out particular students to answer them. This was new information to me. While I knew I had a reputation for picking on students who wear stripes or bright colours, I was quite unnerved that now I simply had a reputation for asking students questions at all, and that these students were utterly fearful of that reputation. As I explained to that class, there are many reasons for this approach: it lets me gauge whether students are following the lecture and understanding the material, while at the same time engaging the class and breaking up the monotony of my dulcet baritone (occasionally alto) voice. Ultimately, I think (and students tell me confidentially in feedback) that the approach can make lectures more interesting. It is not and was never supposed to be a technique to terrify students. I’m no sadist – that’s Professor Geddis’s department.

I understand that my light-hearted analysis of the various baseball caps, clothing choices and beards in class (although let’s be honest, when it comes to beards, it’s just me projecting my significant insecurities on that score) might sting a little in the public setting of Archway 4. However, through talking with students in the apparent-therapy-session-that-is-the-SOULS-wine-and-cheese-event, it’s become clear that people are less mortified about having me talking about their stripy clothing than they are mortified about answering the question. So mortified, it seems, that they will go to great lengths to avoid being called upon in class.

Now, I’m well aware that some students are afflicted by acute social anxiety and that to speak in such a public setting is a genuinely upsetting experience. I do not want to minimise those very real issues that such students face (and, I should note, am taking steps in my future lectures to accommodate these students to ensure I never call upon them). However, it seems that classes are possessed by a collective social anxiety: no one wants to answer the question. It’s not as if the questions are particularly difficult: the vast majority of students will answer the questions I pose correctly (after all, as I described above, I’m not trying to catch people out).  Moreover, it’s not like there isn’t a 100% effective solution to being called out: simply raise your hand and volunteer the answer and neither you nor your colleagues will be called upon to provide it.

So, if students know the answer to my questions, why don’t they (you) provide it voluntarily, and why are they (you) terrified when I ask them to provide it? Certainly, this reticence isn’t a common feature of law students internationally. North American students, for example, suffer from the reverse: they won’t stop asking questions of the lecturer. I’ve seen entire lectures being derailed by inquisitive students not letting the lecturer get a word out. Perhaps that’s the hell some of you would wish for me. So let us localise the issue: why do Otago law students have a problem with speaking out in class? Perhaps much of it has to do with New Zealand and its national predilection to embracing tall poppy syndrome: to raise your hand and venture an opinion is to be different; other, and thus generally to be avoided. However, I would think, and hope, that law students – future advocates – would be the one sector of University that we can depend upon to break the mould and resist that national ethos.

It comes down to consequences. Answering questions can be stressful when there is so much on the line, and so little to gain. Answer the question correctly, and you’re a geek/nerd/keener/try hard (or whatever is the appropriate term these days); answer the question incorrectly, and you look like an idiot. Either way, you become a social pariah. So, you might be screaming silently in the library while reading this: why would I want to answer the question when there is no good that can come of it?

Indeed, if that’s the case, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to answer the question. Except of course, that’s not the case. Those are phantom consequences. Few students will label you a geek for answering a question correctly (those that do really ought to query why they are in a place of higher learning). Similarly, I’m certain students won’t label you an idiot for incorrectly answering a question in good faith. You might feel that your colleagues are appending those labels to you; burning you with their gaze of judgment. They aren’t. Trust me. They’ve already forgotten the exchange. And, if you answered correctly, they likely appreciate the fact that you’ve stopped the line of questioning from continuing.

On a hot March day in 2004, as I sat in the third row of a particularly stuffy Archway 4, Associate Professor James Allan (now Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland) asked the Public Law class who wrote the American Declaration of Independence. I’m still not particularly certain of the relevance of the question. All I know is that Allan picked on students mercilessly: “you in the red hat, or whatever that is on your head”. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I yelled out “Benjamin Franklin”. It was incorrect, and Allan made it clear that this was the case: “nice try, but I think he was too busy flying a kite.” He nevertheless stopped the line of questioning and moved on (Thomas Jefferson, if you were wondering.) And so, dear reader, as a law student once who had a lecturer that would with apparent callousness call students out to answer questions, I know and empathise with your feelings of mortification. But, I also know that no-one, no-one, remembers that exchange apart from me. There were no negative consequences.

I’m realistic. I know that I won’t change the Otago culture: I shan’t turn up to a lecture and have a hundred hands raised high and desperate to engage in a meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop asking questions, because it’s important to aim towards that ideal of making lectures beneficial, engaging and interactive experiences. My challenge to you, students, now that you know (and perhaps always knew) there are no negative consequences to speaking up, will you resist this collective anxiety that pervades Archway 4? Will you raise your hand and stop being so fearful of my penchant for stripes? It’s your move.


Written by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere.


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