By José Angel Araguz, Ph.D., assistant professor of English/creative writing
Speaking up in class is understandably intimidating: you’re in unfamiliar territory, in the role of learning, not yet an expert, etc. Yet speaking up and asking questions is one of the key ways to learn and gain expertise. To help with this, I’ve developed what I call “The Speaking Up Mantra” (A mantra, btw, is a statement or set of phrases repeated to help one focus).
So, repeat after me: It’s okay to speak up in class. It’s okay to ask questions. My view and knowledge grow through engagement and practice. My view is valid and valuable.
These statements may feel a bit odd and different, and that’s okay. College is different. College is one of the few places where we prize not knowing. It’s actually great not to know things because it means you have an opportunity to grow. All one needs is the willingness. That’s the tough part; hence, the mantra. Who else to push you past vulnerability but your own self, your own voice? The same voice you hear behind these words is the same voice you hear when you ask questions. The same voice in you that knows things also doesn’t know things.
Speaking up and asking questions aloud is the beginning of moving away from not knowing. Questions are the beginning of your conversation with the course material. Questions are where you find out what about the material interests you, and how to make that outside knowledge your own.
As a professor, I live in my own world of not knowing — mainly not knowing what parts of a lesson, if any, are of interest to the other bodies in the classroom. I work hard to prepare lessons, but in the classroom, everything becomes fluid. I know I need to make space for what I can’t plan for. When a student speaks up, it feeds my thinking in the moment, lets me know what is of interest, what else I might need to share. I love following the course of a class discussion and sharing something I didn’t plan to. Or perhaps going over something I didn’t explain clearly enough the first time around.
If your job as a student is to learn, speaking up in class helps you do your job better — and helps your professor help you do it better, too. Keep in mind, if for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable asking a question in class, be sure to ask it after class, or in office hours, or even email.
As a professor, a student’s question is never an interruption but a part of the ongoing conversation of the course. If I wanted to only hear myself speak, I’d be at a different job. But it’s tough to speak up, I know: speaking up in public is my job. Believe me when I say that speaking up becomes easier the more you do it. The classroom and your studies become more your own the more you practice living and engaging with them.
And, if it helps, repeat to yourself: It’s okay to speak up in class. It’s okay to ask questions. My view and knowledge grow through engagement and practice. My view is valid and valuable.
Professor Araguz enjoys teaching teaching poetry, creative nonfiction, Latinx literature, and hybrid poetic forms including prose poetry, flash fiction, lyric essay, and the microcuento. He’s also the author of the poetry blog “The Friday Influence.”