Always a step behind

I have nev­er been a very inter­est­ing stu­dent to have in class.

Now, I think that with­out too much immod­esty I can spec­u­late that many, per­haps even most, pro­fes­sors have enjoyed hav­ing me in their course. I can write a mean paper in most cir­cum­stances; my words and ideas, and I with them, come alive upon the page. But rarely does my hand rise above my head.

It is not pre­cise­ly that I have noth­ing to say. I am pay­ing intense atten­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion (unless I am dis­tract­ed by the pul­chri­tude of a class­mate, which is, his­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, a com­mon enough even­tu­al­i­ty), and I feel very engaged typ­i­cal­ly. But my syn­the­sis and crit­i­cal thought take their sweet time per­co­lat­ing in my nog­gin. By the time I do have what seems to me an intel­li­gent obser­va­tion to offer the class, the con­ver­sa­tion has usu­al­ly moved well along. 

So what, you ask, is my deal? I’m just slow, I guess. Watch­ing my class­mates work up a buzz with coun­ter­ar­gu­ments and on-the-oth­er-hands is thrilling, but it is also dis­cour­ag­ing. Try as I might, I just don’t have respons­es of my own to throw into the ring. The esprit de l’escalier I will come up with late that night will do noth­ing for either my par­tic­i­pa­tion grade or my social inte­gra­tion into the dis­course community. 

It is pos­si­ble I could do more: I could read extra vora­cious­ly between class meet­ings. I could pose wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion ques­tions for myself, and craft an engaged and elo­quent per­sona on paper that, with rehearsal, I could then find the courage to enact in the class­room. That might get me in the game. It might result in my deep­er engage­ment in the class; I might even learn more that way. Or it might be a lot of work just so that I can hear my own voice. And ulti­mate­ly, it might just not be me. So maybe I should just remain atten­tive, take good notes, read well, write with excel­lence, and sit back and enjoy the view.


  1. I should qual­i­fy that open­ing state­ment: I can recall twice in my aca­d­e­m­ic career where I was deeply engaged and con­fi­dent­ly par­tic­i­pa­to­ry. Both of those were dis­cus­sion-inten­sive lit­er­a­ture cours­es with a mech­a­nism of dai­ly response writ­ing, forc­ing me to come into each class with at least some degree of reflect­ed, clar­i­fied, and mean­ing­ful opin­ion about some­thing. It is hard not to enter into engaged dis­course when you are that prepared. 

    Per­haps the solu­tion to my ret­i­cence is a fair­ly obvi­ous one after all…

  2. It’s fan­tas­tic to know some­one else that expe­ri­ences a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non. Though many times, I wish to be more tuned into what’s even hap­pen­ing in class. Nev­er is there a lack of thought about a sub­ject on my part, but it does­n’t hap­pen in any tra­di­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic sense.

  3. I too feel engaged in the receiv­ing end of class, but not too much in the giv­ing end unless I hap­pen to have a sound base of expe­ri­ence on a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject. Even then, when I do speak up, my palms sweat, my heart races, and my voice shakes. After I have said what I had to say, i am exhaust­ed men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly as my body is still tense for anoth­er minute or so. I ask myself, “Did I real­ly just speak up? Did I make sense? Did any­one care? Did any­one object?” Woe is us.

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