Few students are as frustrating to a teacher as those who are bright, literate, and interested—but who don’t utter a word in class. I was such a student myself.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for muteness. For me, the major factor was background. I grew up in a semiheated trailer in rural southwest Virginia, not benefiting from niceties like dentistry. I was accepted into the University of Virginia no doubt as a gesture toward the rural poor, but I was wildly out of place. I couldn’t dress the way my classmates did, and my cracker accent was embarrassing. I put myself through college, helped by small scholarships but mostly by working construction jobs and (for one year) the 4 a.m. shift in an auto-parts factory.
I felt out of place. I was out of place. I hated people looking at me, and I was sensitive to ridicule. I don’t think fast on my feet, and I was determined not to make a fool of myself. So I didn’t talk in class.
My more conscientious teachers realized from papers and exams that I was in fact not a clueless dolt, and they dragged me into their offices. Some tried to reason with me; some berated me; some issued threats. “If you don’t talk in class, I’ll give you a B, no matter what you get on papers and exams” was the standard line. (Several made good on that threat.) Even the more sympathetic among them urged me to face the facts: Speaking up wasn’t optional. Ashley Marshall. Two thoughts about this. First, I have often encouraged such students to talk in class, but I have never threatened to punish them for not doing so. That just doesn’t sound like a healthy way to go about addressing the issue. Second, Marshall should have acknowledged that this is a problem that overwhelmingly affects women. She’s a woman, the students she tries to help are women. Off the top of my head, and drawing on memories of thirty years of teaching, I cannot think of a single really smart male student who refused to speak in class, while I can think of a hundred female ones.