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We’re about two weeks into the fall semester, and I am in class staring into the abyss. My students are straight out of high school, and they’ve all mastered that collective silence that occurs after the teacher asks a question.

My students all know if they hold that collective silence long enough, it will force the teacher to answer his own question. And once that happens, as night follows day, they will have won. They can sit back in their passive vainglory, knowing that the teacher will now just lecture, not force a response, will acquiesce to the stark and brutal reality that class, sooner or later, will be over and everyone can gracefully exit the room.

Willard Waller, writing almost a century ago, nailed it perfectly: “It is not enough to point out that the school is a despotism. It is a despotism in a state of perilous equilibrium … resting upon children, at once the most tractable and the most unstable members of the community.” That “perilous equilibrium,” Waller explained, is grounded in a teacher-pupil relationship that is “a special form of dominance and subordination” where neither party asks too much of the other. I, the professor, won’t demand an answer while, you, the student, will let me continue with my preplanned lecture. Just stick to the script and no one will get hurt. Afterward, I can praise myself on another lecture well given. Another day, another dollar.

Admit it: this has happened to most of you. Not once. Not twice. But with just about every new group of students coming through your doors.

In one respect, you can’t blame these college students. They’ve spent over 15,000 hours in a K-12 system that has often implicitly taught them that passivity and psychological withdrawal are the best means to make it through the day. (There’s a reason it’s called the “hidden curriculum.”) I mean, seriously, did you enjoy answering all those “known information” questions from your teachers? It gets monotonous.

But you do, in fact, want to blame them. You have developed a magisterial course, with all the big questions, all the right readings, all the painstakingly crafted examples that should—no, must!—appeal to these Gen Z youngsters. Why won’t they respond? Why don’t they answer!

So, in that second week, I let the silence build after my question. I have already explained to them in a previous class that I have a better wait time than they do. They laughed back then as I explained that I would wait them out. No one is laughing now.

After about 20 seconds, the silence is deafening. (Try it if you don’t believe me.) Finally, a student answers. A palpable sigh of relief floods over the room. But I am not yet satisfied. I ask a follow-up question, and the student replies back. I thank the student for this, develop her idea and ask another follow-up question and tell her that I want to now hear from someone else.

The silence now is not as brutal. The students have seen a peer engage the professor and not turn into a heap of ashes. Another student tentatively raises his hand, and we go through this exact same back-and-forth, with me again asking for another perspective at the conclusion. Finally, mercifully, after a third student goes through the same process, I release them from their misery with the tried-and-true pair-and-share: “OK, everyone, turn to the person next to you and discuss whether A. S. Neill’s conception of freedom is truly possible in the schools you attended.”

Before I continue, let me be clear: I am well aware that the college classroom is filled with a multitude of differences—students, faculty, assumptions, pressures, goals—and that getting students to answer your lecture questions may not be at the top of a very long list of troubles and travails besetting higher education.

But I actually beg to differ. I will not teach another cohort of students to think that they are in 13th grade, able to passively cycle through a checklist of courses that will leave a mark on their transcript but no footprint on their brains or hearts. You think I am being dramatic? That I exaggerate? Just take a look at the research that shows us, again and again, that students find academics meaningless, remember next to nothing they have been taught and all too often toggle between hopelessness and despair. And most of these data, it should be noted, are from before the pandemic wiped out any semblance of true learning.

I refuse to perpetuate that cycle. I will not have my college classroom be the continuation of an educational system that only succeeds in the margins. And that is not, by the way, primarily because I teach future teachers, who, for heaven’s sake, should be the last ones to actually think that staying passive as students will somehow turn them into amazing and active teachers. No college student should pretend to themselves that they are in 13th grade.

But as those of you who teach well know, that is easier said than done. So I am here to tell you that staring into the terrifying abyss of that silence in this second week of classes is one small but important step toward a different kind of classroom. It forces students out of their passivity by demanding they accept that my classroom is a conversation. I may be the leader of that conversation, but they must become active participants in it.

My ability to wait out my students signals—to them and to myself—that college is about pushing students out of their comfort zones. It is about turning that “perilous equilibrium” upside down. Semester after semester, I have seen, as the weeks go by, my students embrace conversations—rather than silence—as the norm in my class. They respond to my questions, talk to each other, take a chance and ask a question in front of the whole class. They come to see and internalize that learning is a process that requires their engagement.

The college classroom is a despotism, and, we, the instructors, are the despots. Many of us may not want to admit or embrace this positionality. But it is not until we can clearly name how the college classroom functions that we can begin to change it for the better.

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