Liberal Arts Classes: A Study in the Art of Faking It

Our wording in class discussion sometimes changes, just barely. “What I found interesting…” might be reworded as “I think, in many ways…” (or perhaps the more nuanced “in some ways…”). When really pressed, we can point to a passage in the reading that was, at some point, by some more diligent student, highlighted in a used textbook. 

To the chagrin of basically everyone but the least jaded of our professors, we can even sometimes make irrelevant challenges to the material. “Even though this is a history class, wouldn’t you say that we’re still this way today? Isn’t the ‘American Imaginary’ alive and well? Isn’t there an argument here for that?”

Such are the challenging questions we deign to ask for the sake of participation points. And in a class of 200 where no one’s accountable for anything but a paper and a midterm, maybe it’s enough to say that something “made you think.” There’s no space or time for anything more academically laborious, so please, just keeping crying “interesting.”

We can grumble about the greasy know-it-all in the front row whose eager hand and rolling backpack say: “Please. Choose me. Snicker at me.” That guy is often the most insufferable in the room, yes. But he’s also the reason the rest of us can zone out in the sixth row back, awaiting the lone day in ten weeks that we’re forced to actually say something.

Some of my professors have had a simple enough response to all of the bullshit posturing in class: quiz everyone. All of the time. That tends to work, but only after about half of us have dropped out. 

Others are so apparently defeated that instead, they screen a ton of movies — with the hope that, given unavoidable exposure to the material, we’ll have something more to say than “intriguing.” To an extent, that strategy works: it tends to inform discussions with as much expertise as we can gain from glimpsing the projection between text messages and catnaps. (Which is to say, it gives us a few more phrases in our artillery — ones like “I noticed that…” and “Just fascinating.”)

I don’t know that small classes are always the answer, either. When a friend of mine considered auditing a 10-person seminar, the professor told him that he was certainly welcome, but that none of the students ever read enough to say anything. 

She was so embarrassed to lecture, she confessed, that she’d usually just put on CNN for an hour and cross her fingers for the best. (And that, I have to say, sounds like a very interesting idea to me.)


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