Why I talk back to professors

Eric Fogle, Staff Reporter

I rarely raise my hand before I speak in class. Few of my professors, if any, would say that my participation in class is disruptive or disrespectful. I’ll often ask follow-up questions or ask the teacher to expand on a point. When I disagree, I disagree honestly without straying far from the material. This is what talking back looks like. I don’t mean talking back like Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club.” Talking back does not need to be disrespectful. Most classes I’ve taken require participation to some degree, and participation can effectively take the form of talking back. It is in our best interest to participate. It may also be in our best interest to talk back to our professors.

Part of the reason why I talk back is that, throughout childhood, I was led to believe that dissent equaled disrespect. This is not true. All disrespect is dissenting, but not all dissent is disrespectful. In high school, I was expected to remember class material and apply it to assignments. I was encouraged to listen and to do my homework, but I was told that college would be different. I participated in class, but mostly it was answering questions. If I had something conversational to say, it would have to be saved until after class. I credit my teachers at Westlake High School, specifically those in the English department, for speaking openly with me. In their classes, I noticed the lack of conversation about the class content, which caused the subject matter to feel distant and inaccessible.

My earliest college classes were indeed different from high school. Participation was emphasized much more, though initially, I didn’t understand why. I quickly learned that my college classes had potential to be conversations as well as lectures. Most professors leave room for questions at the end of lectures or even stop along the way. For the first time, I began to talk back to my professors.

Talking back can take the form of disagreement, though the prospect intimidates many students, myself included. Alternatives include asking professors what they think about the material they’re teaching and any relevance it has to everyday life. Asking for examples or offering counterexamples are also both effective methods of talking back. Talking back, as I describe it here, shows professors that a student is listening, and our professors are better listeners than we like to believe. Most implore talking back, conversation, discourse. It’s why they have participation requirements in the first place.

Granted, this attitude toward talking back lends itself to humanities majors, but the message applies to STEM and business majors, as well. Class material can always make more sense and can always be more relevant. If a student understands material, she can make connections and draw examples along with counterexamples. If she does so in class, the material might become clearer to other students. If one student talks back, she begins a conversation with her professor. And once a conversation starts, the classroom takes on a different, constructive and informally profound meaning. 

In the simplest terms, I talk back because my professors enjoy it as much as I do. It’s never been in my nature to learn by listening quietly and taking notes. Some students learn better this way, and I am not discounting this method of learning. However, I’ve always learned better through interaction and conversation, and I’m glad that college professors do not greet talking back with punishment. Talking back has come to connote sass, impudence and insubordination. This paradigm turns teachers into tyrants and renders students voiceless. College professors do not wish to stifle the voices of their students; they invite discourse in the form of participation points. Every professor I’ve had respects the educational value of conversation, and one cannot have a conversation without talking back.