As an English major, I’ve always loved discussing books. Dissecting them. Analyzing their symbols. Appreciating them. But no matter how much I love a book and want to talk about it, I find myself struggling to speak in any of my seminar classes. To an introvert — no, to any person with anxiety — navigating participation-based classes can be a difficult and taxing journey. I’m still working on speaking up myself, but here are a few tips that have helped me.
Generally, if a person doesn’t talk in class, it’s not because they just don’t want to put forth the effort or don’t care. It’s always deeper than that. When I find myself wanting to finally participate in class, it can be hard to get the professor’s attention, especially in a realm domineered by students who are consistently talking without hesitation. This makes it hard to contribute even when I’m ready to, making class particularly disheartening. Not to mention the fact that my nervousness is augmented by watching everyone else thrive in a sphere that I find intimidating. Talking in front of people is terrifying to me, as it is to many, but by having a conversation with just one person, I’ve found I can make the experience better. Tell your professor about your fears. I know that it’s scary and makes you vulnerable, but the best way to ensure that you get a chance to talk when you’re ready or express how you participate is by telling your professor during office hours. I promise you will feel more comfortable. Your professor will understand and plus, you will enjoy the class more.
Making sure I get called on isn’t the only issue, though. Being called on requires actually having something to say. I do the work for the class, I come prepared, but I am still at a loss for words (well, verbal words) when I actually get to class. I’ve done the work, but now what? Instead of doing the readings and saying that’s enough, take an extra 15-20 minutes to think about what class might be like. After being in class for a few weeks, you have a pretty good idea of what class time entails. Come up with just a few ideas, comments, or questions that you could possibly bring up in class and write them down. Yes, it’s a little script – like, but you won’t be at a loss for things to say when you’re put on the spot. Coming to class without any written ideas leaves you with the added pressure of trying to remember what you were thinking when there weren’t 20 sets of eyes watching you.
My last tip is to just be aware. I used to just say that I was a quiet person and leave it at that. As I’ve processed my emotions and my fears, I have realized that I’m more than just quiet. I have anxiety, and being the center of attention – no matter how small that situation is – is always going to be stressful to me. I have to work harder than other people to be present in class in a way that’s not just taking notes. When I accepted this, I made every time I spoke in class an accomplishment, a little win I congratulated myself on instead of knocking myself down for all the times I had a profound idea I let die in my own mind. And when I knew that I needed to work harder, I was conscious of change that only I could make. Change that I am making right now.
It’s okay if speaking in front of even a small group is stressful. It’s okay to not be the leader of the conversation. It’s okay to be the attentive listener. You can appear nervous. You can scribble in your notebook to calm down. You can get better at talking in class.