I finished college in 2012. But even though it’s been almost a decade, I can still remember my time in the classroom, and I can still remember learning and discussing topics. And I will also admit, without a shadow of a doubt, that I talked too much in class. I had a lot of opinions, and I asked a lot of questions. Sure, I’d always done the readings, and the assignments, and I was a good student, but as I was blabbering on, putting my hand on the wheel of the conversation (like many men do in their 20s), I never took a moment to ask myself, “who isn’t speaking?”
And well… according to a recent study out of Dartmouth College, the answer to that question is women. I have to assume that we are all familiar with the term Mansplaining, and it sounds like college age men are living up to the cliché.
The study was performed by Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, and Jennifer J. Lee, a 2017 Dartmouth graduate. Lee has now gone on to be a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Lee sat in on 95 hours of classes in a range of subjects: the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The classes ranged in size, the smallest having 10 students, and the largest having 45. Five of the nine classes were instructed by women, and the rest were instructed by men. She observed the students and instructors’ body language, and how often each student spoke.
In all nine courses, men spoke far more than women: 1.6 times more, to be exact. But wait — there’s more. Not only did men speak more, they also were more likely to speak without raising their hand. Men spoke with more assertive language, while women were more likely to use passive language. And not surprisingly, men were also more likely to interrupt their fellow classmates while they were speaking.
The particularly unsettling fact about these findings is that according to the U.S. department of education, in 2017, 56% of college students were women — meaning that even with men in the minority, they are still finding a way to talk over women.
I probably pulled a lot of these moves in my own college days. I don’t think I was trying to be an overly talkative jackwagon of a male student, but clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to the classroom etiquette I learned in, well… grade school. Of course, I can’t go back and fix the past. But what I can do is have some heartfelt conversations with my son about how he presents himself in a classroom, and help him to realize that his voice, and his opinion isn’t the only one that matters, and that listening to others speak is a pretty important part of learning. And of course, I will tell my daughters that their voices have value, and that they deserve to be heard, regardless of what the men in the room have to say.
All of this makes me think back to the vice presidential debate, when Kamala Harris kept saying “I’m speaking” to Mike Pence. I have to assume that a lot of this classroom over talk crap from men would get shut down real fast by channeling a little Kamala Harris.
However, outside of what we can do as parents, the authors of this study found that one of the best tools to make sure that all voices are being heard in the classroom are the discussion rules instated by the teachers. Science Daily summed it up this way, “When professors took proactive measures to engage all students, such as by having clear parameters for participation or by deliberately calling on female students who had not had a chance to speak, this created an environment for a more equitable discussion.”
Furthermore, one of the best things that teachers can do is discuss the conversation bias openly. Here’s a quote from Dr. McCabe: “Our results demonstrate that women’s voices still may not be heard, and that gender hierarchies continue to persist. Once students and professors are cognizant of these gender dynamics in the classroom, it is easier to change them.”
If there is a main takeaway from the study it’s that yes, men talk too much in college classrooms. But it also seems very clear that this issue can be resolved with good old fashioned education. When instructors sit down with the class and establish ground rules to make sure that everyone in the room gets an equal share of talk time, and then hold the class to those rules, women and men are allowed to engage in the conversation equally. And everyone in the classroom has an equal right to participate — so guys, zip it.