Unsung Heroes of a Classroom

It’s time to give those who wave a hand in the air the proper respect they deserve.

Even as elementary students, we’ve all been taught, “Please don’t hesitate to ask”, yet here students are in college, still hesitating to ask. As we grow up, the subtlety of the simple raising a hand in the air, the judgement of others, the subtext of everything, makes us shrink further into our shells. Every class I’ve been in in college has felt like a pandemonium under a lid. Students furiously take notes, yet all is quiet but the talking of the lecturer, and the occasional “hanging” time of silence before the lecture shrugs off the curse of knowledge and goes back to chalking.

That was the case of my Honors Programming Abstractions class, a notoriously advanced version of the entry CS course at Stanford. This one guy. He had a terribly-styled mohawk (if by chance you are or know of whom I’m talking about, please forgive me of this initial pretense in setting up what’s about to come; it’s worth it), and a Hispanic (?) accent. A non-conformist. At first I thought both his mohawk and accent were rather distracting, and deep in my subconscious put him off as a dip in the overall classroom vibe, until…

“Escuse me, instructor. Why you add that pointer ther?”

“Helloh. Why you add that line?”

“Why that line needed for stopping condition? Why can’t you […]?”

“Instructer, you made mistake that line, should be string eh?”

Admittedly, at the start, those questions probably had a more comical than pedagogical effect, but over time, as we delved into dynamic memory allocation and double/triple pointers, I started to see a halo appear over his head. He became what a pause button is to a crime scene video. It was almost like that mofo treated the class as a one-on-one session with the teacher, impulsively speaking out his doubts and thoughts. Every time the teacher got asked a question, he would carefully explain the reasoning (as a lecturer who has taught for decades, he has enough of a sample size to know which parts of the code is overwhelmingly likely to have caused the confusion, even if the question was stated vaguely). Soon enough, sighs of relief were being breathed.

The thing about asking questions is that it’s a series of self-reinforcing effects. It raises the attention level of the class, and significantly lowers the barrier to entry for others to ask follow-up questions. It’s like that O Captain scene from Dead Poets’ Society. In addition, the instructor feels acknowledged and self-actualized, and is more willing to touch on similar confusions in the future. Most obviously, it answers your question (which supposedly is the reason you asked?), and likely for most others in the class. Especially in the case of STEM, a single loophole in understanding a concept can later tumble an entire framework of understanding (like what reading about the Libet free will experiments did to my understanding of the world; hope I’m not clipping any bomb wires here).

The only perceived con is that there’s an initial cost of tension, but as humans, the more immediate a “risk” is, the more our limbic system exaggerates its effect, to make sure we get out of the way when the imagined beer in the bush jumps out. We may believe haters denounce question-askers as self-aggrandizing and resource-occupying when really, it’s because they don’t have the balls to ask those questions themselves. Even the most obvious rationale – “I’m raising my hand because I want to know the answer” – is quickly clouded with thoughts of self-doubt like, “but I’ve rarely raised my hand before” or “what will happen to that cool bad-boy demeanor I purposefully set for Jessica!?” It may be those thoughts never reached the mohawk guy, or that he came to this conviction earlier than I did. Whichever the case, the result is that he became the unsung hero of the class, whose single-handed effort (or lack thereof) saved us many wasted hours if not days of panic and confusion down the road – not to shabby of a return on investment that only costed him one second of tension.

Like me, you may be reading this and think, “I’ve known all this for years”, but there’s a world of difference between knowing something and consistently acting on it (21/90 rule). As my second quarter at Stanford comes to an end, I realized if there’s one skill I need to master during my tenure in college, it’s to relentlessly develop an organic ability to ask questions.

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