Speak Up and Use Your Freedom to Its Full Potential

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Engaging in class discussions is a vital part of the college academic experience.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Engaging in class discussions is a vital part of the college academic experience.


Sophia Zhu ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor 

This semester, I took a class at UMass. Not used to studying in a co-ed environment, I was sensitive to men’s voices and soon realized that men spoke more often than women. To confirm my impression, I started to count the number of times men and women spoke up. Frustratingly, my statistics showed that in this 50-student classroom, with roughly an equal number of men and women, men spoke three times as often as women Even when female students did speak, it was easy to discern a difference in their tone and ways of expression. They often began by saying, “I just have a quick question … ” or “I’m sorry, I’m a little confused about … ” while male students often assertively challenged the professor’s ideas and pointed out mistakes.

My study is not representative, nor should I generalize my own experience to the overall performance of women in the classroom. I am not here to list the advantages of speaking up and how that contributes to one’s learning experience. The point I want to make is that people use their freedom to voice their opinions and challenge authority to different degrees. This is a personal choice with deep implications, as it is important to recognize that the group as a whole benefits when you choose to articulate and defend your opinions.

I am a newcomer to American-style education. Most classes here have an informal, open setting. Some classes are student-led, and , even in lectures, there are plenty of chances to speak up. Professors usually encourage students to actively participate by expressing their thoughts, providing critiques of the reading materials and contributing to discussions. Since this freedom of expression in an educational environment is a norm, you may not even recognize it as a freedom that is valuable and consequential.

At home, however, I was rewarded for being quiet and docile. It was not easy for me to change from being an attentive listener to an eloquent speaker and critic, but I feel lucky that I have had the opportunity to study in this challenging yet inspiring environment. I am also glad that I study at Smith; a place where women are always encouraged to think critically and speak confidently.

Whether deliberately or unconsciously, students might not use the freedom to voice their opinions to its full potential. Why? The answer is simple: using this freedom isn’t always personally rewarding. Those who dare to speak in public are subject to other people’s scrutiny and criticisms. Speakers risk offending others or exposing their weaknesses. So, there is always a cost to exerting this power of freedom. We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, not only for our own advantage, but also for the group we represent, whether that group be women, a racial minority or another disadvantaged group.

I do not mean to pit women and men against each other, but it is true that the norms of socialization constantly put women at a disadvantage in a society that values fairness. It is alarming to encounter this unequal level of self-confidence in a class.

The classroom setting is often a microcosm of society. In college, we enjoy a safe space of mutual respect and support, which is essential for confidence-building and identity-seeking. But we need also to recognize the fact that a safe space is not guaranteed everywhere, and, for the most part, we must grapple with other people’s opinions. We need to have a friendly environment because, when facing a world full of disapproval and disillusion, we need to find the courage to voice our opinions, advocate for our concerns and lead, rather than merely follow, others.

Only when I am an active participant in a class do I feel that I can be called a scholar – a lover of learning. This love is expressed in the way I stand up for my own ideas despite all the discomfort and risk of embarrassment.

By alleging women’s underperformance in class discussion, I might be accused of  being oversensitive. However, I only want to encourage women to use their freedom to express their opinions to their full potential because this is the only path to a future where gender doesn’t play a role in influencing students’ willingness to speak up.

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