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Why eager talkers fall silent in class after freshman year

The classroom still echoed with first-day chatter as Professor Sarat began writing furiously on the board. He quickly filled up the space and turned to face us. The audience immediately hushed.

"What is law?" he said, and began pacing around the floor. Nobody spoke, so he walked right up to someone in the front row. The kid looked up.

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"What is law?" Sarat's nose nearly touched his.

"Uh, I think law is, uh ... punishing the guilty."

"Punishing the guilty," Sarat restated. "Brilliant. Law is punishing the guilty. That's brilliant."

"So are the guilty always punished?" He moved in closer.

The student squirmed. "No, sometimes people get away with crimes and don't get punished for them."

"You mean the guilty aren't always punished? But that's what law is!" So when the guilty go unpunished, is that not law? Law doesn't exist?"

Sarat walked back to his original spot in the center of the floor, leaving us in silent suspense. He asked another general question Â- "Why study law?" Â- and gave a similar performance.

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As Sarat provoked student after student, my itch to participate exploded. It's not that they were giving bad answers. I was just thinking of my own responses, and wanted to test them.

From then on, when I had a thought, I raised my hand; when he noticed me, I spoke. It may have been my freshman-year exuberance, my willingness to answer the more "transitional" questions, or my newfound zeal for jurisprudence Â- but Sarat kept looking my way. Our back-and-forth absorbed me; I came prepared with answers; I started wearing my best outfits to class.

I'm not sure what happened after that, but something began to change. Maybe it was the fact that I started feeling less and less able to provide satisfactory answers to his unanswerable questions. Maybe it was when I noticed that the seniors didn't speak in class. Or maybe I was realizing that Sarat's shouts of "totally brilliant" weren't always compliments.

There is a phenomenon at Amherst College: Students stop talking in class about midway through freshman year. At least, talking decreases dramatically. I wondered why and asked around.

One junior pointed out that professors will often ask rhetorical questions to get the discussion moving. He said everyone hates to be "that guy" who answers the obvious questions Â- the one who talks just to impress the professor. A recent graduate suggested that college students find professors more impressed by thoughtful reticence than by constant participation. An English professor admitted that he respects students who keep their intellectual lives private. But a freshman who spoke a lot in class said that he understood his role and did not mind it: "I still think it livens up a class when you have argument."

There were moments in college when I felt uncertain about speaking. Maybe in a few minutes I would find something more useful to say, but maybe I would miss my chance. It did help me to learn when I screened the value of my comments; I often benefited much more from listening to others; and I certainly enjoyed the privacy of my intellectual life. Still, a good discussion made me want to jump in more than to sit back and observe. I struggled toward a balance.

Until one day in my senior year, when I raised a question in my literary-theory seminar.

"Professor Parker? I am not sure what Lacan means here, in this passage."

"Well, I'm not exactly sure what Lacan means by that either." The professor smiled and looked up lovingly, as if to apologize to Lacan for misrepresenting his sacred text. "But that said, I suppose ... " and he proceeded to answer me as best he could.

As he talked, my pen chased him across the page. I did not think about the fact that I had just "participated." Instead, the room grew quiet to the sound of scribbles, and I filled the margins with dozens of thoughts, most of them questions, not knowing, or caring, whether I'd even need to ask them out loud.

• Suzanne Feigelson graduated in 2001 from Amherst College in Massachusetts. She is earning a master's degree in theoretical psychoanalysis, and will start medical school in June.

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