I have a big problem with classes that make participation a part of your grade. I am a public policy major, and graded participation has been a part of almost all the public policy classes I have taken at Duke. The professors give us a topic, and without much context, we are expected to sustain a dialogue in class. It does not matter if you are familiar with the topic or not, classroom dialogues often become a race to see who can raise their hand first, get picked first, and then speak the longest. There is no waiting and no listening. Instead of acknowledging our limitations on the topic at hand, we are taught to be confident, to take up space, and to have a strong opinion about everything, even if we have just learned about the topic in the class before.
Throughout DukeEngage Cape Town, we have been taught again and again how important it is to listen. These stories and this history are not ours, we must be sure to listen and be cognizant of how we discuss and present it to others. While we learn more about South Africa every day, we are taught to be humble and to recognize that we barely know anything about the complexities and depth of South African society. I studied South African history in a classroom, I have seen townships on TV, I have read about violence against women in articles, but I know nothing about their lived experiences, and I know better than to suggest that I do.
I wonder how these dialogues would translate to a classroom at Duke. I wonder how quickly we would be to make sweeping statements about South Africa in large words. The legacy of apartheid lives on. The most unequal society in the world. Phrases pieced together from articles we have read or news we have heard and then used to make a larger argument about human rights or some other buzz word.
I find the disparity funny. As Duke likes to tell us, we are the policymakers and leaders of tomorrow, we will do big things and help people. Public policy is all about helping better people’s lives, listening to the stories of the people in your community and finding ways to help them. But how can we if we are taught to make quick opinions first and listen second?