There are many reasons you might find it difficult to speak up during a graduate level seminar: you are new to the department and are feeling overwhelmed with life changes; everyone else in the class seems so smart and sure of themselves, making you question if you belong in graduate school; the professor does not moderate the discussion or guide the conversation with clear questions; or you are naturally shy and are unsure of how to interject into a lively debate.
Theoretically, participating in graduate level seminars gets easier over time as you adjust to the program, get to know your peers, understand faculty expectations, and develop expertise in your subject areas. But why not speed up this process?
There are several reasons to intentionally push yourself to develop skills and mechanisms for becoming more outspoken in the classroom. Most importantly, you have good things to say! Throw away that imposter syndrome. Realize that you are a contributing member of that learning environment and everyone deserves to hear your ideas. You should also start practicing this confidence early on in your career because you will continue to move into other spaces where it behooves you to speak up (the classroom, conferences, job interviews, etc.). Participating in seminar is also highly pragmatic as faculty and departments may use this as a measure of your “success” and progress in the department, which may contribute to funding decisions.
So yes, speaking up in seminar is important. But there is no need to panic if you find this difficult. Like anything else, public speaking is a skill that you can develop. Here are some approaches that you might find useful:
Brief chapter summaries.
Depending on your program and faculty, you may be expected to read four, five, six, or more books a week. This is a lot. And it can be incredibly difficult to remember this much content with enough confidence to speak in each class. Try writing a brief summary of each chapter of a book. You can do this on paper, on your computer, or in the book itself. Use full sentences or bullet points, but stick to fifty words or less per summary. It should be just enough to jog your memory about the content of that chapter. Keep these brief chapter summaries close by during seminar discussion. They will help you remember the key points in the reading without forcing you to scan copious pages of notes that distract you from the discussion at hand.
Prepare talking points.
Once you have finished reading, sit down with the book and your notes to prepare talking points for class. First, look for things that you think will come up in the discussion: for example, the thesis of the book, how the author uses evidence, or the treatment of race, class, and gender. Second, locate things that you personally want to bring up in class: for example, connections you see between this and other course readings, why you found chapter two especially brilliant, or something you didn’t understand (you deserve to get a lot out of class sessions!). Write talking points for yourself on these topics. These talking points can be simple bullet points or full sentences, and you can directly read these sentences off your notes if necessary. Keep these talking points close by and when the conversation approaches one of your topics get in there and talk! Such preparation might feel awkward, but that is okay if it gets you talking.
Set a measurable goal.
Create a very specific goal for each class. Tell yourself, for example, that by week two you will speak up at least three times per class. After you speak add a tally mark in the margins of your notes until you’ve hit that goal. Once this level of participation feels comfortable, increase the number of times you speak or expand your goal in another way (i.e. try to raise a new point rather than building on an existing topic). This may feel like a silly method but quantifying your participation in some way may help you speak up until doing so comes more naturally.
Find a participation buddy.
Odds are that you are not the only one struggling to speak up. So, look for help from your peers. Find someone in your class who is willing to act as your participation buddy. There are multiple ways this friend can help you: you two can have a mini class-prep session where you talk about key themes from the book that you want to discuss with the larger group; you can sit next to or across from each other so that you can easily locate a friendly face (also, nothing wrong with a friendly nudge); you can debrief after class and ask them to evaluate how you did and help you brainstorm how to improve. You can do this with someone who is already comfortable speaking (ask to borrow some of their confidence) or someone who also needs to practice talking in class (shared struggles seriously build camaraderie). Either way, you’re likely to build a friendship alongside those amazing speaking skills.
Check in with faculty.
The most direct way to get a sense of how you are doing with participation is to go directly to the people evaluating you—the faculty. For someone who is shy, the prospect of doing this is absolutely terrifying. Asking for face-to-face feedback mid-semester on something that you’re profoundly insecure about…eek! Remember, though, this is their job. And most faculty are supportive and kind educators who want you to succeed. Be brave and go to their office hours and ask how you are doing in terms of participation. Do this multiple times each semester. Embrace their feedback. Let them know how you are trying to improve and ask for their advice.
Remember, you can do this!
There are so many valid reasons to feel intimidated and unsure of yourself in a graduate level seminar. But it is vital for your education and professional development that you do not let those insecurities hold you back from speaking up. Push yourself. Ask for help. Find your voice. We all want to hear what you have to say.