The Inarticulate Academic: Class Participation and the Valley Girl

Speaking up in class can be difficult. Terrifying, even, but most students at Barnard College are able to overcome this fear and contribute to the class discussion in one way or another. Unfortunately, some students deal with this pressure better than others. I am referring specifically to Valleyspeak. For the purposes of this discussion I define Valleyspeak as speech with elongated vowels, fluctuating pitch, hedging statements with modifiers, and ending declarative sentences with rising intonation. This form of speech does not fit into the ideal-typical conception of academic articulation and so contributions and questions of this kind are often met with dismissal or derision by other students in the classroom. This phenomenon is widely documented and easily visible at our University. But why would young women at elite institutions of higher learning choose to undermine themselves in this manner?

In most lecture classes, there is at least one student whose Valleyspeak-toned questions effectively stop the class for everyone but herself. Whenever she raises her hand to ask a question, sighs abound, pens click closed, and attention wanders. This clear disregard for the value of her questions, and even the professor’s response to them, is visible in other students’ behavior. They are reacting to a performance that she creates with her intonation and phrasing. She establishes herself after a few weeks in the semester as an archetypal Valley Girl. She becomes a stock character who is expected to appear in each class. As such, her behavior and her peers’ reactions are pre-scripted. Deborah Tannen writes in her article “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why” that women who openly and frequently ask questions can often be misinterpreted as ignorant or unintelligent. For the Valley Girl, who often ends declarative sentences with rising intonation, her speech collapses into one continuous question. As such, her peers view her questions as wasted time and disengage from the class when she speaks so that they can react to her performance.

Although her performance causes her peers to disengage from critiquing her academically, she is not protected completely from personal critique. However, it is a different type of scorn that she faces from her peers than she otherwise would have if she spoke as the Standard articulate academic. By subverting the accepted norm in her rhetorical choices, the Valley Girl places herself outside of the academic hierarchy in order to not be considered an Academic. When she does this, her peers either ignore or mock her. Although unpleasant, this is an effective measure against any substantial critique. Her peers’ subsequent reactions, instead of discouraging her behavior, galvanize it. The Valley Girl is able to narrow her audience to simply her and her professor, minimizing possible intellectual criticism while enduring ad hominem attacks.  This is the paradoxical aim of the Valleyspeaker. Her peers’ reactions allow her to get away with redundant, flawed, or hollow statements and questions. Even if her contribution is substantive and meaningful, it is still discounted from the academic discourse occurring in the classroom when her peers ignore her by engaging with one another to mock her or daydream.

Although this theory does explain a general phenomenon of Valleyspeak in academic settings by students who are capable of speaking otherwise, the question remains as to why it occurs at Barnard College. Before arriving here in my freshman year I had rarely encountered this type of speech, let alone felt the pressure to use it myself. Unlike some of my peers, though, I did not go to an extremely competitive high school and the atmospheres in the difference in the competitive natures between high school and college was like night and day. I would posit, then, that the elite and highly competitive nature of our University encourages this type of behavior as it values verbal opposition in academic discourse which has the potential to create tense atmospheres filled with uncomfortable and only partially explored confrontations.  This is why it is so important for professors to set up atmospheres in their classrooms that encourage speaking in a way that separates intellectual and academic arguments from personal ideas and opinions. By doing so, we can avoid the potential interpersonal conflicts that sometimes occur in classroom settings. In turn, this would hopefully encourage students to speak more openly and freely about ideas without the fear of being attacked as a person. Instead the students could have an actual discussion about an idea, not just argue separate sides of it.

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