Impressing professors: Take your moment

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When I was in college I made a lot of weird blunders, especially for being the academic nerd that I am. I was not judicious in the words I chose, occasionally speaking out when I should not have, while failing to speak out when I should have, not taking advantage of many opportunities to broaden my horizons, so to speak. I never really tried that hard. Something I have written about before. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, but when it comes to learning, it does. To say I was “lazy” does not mean I did not learn or that I did nothing. It just means that I could have learned and done and achieved so much more, had I not been in such a hurry, had I not let myself be influenced by others, had I known myself better, had I applied the full measure of intellect and drive I had to something. But I didn’t.

Still I had my own moments, few and far between, when I would stand out. I never wanted to stand out, certainly not verbally or visually, where people might let their eyes rest on me for more than a moment or two. Professors noticed me more when it counted (in writing). But still, yes, there were those moments, when a question was posed, and it seemed mind-numbingly simple what we were being asked, and yet the classroom sat in dumb silence.

A professor in my master’s degree program posed the question: “What was the main priority of American foreign policy in post-war America?” No one. Silence. “Come on, people.” More silence.

I raised my hand, wondering whether it could be as simple as I was thinking, “Containing Communism?”

“YES!” The professor looked at me gratefully, and with a respect he’d never once afforded me before. In fact, I am entirely sure I had been both nameless and invisible to him up until that moment. He favored me in a new way thereafter. It was strange: my comparative youth and silence in that course (everyone else was wading into their 50s, and I was barely in my 20s) had made me both stand out and be invisible at the same time, and he, perhaps relating better to the majority of students, closer to his age than mine, never glanced my way once before I uttered this stunningly basic reply to a basic question. Suddenly I had a voice when all my duck-and-cover-generation classmates, who should have eagerly yelled out the answer to that question, being Boomers, so close to it and the “Communism containment” directive, sat, mute, probably expecting that the answer had been something deeper or more complex than that.

I learned then that it’s not the quantity of what you say – it’s the quality. And, perhaps most of all, the timing – taking your moment.

Photo (c) 2010 EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine used under Creative Commons license.

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