Blog Post

The Single Best Method For Class (Or Any Kind of) Participation (Thx SciFi Genius Samuel Delany)

Whenever the great science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany teaches or is in a situation talking formally with others, he asks questions and has one requirement: everyone has to raise a hand. Everyone. Whether one knows the answer, doesn't know, or doesn't understand the question, he insists that every hand go up and he calls on someone to answer at random. They can then either offer an answer, articulate something about the question they don't understand, or say they don't know the answer and that they want to hear what Person X has to say about it. In any case, they represent themselves as present, as a participant, by that boldly raised hand (even if the answer is unknown) that says: I. Am. Here.

In the interview, Mr. Delany weeps as he talks about the deep, self-degrading personal toll of not raising a hand, of being indifferent or ashamed of not knowing, of being in a group and yet willing oneself not to participate (he sees it as a practice of self-erasure).  Mr. Delany notes that every time one skulks behind indifference, one trains oneself not to know, not to be, not to be seen; one trains oneself into believing that not knowing the answer means you do not have a right to be heard.  

Here is a transcription (thank you Danica Savonick) of what Delany says:   “Don’t you realize that every time you don’t answer a question, you’re learning something? You’re learning how to make do with what you got, and you’re learning how not to ask for a raise…you’re learning how to take it. That’s not good! That’s not good! So, from now on, whenever I ask a question, everybody’s got to put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know the answer or not. You have to put your hand up…I’m going to call on you and if you don’t know the answer, I want you to say nice and clear: I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to hear what that person has to say. And we’ll pass it on. And so this is what we started doing. And I said, whenever I ask a question, everybody put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know or not…You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say.”


He weeps at the pity of this humiliating scene. 

And his sorrow makes us understand what is happening, over and over and over, in the bad classroom.  How much damage it does to the person who does not raise his or her hand, who is afraid to speak, who is afraid to not know.

Thank you Mr. Delany for making this violence of silence in the classroom so palpably passionately felt.

I see this, historically too, as the worst of our Industrial Era educational practices, the shaming to silence because one does not know. . 

Special thanks to @Danica Savonick for sharing this video and telling us today about this really remarkable, deep practice of Mr. Delany's.  Today Danica shared the video with all of us in our weekly Futures Initiative Fellows meeting.   When Delany weeps, it is an incredibly powerful moment that turns education and teaching inside out, in the way Samuel Delany so often does.

Like Think-Pair-Share,  the All-Hands-Raised self-knowingness turns the power dynamics of the Industrial Age classroom inside out, beautifully, eloquently, poetically.  It takes a science fiction writer, perhaps, to help us make our habits  and our institutionalized habitude visible to ourselves. 

Watch this video.  Think about what it would do in any situation to demand that ALL hands go up, even those who do not know, even those who do not understand.  Perhaps not just in answering questions but also in asking them.  The physiology of the activity--raising one's hand--is itself literally uplifting....pulse, breath, all that.   The psychology of the activity is about alertness, attending to, and being attended to.

Thank you, Mr. Delany, for acknowledging how much these small exercises in "education"- are often bad habits, reinforcing those privileged to know from those who feel they have no right to know.


Here's the video.  Pass it on.   Try it.  Let us hear how it goes.  "The Polymath," by Orlando Echeverri.  Thank you, Mr. Delany.      



Photo credit: IlPisano, Creative Commons share alike, -





I found an updated link for The Polymath video as the one in the post seems to have been deleted. The part you mention starts around 2:40 —

Such a great video!