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Project Mindfulness

‘I'm speaking’: Breaking down a cultural practice in and out of the classroom

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I work as a bakery clerk and barista, and just the other day, a customer asked me to write "I'm speaking" on a cake with red and blue stars, invoking the 2020 vice presidential debate when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called out Vice President Mike Pence for interrupting repeatedly.

Pence interrupted Harris 10 times, doubling Harris' five interruptions. In a timed environment such as the debate, Pence received 38 minutes of speaking time, while Harris received only 35.

This harmful phenomenon has a name: a culture of interruption, where it's a standard cultural practice that's even rewarded for people to intrusively interrupt one another to make their own point.

Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor, and Laura Vianna, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in social psychology at the UW, co-authored an article on this culture of interruption, detailing how it's one of many examples of a “masculine default.”

As Vianna explained, masculine defaults are elements of a culture that reward and value behaviors and traits typically associated with men.

"They prevent many women — and other people of any gender who don't display characteristics that are associated with men — from achieving success in these spaces that are male-dominated," Vianna said.

In the classroom, this can show up in grades as instructors reward participation, especially in how they construct and grade it.

"Those who interrupt perhaps dominate the conversation, talk more, and then get those great participation points," Vianna said.

These interruptions can come from anyone — professors, students, people of any gender identity. However, they're advantageous typically toward men and masculine characteristics, at the expense of other students who don't display these characteristics. Besides, it's just plain rude.

"In a study on job interviews in engineering, women were significantly more likely to be interrupted during their job presentations about their own work," Vianna said. "And as a result, women were more rushed and did not have as much time to conclude their thoughts in a compelling way, which then potentially translated into them getting hired less."

In the case study of the vice presidential debate, speaking time is critical — and supposedly uninterrupted. However, due to Pence’s 10 interruptions versus Harris’ five, the two candidates received a three-minute difference in overall speaking time. In the classroom, this cultural practice can translate into rewarding a group or individual who consistently dominates discussions and lecture time.

It's noteworthy to mention how this might translate into remote classes amid COVID-19. Many classes use virtual discussion boards, where all students can respond and ask questions, negating interruptions in a non-verbal learning environment. However, class discussions and participation over Zoom may not follow the same path.

At the core of addressing this harmful phenomenon, instructors need to remain mindful of how they award participation and the implications of valuing interruptions of other students.

"It could be done with giving alternate ways to get participation points,” Vianna said. “It can be just being mindful of the fact that some students might be getting those points because they're interrupting.”

Additionally, establishing clear rules that inhibit monologuing and interruptions, or completely changing the format of the situation — such as with online discussion boards or Poll Everywhere — can prove more successful in addressing this culture of interruption.

However, this awareness should extend past faculty and students' classes.

"Another way of addressing this problem is to also value other characteristics that are not as masculine," Vianna said. "Valuing those things like cooperation, patiently waiting your turn, all those kinds of traits. If you value those more, you can also change the culture of interruption by dismantling what's wrong and adding what's right."

As the last few weeks of the online quarter loom before us, students and faculty alike should consider the role they play in this culture of interruption and how it not only impacts our participation grades, but also influences our perception of others and the perspectives present and missing in the Zoom call.

Reach writer Tatum Lindquist at Twitter: @TatumLindquist

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