Cold Calling. Or Warm Calling.

by Harry on December 2, 2022

I started cold calling after a student (a CT reader and commenter, who remembers this because I remind her of it [1]), many years ago, having sat silently throughout my senior-level class in political philosophy, explained why she wanted to attend Law School. “I’ve heard that in Law School they cold-call, so that all the students have done the reading, and everyone is engaged. I want to be in classes like that.” She reminded me of the old TV show, The Paper Chase, in which John Houseman, one of those American actors with an inexplicable English accent, would seemingly bully his Law students by constantly trying to catch them out.

Going to Law School solely in order to get cold called seemed a bit eccentric. But I got the point. She’d missed out on a lot of learning – the learning you do when you articulate your thoughts out-loud, sometimes discovering that they aren’t thoughts at all, and other times discovering that they are more interesting and/or more complex than you had realized. My job was to make sure she did that learning – the learning that other, louder, more aggressive students already did – and I had let her down.
At first it was difficult. It is socially awkward to ask a stranger what their thoughts are, especially when both you and they are completely unused to it. What makes it worse is that students enter the classroom expecting the standard norms of the campus to apply – that they can take a back seat and listen (or, more accurately, look as if they are listening), talking only when they feel like it. I wasn’t skilled at cold-calling at all, and for the first couple of years I would often lose my nerve after a few classes, and retreat to my usual, deficient, practices.

I discovered it was easier for me to call on students if I knew all their names. And it was easier to learn all their names quickly if I called on them to talk (who would have thought that it is easier to get to know people by talking with them than by talking at them?). And it got even easier when I realized that the average quality of the talking is higher if the people who always volunteer talk less, because shyer and more reserved students often have valuable things to say. And I discovered that cold calling elicits more diverse perspectives because the willingness to volunteer to talk is not equally spread across all demographics.

But how to avoid seeming like John Houseman? I want to draw them in, not catch them out. After I had started cold-calling routinely a student observer admonished me: “I know that you don’t mind if a student has nothing to say. But they don’t know that. You have to tell them that, and show them that you mean it”.

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