Sometimes you may feel that you have nothing interesting to say, or you may not feel confident enough to advance and defend your own opinions. But remember that you can contribute to the discussion in other ways, too. If you feel uncertain about some issue, then you can help the group by asking questions to zero in on what the difficulty is. You can ask your classmates to clarify the meaning of things that they've said. You can ask them what their reasons for their claims are. And so on. These are all useful things to do, and they are just as important to the discussion as advancing your own views and offering arguments for them.
If you agree with what others have said, support them instead of remaining silent. Perhaps you can suggest additional reasons to believe their claims. At the very least, let it be known that you find their claim, and the reasons they offer for it, persuasive.
If you are shy or quiet, try to contribute to the discussion as best as you can. Ask questions, if you're not ready to advance and defend your own opinions. If your course has sections, you should aim to contribute, however modestly, at least two or three times every section meeting. Preferably, you'll be contributing a lot more than that.
Don't worry about comparing yourself to other students who are more vocal than you. Some people ask great questions in class but have trouble focusing when they write papers; other people are quiet in class but write phenomenal papers. So it is certainly possible to do well even if you're a little shy in section. Still, I do encourage you to speak up in section, to talk with the other students, and to ask lots of questions. This will really help you get better at philosophy much more quickly.
Treating each other with respect also means that you should give your classmates the benfit of the doubt, and interpret what they say charitably. If what they've said sounds utterly stupid to you, try to determine why they believe it. Is there some worthwhile point they're trying but failing to make? If so, help them figure out what it is.
You should listen to each other's opinions with respect, but you should also subject them to scrutiny and criticism. We expect you to defend your claims with arguments, so you are perfectly entitled to require others to defend their claims, too.
Remember that when others disagree with an opinion you've expressed, or when they criticize your reasons for holding that opinion, they're not attacking or insulting you. All of us hold false beliefs. The whole point of philosophical discussion is to try to find out which beliefs these are. We can't do that unless we subject our beliefs to this kind of critical review.
If you regularly (nearly always) attend lectures and discussion sections (when the course has them), stay caught up on readings, but don't talk much, and don't come to your instructor's office hours, your participation grade might then be a B-.
If you're absent more often, or sometimes seem behind in readings, your participation grade will be lower.
If you seek out opportunities to clear up questions or pursue thoughts further in office hours, your grade will be higher.
Best would be if you do these things and also find ways to actively be involved in class discussions — even if you're not one of the people doing most of the talking, pushing your own opinions, and so on.
My course syllabi usually contain something like this:
I won't prohibit the use of laptops or tablets for taking notes, though I strongly discourage this. I'll post summaries of the main outlines of my lectures, so you won't need to write everything down while I'm presenting new material. You should be reviewing those lecture notes outside of class anyway. An effective use of your time in the classroom is to focus on following my presentations and any class discussion, and actively raising questions when you don't. If you must have a device open in class, don't browse the web, or read/send texts or other social media during our meetings. It's pretty clear to everyone when you are doing this, and it's rude and distracting to your instructors and your classmates.
That talks about your multi-tasking being
rude and distracting, and it's true that it is. It's disrespectful to the students beside and behind you who are trying to focus on what we're discussing in class — though maybe that doesn't weigh heavily with you, or you expect that some of them will only be half-tuned-in as well. It's also disrespectful to me as your instructor — though maybe you're still figuring out how much of your respect I deserve.
I want to explain at more length why this is harmful to the experience of others in the class, and to your own experience, without relying on you already appreciating the kind of disrespect it constitutes, and why that should matter.
Some of the time, you may have urgent business that demands your attention during our class meetings. I understand. Life often requires us to juggle many things at the same time, and sometimes the best we can do is to find imperfect solutions. But if something outside of our class meeting does need your attention, please leave the room and take care of it elsewhere. Come back if and when you're able to. If you have to miss the whole class meeting, so be it.
You wonder: Won't that affect your ability to keep up, and your performance in the course?
Well yes, it will. It's true that my courses have an official participation component (10 to 20%, reflecting
your regular contributions to our class discussion, and also other aspects of how you're engaging with the course…). But it's going to count at least as heavily against you if you multi-task in our meetings (which I and your neighbors will be more uncomfortably aware of than you may realize) than if you're not in the classroom at all.
More importantly, though, consider the point of including such a participation component in the course. This is to emphasize to you how important such activities are, for you to master the material this course is aiming to teach you. Not just the ideas we discuss and how they're related to each other, but also the intellectual tools we're trying to develop for productively engaging with them. (If we merely posited some deep ideas and asked you to marvel at them, our course wouldn't be nearly as interesting and useful as it aims to be.)
For almost everyone, including myself, it would not be possible to achieve a good mastery of these intellectual tools if we just sat in our study and read the course texts, webnotes, and so on. We have to exercise the tools we're learning by interacting with each other, by asking questions, by raising and responding to challenges, and so on.
Now, going back to the italicized question, it's true that if you miss our class meetings, you won't get the benefit of these interactions, and this will hamper and obstruct your learning. But here's my response: that's also true if you attend the meetings but multi-task during them. I'm confident, from years of teaching, from my own experiences multi-tasking, and from research I've read, that you'll be massively overestimating your ability to keep track of what's happening in the classroom while you do this.
Even if you're unconcerned about your own learning experience, let me finish by pointing to the effect you have on others in the class. There's the momentary distractions you create while you're using your devices. I've already mentioned this. But there's a subtler and more harmful influence you're having as well. You and other multi-taskers are contributing to a message in the classroom that this is OK, that it's normal, that it's not harmful — or that even if it is, that we have to take it for granted, that we can't reasonably expect a better learning environment.
Please stop broadcasting that message. If you need to get things done during class — or if class just isn't keeping your attention — please leave and do what you need to do outside. It won't make you worse off than multi-tasking in the classroom would (though you may not have yet admitted to yourself how bad the latter is). It will however make things a lot better for the rest of us.
When you are able to return to our classroom and give us your full attention and readiness to participate, you will again be welcome.