The precept system is a central aspect of Princeton’s educational philosophy, one that is designed to allow discussion of lectures and readings with our peers and to deepen our understanding of the relevant class topics. Considering the goals of precept are to hear other perspectives and to think critically, it is understandable that some have criticized precepts for becoming echo chambers where students speak only to appear knowledgeable or gain credit for participation, ignoring other voices to focus on their own insights. However, this criticism ignores another problem with the current precept reality — in practice, female students struggle to express a thought at all without being interrupted, ignored, or overshadowed.
Women across campus have expressed their annoyance at the frequency of these occurrences, myself included. I have been in discussions where mid-sentence a male classmate will begin speaking over me. I admit that I am a chronic interrupter, but I attempt to control myself in the regulated atmosphere of a precept discussion. Even preceptors can be involved in the problem: Jane Blaugrund ’20 noted that “I and other girls are interrupted by male preceptors … and female preceptors are more often interrupted.” The magnitude of the complaints against precept interrupters and the clearly gendered demarcation between those who are interrupted and those who interrupt is too consistent to blame individual bad habits.
These interruptions play into a larger cultural tendency to ignore women’s voices and rights to speak. A study performed by legal scholars captures this phenomenon at the shockingly high level of the U.S. Supreme Court. According to their research, female Supreme Court justices are interrupted at disproportionally higher rates than their male counterparts by both the male justices and male lawyers, despite a law explicitly prohibiting advocates from interrupting the justices. Despite their extraordinarily prominent positions, the female Supreme Court justices do not seem to be entitled to the same time to speak as male justices.
In class, the workplace, or the courtroom, these patterns of interruption stem from a culture that undervalues female voices. And allowing these interruptions to occur in precept just perpetuates the practice, affirming for many male students their entitlement to speech and teaching many female students to undervalue their voiced opinions and thoughts. This results in the loss of valuable input to a discussion literally designed for the expression of diverse thought, hurting all students involved.
An easy solution would be to inform female students of the tactics that would prevent their interruption — for example, using polite speech introductions such as “Can I ask a question?” or “Excuse me, but,” or continuing to speak despite the attempted interruption. However, this puts the burden on the interrupted to solve the problem, when really, it’s the fault of the interrupters. While female students who are frequently interrupted should have these methods at their disposal, the true solution is for male-identifying students to be more conscious of their speaking patterns in class, allowing all voices to be heard until the end of their ideas.
The men of Princeton need to be conscious of their habits of entitlement, taking it upon themselves to do better and stop interrupting the women in their classes. Preceptors should also enforce and respect a standard classroom etiquette. While many female students will stand up for themselves, it is an unnecessary mental and emotional drain that disadvantages female students by putting an extra burden on them in an academic setting. Clearly, the women at Princeton are qualified to contribute in precept. Stop getting in their way.
Madeleine Marr is a first-year from Newtown Square, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Victor Guan.