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Sitting There: Discourses on the Embodiment of Agency, Belonging, and Deference in the Classroom

Abstract: University classes involve students sitting. This unremarkable activity gains importance through how students incorporate discussions of sitting into their representations of their classes. Examining discourses of sitting provides insight into how students represent issues of agency and belonging in the classroom, and in so doing, an understanding of how the institution’s efforts to impose its own image of students’ agency and belonging are discursively and physically manifested. This study is based on students’ discourse of sitting at Queens College, where the institution’s ideas of self and agency in relationship to education meet multiple ideas brought to college by an extremely diverse student population.

In discussing West Indian politics, C. L. R. James made a cogent point that applies to all endeavors at social analysis: “always you have to watch what the people do, not what you think they ought to do” (emphasis in original, 1984 [1962]: xviii). Much educational policy is based on what administrators think faculty, students, and staff “ought to do.” Even a great deal of scholarship is devoted to time-honored categories of thought such as “pedagogy” or “critical thinking” and not to a close examination of what people do. This article goes to the absurd end of the opposite extreme to see what can be learned from a very mundane, frequently unaddressed component of education that is very much what students do, namely, sitting. I shall argue that because sitting is a common experience for students, it becomes a shared reference in students’ discourse of belonging and agency even in a highly culturally diverse student population.

In a very cursory survey of the literature, sitting does not seem to be important as a topic, except in kinesics where relative position and posture, such as sitting versus standing, indicates relative power (see Goffman 1979). Those inspired by the literature on embodiment do not address sitting, and neither do those who emphasize discourse analysis. Yet, sitting is clearly a common activity. While it sounds silly to say, in an informal survey of my own “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” with 154 students, in every class every student spent the vast majority of their time sitting. Why should this statement seem silly? Is it because it points out the obvious? The danger of assuming something as “obvious” is that “obvious” often serves as a gloss for “never has been critically examined.”

Some might attribute this sitting behavior to the fact that the students were squeezed into narrow rows with their desks bolted to floor making it very difficult to stand, but I tend to think that it reflects a more general trend in education. The dominant pedagogy places students in seats, and even trends toward experiential learning tend to have students sitting together in groups. The vast majority of classrooms have desks in which students sit. Indeed, the vast majority of classroom space is designed for sitting, and, in a related way, one of the most common complaints about classrooms that I hear from my colleagues is that there are not enough desks for students to sit in. Sitting seems to be an activity that is so common and so mundane that it is easily taken for granted and overlooked (literally and figuratively, so to speak), and the only time it seems to rise into the consciousness of students and faculty is when there is no place to sit.

The kinesic point about relative elevation indicating power relationships is a basic one that need not be explored here except to contextualize sitting. In the classroom, sitting takes place in the context of an authority figure, usually a teacher, standing or sitting in a position of power, e.g., behind a desk much larger than anybody else’s. In this sense, any student’s discussion of sitting must be viewed as describing a response to some form of authority.
Since it is very obvious that students sit, why do they mention sitting in conversation? While professional academics do not address the topic of sitting, students do. Their discussion of their experiences is full of references to “just sitting there” or “not just sitting there.” Such conversational uses are not simply statements of the obvious but, instead, are references to a common experience in order to articulate other issues—talk of sitting is never just talk about a body position. Thus, a consequence of spatial configurations and pedagogies that emphasize students’ sitting is providing students with a common experience for discussing their relationship to what goes on in the classroom. In particular, the conversational use of “sitting” is closely linked with issues of agency versus passivity, as well as with issues of group identity versus individual autonomy. Consequently, “sitting” serves as a symbol of an attitude towards one’s involvement in the classroom, as well as a physical embodiment of attention. Basically, in watching what students do, one must explore the significance of sitting, and how students’ discourse of sitting reflects and symbolizes issues of agency, belonging, and autonomy in a structured setting in which those who sit are not those who are in charge.

Queens College

The sitting examined in this paper occurs at Queens College of the City University of New York. This context has important implications for understanding sitting. Queens College is extremely diverse: there are over 120 nationalities represented in the student body, and over 60 languages are spoken. This diversity carries over into the classroom. Teaching introductory cultural anthropology to a class in which, typically, there are over 20 nationalities and languages represented is a great privilege and joy. Despite this incredible diversity, life in the borough of Queens and the policies of the college create shared cultural knowledge. This cultural knowledge is not in the form of some over-arching integrated whole, as in the theories of Kroeber (1917) and his intellectual heirs such as Jerome Bruner (1996). Instead, following a long tradition in psychological anthropology, culture is here not viewed as a “thing,” but as systems and constellations of shared experiences, ideas, and behaviors (D’Andrade 1995:250; Strauss and Quinn 1997: 6-8). In this model, one does not speak of a culture or the culture, but instead of cultural models that are distributed across space, time, context, and people. Since a great deal of students’ knowledge about Queens College comes from the college through advising structures, or through friends and family who either are attending or have previously attended the college, the existence of a large amount of shared knowledge, despite the diverse student body, is to be expected. The spatial configuration of the college’s facilities also powerfully communicates shared behavioral expectations, e.g., auditorium settings with desks bolted to the floor or a laboratory settings with stools organized around laboratory tables both convey fairly clear messages about expected body position and orientation.

Still, the diversity of the students gives additional significance to the shared experience of sitting and the cultural models that are associated with this experience. Whether a student is Haitian, Indian, Italian, Chinese, or Uzbek, they sit, and by virtue of this shared experience, they have a common phenomenological ground from which to build broader discussions. This ground exists in the context of the diversity of ideas about self, individualism, and sociocentrism reflecting the cultural diversity that exists among the college’s students. Kusserow’s (1999) general argument that ideas of individualism vary, as do ideas of sociocentrism, is particularly poignant, since Queens College students come from two of the three communities she studied.

Discourse on Sitting

Starting in 1997, the Freshman Year Initiative of Queens College began conducting non-directed interviews of freshmen about their experiences adjusting to college—“sitting” was not a topic that was pursued. The Freshman Year Initiative (FYI) is a one-semester program for students entering Queens College. Students choose a “community” which consists of three courses: freshman composition, and two other courses that contribute to fulfilling general education requirements. The courses are part of the general offerings of the college, represent the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, and many are open to registration from non-FYI students. What sets FYI courses apart from other courses is that the faculty involved have a desire to teach entering freshmen, and through meetings, the faculty learn about the transition from high school to college and discuss ways of improving the academic experiences of both instructors and students. In addition to taking these courses in the fall semester, FYI students may pre-register for some of their Spring semester courses and they receive advising about the college’s academic requirements.

As part of FYI’s efforts to improve the first-semester experience for students and faculty, it supports research consisting of surveys, case studies of student events, interviews, and statistical analyses of academic records. It was through analyzing non-directed interviews conducted with thirty-three different students that “sitting” emerged as a naturally occurring, important descriptor of classroom experience in students’ language. Given the widespread knowledge that students sit in most of their classes, the recurring mention of sitting led to the exploration of the rhetorical motivations behind mentioning sitting. At times, students use it metaphorically, but because of the predominance of sitting in students’ experiences, this is a case where the boundary between metaphor and description blurs. Consequently, when a student recounts an experience of “just sitting there,” it is impossible to discern whether the student was actually sitting, or whether the term “sitting” is being used rhetorically.

In a way, this distinction does not matter because, importantly, the use of “sitting” is always metaphorical in students’ discussion of education. Based on the arguments of Lakoff and Johnson, the characteristics of embodied metaphors, such as “sitting,” are based on “the way the brain and body are structured and the way they function in interpersonal relations and in the physical world” (1999:37). While the act of sitting can sometimes be a body position, talk of sitting in a classroom is never just talk about a body posture; it is a relationship of posture to interpersonal relations and mental states. Thus, what makes discourses about sitting important are the specific mental states and interpersonal relations to which sitting is linked. For both speakers and their audience, “sitting” conveys messages about agency and social relationships.

Interestingly, in non-directed interviews, students rarely used the second person, e.g., “you’re just sitting there.” While they use second person frequently in other contexts, such as the ubiquitous “you know,” the use of “sitting” is limited to first person and third person singular and plural. The importance of pronouns in the use of “sitting” will become apparent later, but for now it is sufficient to note that pronouns raise the issue of indexicality, i.e., the pattern of “sitting” being associated with first and third person pronouns indicates important dimensions of representing self, non-self, and others. Self is represented through “I,” and serves as a component of “we.” Others are represented through “he” and “she,” and are included in “we.” Non-self is represented through “they.” The reason “they” represents non-self is because of the indefiniteness of its referent in many cases. Who “they” are is unclear, except in the sense that “they” is always “not I.” In fact, “they” serves as a shifter (see Silverstein 1976), in that sometimes it refers to a specific group of people, sometimes it refers to simply “not I,” and sometimes it refers to both. While sometimes this is made clear in a context, speakers also leave it ambiguous, and thus, force listeners to complete the statement based on their own ideas.

I sit/We sit

By far, the most common issue linked to sitting has to do with in activity. “Just sitting there” usually means being inactive. This use is most common in first person plural and reflects a collective passivity, and even boredom. In describing a class she hated, one student said, “You should see us: the whole class will just be sitting there, holding our heads up, trying to stay awake for this class, because we hate her [the professor].” In another case, two students linked being forced to be passive for a long class and the discomfort of sitting:

Student 1: Film class would be okay if it was the four hours to watch the two movies and go home, but we sit and watch a movie for two hours, and then we sit and he lectures us for, like, another two hours, and we’re, like, who cares after we, like, watch the movie.

Student 2: Yeah, the most uncomfortable chairs…

Both these cases emphasize a lack of action, but they also make a claim about the entire class. While it is individuals who are talking in these cases, they use “we” to represent all the students. Despite the collective boredom, there is a claim of belonging. The claim of belonging is contrasted with hostility toward the professors: “we hate her” or “he lectures us.” While the act of sitting while a professor stands can represent power relations, this particular use of the term “sitting” expresses a reaction to the constellation of power relationships in the classroom—an acknowledgment that the professor can act and the students must sit and do nothing. In this way, the use of “sitting” implies a collective complaint.

An additional implication of the use of “we” with an embodied metaphor is that students feel classroom behavior is collective behavior. The emphasis on “feel” is purposeful, because we are dealing with discourse about embodied states. The collectivity is felt through the embodied action of sitting as much as it is conceptualized. Deviation from embodied action is disengagement from the collective.

This complaint about power relations is embodied. It is fascinating that these different students always followed the discussion of sitting, and consequently a representation of embodied action, with another comment about body states: holding their heads up and trying to stay awake, or a description of uncomfortable chairs. This indicates, as Lakoff and Johnson suggest (1999), that the embodied state plays an important role in conceptualizing the interpersonal relations. Yet, I would go a step further and build on what Damasio argues in reference to his somatic marker hypothesis (1994). He suggests that the conversion of information from short- to long-term memory is enhanced by the memory being linked to body states. Whereas boredom and inactivity are not normally ideas we associate with enhancing memory, in both the above examples of “sitting,” the discomfort of sitting, or the lack of awareness generated by inactivity associated with sitting, become embodied experiences to which powerful negative memories of specific professors and courses are linked. These students were not just recalling the behavior of sitting. Instead, the experience of sitting plays an important role in a constellation of memories concerning inactivity, power, boredom, discomfort, sleepiness, and even hate.

Like sitting in a group, sitting alone tends to indicate passivity. The use of the first person singular pronoun tends to reflect a lack of agency outside of the classroom setting, such as a student who, after pre-registration and getting every class she wanted, said, “I got everything I wanted, and I was sitting there thinking ‘what do I do now,’ and I didn’t know what to do.” In this case, it is actually unlikely that she was sitting, since the pre-registration location was crowded with students and had few places to sit. Consequently, her mention of “sitting” in the interview must be viewed as trying to convey something about her mindset, rather than an accurate representation of what she actually did. It conveys a sense of a solitary, passive lack of direction. The most common juxtaposition of a first person singular pronoun with “sitting” is in describing actions that contrast with “sitting.” For instance, after learning interpretive strategies in a film class, one student said, “I was watching Edward Scissorhands the other day, and I’m, like, analyzing every single bit of it. I’m thinking, ‘My god, I can’t just sit and watch it because of this man’ [her film professor].” In other words, because she learned a new way to think about film, this student cannot “just sit” through a movie anymore. Another student, in describing her adaptation to college life, said, “I haven’t sat there and said ‘Oh, this has been so different.’” I just moved along with it, and just accepted it.” For this student, instead of “sitting there” in adjusting to college, she “moved along” to adjust.

In these cases, the use of “sitting” as a rhetorical device is significant. These students do not deny sitting, but they deny that sitting was all they were doing—a claim that, despite outward appearances of passivity, they were doing something. In the context of relative power relations, this is a fascinating claim, because it suggests that the embodied state is still one of deference and inactivity, but the mental state is active and directed.

He/She Sits

When the third person singular is used with “sitting,” it is to differentiate another student from the rest of the class. The use of “he/she sits” is not as common as the first person uses, and when it is used, it is done so negatively, i.e., “he/she is not just sitting there.” As is generally the case in third person uses, speakers use the phrase to emphasize behavior in which they are not participating. In the case of “he/she is not sitting there,” the added significance is that it emphasizes behavior in which the group, an implicit “we,” was not participating. The “he/she” whose sitting, or lack thereof, is discussed is someone who is singled out, literally—if the individual was acting with others, then the phrase would be “they,” and not “he/she.”

When students use the phrase “he/she was not just sitting there” it is usually with a condemnatory tone, e.g., a student bitterly commenting about another that “he is just sitting there agreeing, basically.” In contrast to descriptions of he/she sitting, when students describe others who are disruptive in class, they do not refer to sitting. Such students “jump,” “talk,” “wave,” “giggle,” “yell,” “scream,” “mock,” etc., but they do not do so in combination with sitting. “Sitting” seems to consistently refer to embodied deference, and the individual students who, in discourse, are singled out as sitting as individuals seemingly carry their deference to a level of identification with the instructor of which other students disapprove, e.g., “agreeing,” “parroting,” “asking stupid questions.” Further implied in this discourse is the claim that the class, with the exception of those who do not just sit there, defers to the professor but does not want to be identified with the professor.

Thus, underlying the statement “he/she is not just sitting there” is an evaluation of the person’s behavior. Since the phrase “he/she was not just sitting there” is often used pejoratively, this implies that acting in ways that differ from the other students in a class is acting in ways that are not socially condoned. The charge “he/she was not just sitting there” then has multiple dimensions in dealing with the issue of group definition and belonging. This phrase highlights cases where associating with the professor entails, in students’ conversations, disassociating with the rest of the students in the class.

They sit

Probably what makes pedagogies that emphasize classroom participation so powerful is that they force a collective to “not just sit there.” By the same token, classroom configurations that emphasize sitting, such as lecture halls with fixed seats that all face the same direction, emphasize collective sitting.

As mentioned previously, the use of “they” is to emphasize “not I.” Importantly, it also seems to emphasize an “I” that is excluded from a group. Likewise, when students talk about a group to which they don’t belong, a “they,” it is to describe these groups as active. When interviewed during the first semester, a student commented, “I know my friends because I have two friends from high school, but um, when I see, you know, like, little groups of people hanging around the trees, or sitting, going to lunch together, laughing, in a sense I feel lost. I haven’t found my group of friends yet.”

One of the important features of the indexicality of “they” is its potentially ambiguous non-anaphoric character. Normally, “they” refers to its antecedent in discourse. Yet, in the use of “they” with regard to sitting, there is no antecedent. While functionally the referent is indefinite, this is not really the case, in that the referent is actually negative—the “they” refers to “everyone but I.” Consequently, because of this ambiguous use of “they,” the phrase “they were not just sitting there” defines a context as containing more than the speaker and actions that excluded the speaker.

Cultural Models of Sitting

The discourse of “sitting” is about more than agency, however. As is becoming apparent, the uses of pronouns indicate that there are important claims about social relationships involved, as well. When “he/she is not just sitting there,” it is usually an indication of their being different from other students. When “I” sit, it is an indication of being alone, and even “lost,” which is usually why “I” rarely “just sit there.” When “we sit,” the speaker is making a claim about the passivity and lack of engagement of an entire group. This claim is based on an underlying claim of belonging to the group and of similarity within it. When “they sit” it is about the existence of a group to which the speaker does not belong, often combined with a feeling of being “lost” or “alone.” What seems to emerge are two related sets of complementary pairs. When “I” sit, I am lonely and passive; when “they” sit, they are a community and active. When “we” sit, we are being passive, but “we” are a group of students; when “he/she” does not sit, “he/she” does not belong in the group, and “he/she” is being portrayed as actively identifying with the instructor.

First person/passive/bored
Third person/active
This seemingly elegant model is not entirely true. Interestingly, students fantasize about “we” being active while “sitting” in the classroom. In the interviews, there were no cases of a student describing a “we” that was both active and “sitting there,” but a student did say, “The drama class turned into another English class. The reading of a book or play and then answering the questions—that’s all we do in drama. If we sat and performed the play, we would have so much fun, because it’s unbelievable how close our entire community is.” I surmise that this is because when students conceptualize group activities, “we” merges with “they”—individualism is such a part of the educational system and its associated culture that every “we” actually consists of an “I” and “they.” Langer claims that this tension between collective and individual action is inherent in human existence (1962). Kussurow, in her study of neighborhoods in New York City, emphasizes that one of the dimensions of difference between conceptions of individualism is the extent to which they contained sociocentric aspects, or in her terminology, “soft” versus “hard” individualism (1999). This, too, suggests the sort of dynamic Langer conceptualized.

It has clearly become the source of much debate over the extent to which an autonomous, individualistic self is a human universal or a product of “Western” culture (see Morris 1994, Kondo 1990, Ochs 1996, Shweder and Bourne 1984). While there is dispute over what the self is, and while there are even indications that, within the borough of Queens, there is no one conception of self and individualism (Kusserow 1999), Queens College is a context in which students from a wide variety of backgrounds encounter an educational system premised not only on individual action and autonomy, but on a form of rugged individualism: providing a student with skills and powers that will help him or her to cope with the hardships they will encounter in life, or as Bruner puts it “If…school is an entry into the culture and not just a preparation for it, then we must constantly reassess what school does to the young student’s conception of his own powers (his sense of agency) and his sensed chances of being able to cope with the world both in school and after (his self-esteem)” (Bruner 1996:39). The relationship of European intellectual traditions, the emergence of universities, and discourse about the autonomous self is well documented (Taylor 1989). The rugged individualism enters in through the rhetoric that often accompanies orientation or advising, and is embedded in mission statements, such as that of my own institution, which opens with:

The Mission of Queens College is to prepare students to become leading citizens of an increasingly global society. The College seeks to do this by offering its exceptionally diverse student body a rigorous education in the liberal arts and sciences under the guidance of a faculty that is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge (page 2 of the 2000-2001 Undergraduate Bulletin).

Rigor, excellence, and expanding frontiers are part of the manifest destiny of education. The expressions of belonging and autonomy inherent in talk about sitting, then, occur in a context of the attempted hegemony of the college’s cultural models being imposed on a diverse population of faculty, students, and staff. The discourse about sitting indicates that there is not a clear response to the institution’s cultural models of individualism. The fact that the classrooms have desks in which students sit becomes a common experience by which a diverse population of students can articulate dimensions of belonging, versus autonomy and agency, versus passivity.


Students sit. More importantly, their metaphorical use of “sitting” to refer to the intersection of body, mental, and social states indicates important things about their experiences of themselves vis-à-vis education. It indicates issues of agency, i.e., “I was not just sitting there,” or “he/she did not just sit there.” Importantly, it also indicates group identity and belonging through sitting, e.g., “They sat there” or “We just sat there.” This patterned use of pronouns itself raises interesting issues about the conceptualization of a group in a diverse environment: groups sit, and individuals act.

Interestingly, many students define the cliquish nature they see at the college in terms of the multitude of student clubs and where students sit in the cafeteria. Almost every sophomore knows where the different students’ “cliques” sit to eat their lunch. This shared knowledge of where specific groups sit is a cognitive map of two buildings over which are distributed five different dining areas.

Not only does “sitting” become an important component in the classroom, then, but an important component of recognizing and getting along in a diverse population, and a guide for finding or avoiding people in space. Where and with whom people sit is socially significant, as is how people report on their and others’ sitting. Furthermore, while the college emphasizes its own form of individualism and embeds power relations spatially in the classroom, the common experience of sitting, in fact, creates a common experience from which different representations of self, identity, agency and belonging can be communicated in ways not limited by the institution’s dominant hegemony.

C. L. R. James is famous for another phrase: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” (1993, preface). As his statement about politics can be applied to social analysis, any human behavior can be substituted for “cricket:” What do they know of sitting, who only sitting know?

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Judith Summerfield and Isis Golden for their comments on previous drafts, and the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. The Freshman Year Inititative of Queens College made the research that led to this paper possible.

Works Cited:
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Author: Kevin Birth is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of the Freshman Year Initiative at Queens College, CUNY. His publications include Any Time is Trinidad Time: Social Meanings and Temporal Consciousness.

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