Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

present but absent
Bluma Litner

Look at the faces of the silent, and of those who speak. Listen to a woman groping for language in which to express what is on her mind, sensing that the terms of academic discourse are not her language, trying to cut down her thought to the dimension of a discourse not intended for her.

—Adrienne Rich, On lies, secrets and silence

Students and faculty come to higher education, all with their personal histories. Yet teacher and student are expected to engage in a learning relationship as if the learning process were independently “out there,” disconnected from their lives. In North America and western Europe, a Cartesian view of the world has been retained and, along with it, a belief in scientific truth and objectivity as ideal knowledge, the only knowledge with which rational “man” can advance in a world which “he” will be better able to control. This has been the operating hegemony that has characterized our institutions.

What is often forgotten but imperative to remember is that universities are not natural, homogeneous, neutral sites.

When I first began teaching, there were few traces in the classroom of my embodied presence. I was expected to be an entity without context; a disembodied, thinking, living, teaching-a-particular-course presence to a classroom filled with silent, disembodied students. These students had internalized the unstated rule that whole parts of their identity had to be silenced and concealed in the classroom. Yet neither they nor I existed in a vacuum, without a context, without a story, without a body. Still, all of us remained distant observers, silent others who were separated from our own experience, culture, and history, who left the self, the “I,” at the door once we had crossed the threshold into the classroom. As I continued to teach, substantive difficulties in my viewing the learning relationship as if it were “out there” arose. Increasingly, I felt as if I were teaching from an invisible location. It is not that I intentionally chose to disappear behind the professional voice of expertise. It was that I had always been told that it was the right way to teach. I never questioned the ideological imperatives and corresponding pedagogical laws and teaching methodologies that silence and conceal individual identities.

In my large university – now increasingly known for its highly diverse student body and increasingly diverse faculty – that “I” is composed of vital elements of different races, ethnic groups, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and learning abilities; different social, political, and economic status. This diversity that the university is inclined to tout, however, is the very diversity that continues to be erased in the classroom.

How does this happen? Academic institutions create invisible boundaries which make implicit, and sometimes explicit, what can be said in the public arena of the classroom, and what must remain outside its bounds, unspoken. This tacit monitoring reinforces the power of scholarly authority to determine what forms of knowledge are acceptable to its scholarly authority, namely, to those in positions of power who decide what qualifies as knowledge.

The experience we must begin from . . . is that of those who live it rather than those who merely observe . . . . I am suggesting that the world within the experience of actual individuals should become the place where inquiry begins.

—Dorothy Smith

There is still a deep-rooted belief that allowing space for the private in a public classroom is neither an important nor legitimate form of teaching within conventional social sciences – the discipline in which I teach. The refusal to acknowledge “the body,” or even that there is an “I” behind the words of any text read or any voice spoken in the classroom, continues to be a prevalent attitude maintained in the name of valid scientific inquiry, true knowledge, refereed authority. Patriarchal attitudes have continued to prevail with the unspoken complicity of the academy that reifies objectivity, theory, and abstraction. The limitations of a positivist, “correct” approach to teaching in the social sciences counter the growing evidence that the teaching/learning relationship is a dynamic process of inquiry, not fixed or bound by immutable pedagogical tenets.

To write “my body” plunges me into lived experience . . . . I need to understand how a place on the map is also a place in history within which as a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, a feminist I am created and trying to create.

—Adrienne Rich

In my teaching, I have learned that whenever I devalue the importance of my being embodied, I participate in silencing myself and my students.

Still, I ask myself, how do we as academics teach in a language and a mode that is not alien and alienating, which does not set up a relationship of fear between professor and student?

How we teach is often what distances and silences the very students with whom we want to engage, to learn from.

Certainly teaching that starts and stays in the abstract – talks over students rather than with students – leaves them behind. I have been left behind, positioned as ignorant by theorizations that lost sight of concrete practice and how it is related to lived experience.

I want my teaching to make it possible for my students to contest hegemonic practices that have been oppressive to them, forcing them into a decreed silence that has regulated what cannot be spoken. I want to look at the world as it is – from where we each are and have each come – rather than from outside ourselves. I am beginning to teach in a way that opens a space for students to articulate their own knowledge, their own vision of possibility.


Works Cited:

Rich, A. (1980). On lies, secrets and silence. London: Virago.
— (1986). Blood, bread and poetry: Selected prose 1979-1985. New York: Norton.
Smith, D. (1979). “Using the Oppressor’s Language.” Resources for Feminist Research, 8(1), 11-18.