Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

silence in the classroom
Mark Weisberg

Silence in the classroom is shocking. Professor silence, that is. At least that’s what my students tell me. To be present in a room where the teacher isn’t speaking, to be left to their own devices, seems to many students so unusual that it can feel threatening. Yet, when a class acclimates itself to that silence, the opportunity to exchange perspectives uninterrupted by a teacher’s voice can be liberating.

I don’t talk much in my classes, particularly early in the term. In one course, I even avoid eye contact, making brief announcements, then bowing my head to write in a journal I keep throughout. Not that the course is unstructured; students are writing complex, challenging papers every week, and I distribute several of those papers anonymously to everyone the day before class. Consequently, people enter the class engaged, having committed themselves and having done so in their own voices. They’re also curious about what their classmates have produced and how their classmates will respond to what they’ve written, making a rich palette for discussion.

Why don’t I join that discussion? I often want to, want to contribute an idea, correct a misapprehension, share my enthusiasm. But I bite my tongue. I do that because I think Mary Rose O’Reilley is right when she says, “Students do not listen well to the answers to questions that they have not learned to ask.” And when I rush in, I think that learning often stops. Here’s Jane Tompkins in one of her provocative “Postcards from the Edge,” you know, the type of postcard you write but don’t send.

Dear Students,

When I pay attention to the subject matter in class instead of you, I get excited, think of an idea that just has to be said, blurt it out, and, more often than not, kill something. As in the Dickinson poem

My life had stood
A loaded gun
In corners

when I speak the report is so loud it deafens. No one can hear anything but what I’ve said. Discussion dies. It seems it’s either you or me, my authority or your power to speak. What do I do that shuts people up? . . .

A life in school: What the teacher learned

When I talk frequently in class early in the term, I think I play into (or is it play to?) the ideology of expertise that dominates university culture, one that both our students and ourselves are comfortable inhabiting. In that culture, students learn only from their teachers, never from each other. They are skeptical, often disdainful, of their peers’ contributions, and often, secretly so of their own. They are afraid to trust their own minds.

I’ve found that if I can keep silent long enough, that pattern can be broken, and people do begin to trust themselves and each other, allowing a richer, more nuanced discussion to flourish.

One student put it this way in her last paper, a selfevaluation. Reporting that she had experienced much of her university education as eroding her confidence, that she had learned “to paraphrase other people’s work and to hide (her) own voice behind theirs,” and consequently, that she began the class uncomfortable with silence, she wrote:

As the term progressed, I became increasingly comfortable with silence . . . . I loved listening to my colleagues . . . . The Chorus of thank yous that came from some of our colleagues on the last day of class was beautiful – thank you for listening, for sharing, for laughing . . . More importantly . . . it did not seem to matter whether we all spoke up or not, I . . . felt the overwhelming sentiment in the room was that we had shared a journey together . . . all of us . . . awestruck at what can happen when (law) students express themselves with confidence . . . .

Another student put it this way:

Having a self-moderating class was also interesting, because in order to make it work, everyone . . . had to be willing to participate at some point . . . . Having a class that encouraged students to voice their own opinions was also a novelty. I felt so much better after our class discussions regarding how isolating the experience of law school can be, how lonely, and frustrating. Knowing that so many other classmates had felt the same way I did would have been a great comfort to me in first year. Listening to the other students’ opinions on the readings opened my eyes to how similar and different we all are, and gave me hope that we were bringing something unique to the legal profession.

Of course, not all students respond positively to a teacher who doesn’t speak often. In a different class, one student wrote on his course evaluation, “TEACH ME SOMETHING!”

I’m not recommending that you adopt such a radical approach to encouraging learning, nor that you adopt a teaching style that doesn’t fit with who you are. However, I do think that if we remember that developing confidence and trusting their own voice should be an essential component of each person’s education, all of us would benefit if we reflected more on what we’re doing that hinders that development and what we could do to encourage it.

I’ll leave you with this observation from poet and English professor Mary Rose O’Reilley who, when asking herself what her “deepest sense of (her) task.

What I’m trying to construct here is a theory of attention that depends little on therapeutic skill and formal training: listening like a cow. Those of us who grew up in the country know that cows are good listeners . . . . Cows cock their big brown eyes and twitch their ears when you talk. This is a great antidote to the critical listening that goes on in academia, where we listen for the mistake, the flaw in the argument. Cows, by contrast, manage at least the appearance of deep, openhearted attention.

If you are listening, if you are turning your big brown or blue eyes on somebody and twitching your ears at them, you are earning your silage. You are listening people into existence. You are saving lives. You are producing Grade A.


Works Cited:

O’Reilley, M. R. (1998). Radical presence: Teaching as a contemplative practice. Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook.
Tompkins, Jane. (1998). A life in school: What the teacher learned. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.