Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

Suzanne Stewart

As a new English literature professor, I have frequently addressed the “problem” of my quietness. At times, I have even seriously questioned my ability to pursue a teaching career. For three years, I have noted in my teaching journal the day-to-day difficulties that I encounter in the classroom: the challenge of speaking above pre-class chatter to commence the lecture with a commanding introduction; the incapacity to sustain students’ attention throughout the class without a voluminous speaking voice; feelings of physical exhaustion after a single class; and the complete collapse of my voice after extended periods of lecturing. I have identified personal qualities, too, that hinder my ability to assume a strong vocal presence as a teacher, particularly my intuitive strengths as a listener rather than a talker, greater ease in private than in public settings, and deep feelings of modesty. The “problem” of my quietness, it seems, is also readily apparent to others: students typically evaluate my “speaking style and manner” as the weakest aspect of my teaching; teaching supervisors routinely comment in their reference letters that my voice and demeanour are “soft,” “restrained,” “gentle,” and “slightly reserved”; and colleagues openly inquire how I find the strength to project my voice in a sustained manner. As instructors, we are advised to teach with integrity and to be “who we are” in the classroom, but that advice is complicated when softness of voice and gentleness of character are seemingly at odds with a vocation that entails speaking dynamically and confidently about our knowledge. In my most discouraging moments, I have come to believe that quietness, while it is a reflection of my true inner self, is not a legitimate teacherly trait.