Mitigating Silence

Speech bubble with an ellipsis inside


Steven J. LeMieux

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Steven J. LeMieux

I’ve never been able to hold a silence in class. There’s lots of talk about how long you can let a question hang in the air--there’s a swagger in these discussions, a sort of teacherly way of one-upping one another. And I’ve heard boasts about a minute or two and stories about those rare masters that can hold the three, four, five minute silence (we can, in this regard, look toward John Cage as having raised the long silence to an artform). As I’ve met it, this chatter about silence carries with it the tacit assumption that there’s a fundamental good behind the slight squirm caused by a long silence, that it’s worth waiting out our students, letting them know that they’re still on the hook. More than that, though, there’s a belief in the emergent powers of discussion--that we learn by talking things out, asking questions, raising issues, testing out ideas aloud.

It’s hard to disagree with some of these assumptions. We want students to engage the material, to raise issues and questions and begin a conversation, a real thinking through the issue at hand. Plus, there’s an excitement when you’re teaching and real talk breaks out. It feels like your students are learning, that work is being done, and it’s good. But it’s hard to get that conversation going if students won’t offer their opinions, so we ask a question and then wait.

Anyone who has taught the same class multiple times (or even more so multiple sections of the same course) can tell you that the general talkativeness of a given class varies wildly from one group of students to the next. Some classes seem to reach the critical mass necessary for robust discussion--there are those 5 or 6 students that you can rely upon to fill silences, to respond to texts and coax out other responses from quieter students. In other classes, though, it’s like pulling teeth. Every bit of back and forth is a struggle.

I can’t help but feel sympathy for those silent classes. While I’ve never been able to hold a silence as a teacher, as a student I used to last entire semesters without saying word one. Thinking back to my quiet undergrad days there often wasn’t anything in particular that had me holding my tongue so tightly. I did the readings, always came to class, did well on my assignments, etc. etc., but I just didn’t talk. I just wasn’t feeling it. It took me some time, after I had begun teaching, to remember how that felt--to have things to say without really wanting to say them. So rather than developing my silence-holding-skills I’ve instead moved toward mitigating the silence in those quiet classes.

Part of this has been incorporating different modes of expression within the class. In my current course, The Rhetoric of Technology, I have them write fairly regular blog posts about their reading (I also have them comment on each other’s posts). The blogs are nice because not only can I get a general sense for how everyone is encountering the texts but I can be sure to bring up issues that they’ve raised in their posts but are silent on in class. I break the silence with their already articulated questions and comments.

Also, following a method used in a seminar I was recently in, I’ve begun beginning class discussion by asking them to briefly discuss the readings with their peers. The basic idea (as I’ve understood it both as a student and teacher) behind these discussions is that it gives students a relaxed, low-risk environment to talk about the reading, to gesture toward interesting or difficult portions of the text. They can test things out before trying them before the whole class. I wrap up these sessions by asking my students to simply share what they discussed with their group. I’ve grown to love these short (5-10 minute) break out sessions. They tend to scaffold nicely into larger class discussions, but even when they don’t I hear my students, like with the blogs, engaging the material and pushing one another toward new understandings.

Alongside these practices, though, I have been working on my own frame of mind. Part of mitigating the silence is resituating my relationship with it. It’s pretty easy to feel lousy when discussion dies down or when my students are feeling reticent. But rather than blame myself (or my students) I have been thinking more about what they want from me, about how we can situate ourselves and the interaction between teacher and student together. This doesn’t mean that I want to walk into class a blank slate, hostage to my students’ whims. More than anything it’s about recognizing how we’re going to share the load, how we can meet the silence in the middle. 


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