• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Considering Student Silences

What's up when students are silent?

July 24, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing here at Inside Higher Ed, Prof. Thomas Doherty laments what he perceives as the disappearing art of the rebuke, the “unsparing reprimand” that redirects the “guileless” student to the path of academic righteousness. 

He recalls with some apparent retrospective fondness receiving one of those rebukes at the hands of a Jesuits friar when Doherty was an undergraduate at Gonzaga University. Doherty was called out for opining in class after admitting he hadn’t fully read the book, Father Costello cutting him off with, “If you haven’t finished the book yet, then you should remain silent and listen to those of us who have.”

Doherty recalls that, “from then on I tended to come to class better prepared – and if I wasn’t, I kept my mouth shut.” Rather than reacting with “resentment” he “took it to heart as a fair warning. I wasn’t in high school anymore; this was a university seminar, not a place of unconditional love and support. I was in the big leagues.”

I do not doubt the impact of Father Costello’s rebuke, and I hesitate to question Prof. Doherty’s interpretation of his own experience, but in reading his anecdote, I felt a pang of sympathy for the young Doherty – and the older one too. What he characterizes as an “unsparing reprimand” is an obvious use of public shaming. And while we know shame to be an excellent motivator of its kind, we also know that we have a tendency to retrofit past experiences to the life narrative we would like to believe about ourselves. Rather than recalling this as a moment of humiliation, which it must have been, Prof. Doherty sees it as a triumphant turning point, where he came to understand something about the “big leagues.”

Our capacity to see disdain, or much worse, as a form of caring is probably a necessary survival trait, but I cannot envision the circumstances where my public shaming of an individual student is a moment of triumph for me or them. This is likely a matter of personal and pedagogical philosophy and there is room for differences, but I am not interested in a relationship with students where I embody the source for their approval (or disapproval). I do not want students believing there is a price of entry to the world of ideas. It may not be a space of “unconditional love,” but all who care to engage in it must be welcome to at least venture inside. Perhaps the ethos at a Jesuit institution may differ, but I know too many students who carry some moment of shame at the hands of a teacher or professor not as a badge of honor, but as a scar that reminds them they’re not “good enough.”

The essay makes a turn from a professor telling a student he’s better off staying silent to Prof. Doherty’s concern over the silences of his students when teaching potentially fraught material such as the film Gone with the Wind. He sees the problem as students being afraid to “offend” other students or the “campus consensus,” whatever that is.

As an instructor who has experienced student silence - And who hasn’t? - this got me thinking about the varieties of silence inside the classroom.

As a student, I rarely spoke in class. I was shy to begin with, but even with that, the reasons for my non-participation ranged.

Sometimes I was underprepared and just didn’t know what was going on.

Sometimes I was simply uninterested. I’m willing to stipulate this was my problem, not the instructor’s problem, though we all know that uninteresting instructors and classes exist.

Sometimes I was too interested in the discussion, which often has the result of driving me into my own thoughts. At a dinner party, I’m often at my most deeply engaged when I’m absent from active participation in the conversation.

Unfortunately for me, “I’m bored” and “I’m fascinated” look identical on the outside. Because I like thinking slowly about interesting things, all my good conversation tidbits  show up after the party is long over. Prof. Doherty’s essay was published almost a week ago, and I was provoked by it on first contact, but it’s taken me days to grapple with it. Such are my personal patterns.

There’s also been times as a student where I wanted to speak, but I was afraid of saying something wrong or dumb so I stayed silent. I had no desire to stand out from the crowd for good or ill, so silence felt nice and comfortable.

I do not know what variety of silence Prof. Doherty was experiencing with his lesson on gone with the Wind, but I question if it is the one he theorizes, “a new degree of trepidation – and maybe with a whiff of fear – in the classroom.”

He draws a connection between “mobs of know-nothings at Middlebury College, where a controversial social scientist was shouted down and his faculty escort assaulted, and at Evergreen State College, where a biology professor has been hounded out of his classroom for objecting to exclusionary practices based on race, are two recent, and sadly not atypical, examples” and his students.

I do not understand the connection between students who are the opposite of silent – like at Middlebury – and students who are silent, as in Prof. Doherty’s class. Say what you will about the students at Middlebury and Evergreen, they are not fearful about confronting issues of race.

So why are Prof. Doherty’s students silent? It could be any of the reasons above. Or, they could be intimidated by professorial knowledge and erudition that comes coupled when someone has had such a long and distinguished career. They might fear saying the “wrong” thing not for the “campus consensus” but because of a heightened reverence and respect for the instructor, a desire not to disappoint.

Or maybe, the scenes from Gone with the Wind Prof. Doherty chose to highlight issues of race and gender are no longer particularly interesting in a world experiencing a more complex turbulence over these issues than in 1939.

Is there still a deep discussion to be had over Rhett taking his “then-lawful prerogative as a husband, overpowering a struggling Scarlett O’Hara and carrying her upstairs to the marriage bed and a presumably coerced consummation. But the next morning, Scarlett is aglow in postcoital satisfaction”?

What is there left to say about this that hasn’t already been said? Is the subtext of the scene not so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning? Is there really a “freewheeling” debate to be had over whether or not what women need when they’re angry is a good fucking?

Is that the kind of phrasing that Prof. Doherty wants students to feel comfortable using?

I am confused how students can be condemned simultaneously for being hypersensitive to slights about race and misogyny while also being too silent about representations of racist and misogynistic behavior in an almost 80-year-old film. Prof. Doherty’s theory doesn’t track.

One thing I’m certain of is that what students are thinking should not and need not be alien to those of us patrolling the front of the room.

When students are silent, I’ve started doing something radical, asking them why. “Why so quiet?” I say, and with some prodding and assurances that they will not be judged harshly, they tell me.

There reasons are sometimes not flattering to me or to them, but each silence is an opportunity for us to draw a little bit closer to an understanding and to see the classroom as a space for all of us to inhabit as freely as possible.

 

 

 

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top