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sdane's picture

            I was very struck by Anne’s idea that speaking up in class is akin to sharing, while staying quiet is selfish – somehow keeping brilliance under lock and key, and not giving the rest of the class access.  I’ve never had a problem with talking in class, especially since coming to Bryn Mawr, but I often wish I could edit myself more and filter the ideas in my head slightly better before blurting them out.  As much as I recognize that silencing oneself is not always a good thing, especially if it is out of censorship or fear or anxiety, I often find it helpful to just shut up and listen.  When I silence myself in the classroom at any given moment, I notice that it tends to give someone else the opportunity to speak and share an idea.  So is the converse true?  Can my voice silence others?

            This was something that I especially thought about when I first started Bryn Mawr and was in a number of classes with mostly other freshmen.  My privilege reeked.  I’d always been told that what I had to say was important, that I was important, that I had to speak out.  I went to a wonderful high school where class discussion was the norm and grew up with two professor parents who encouraged me to analyze the world around me and share what I noticed.  I’ve never been shy and jumping into conversations, so even though college was a new environment, I felt immediately comfortable talking in class.  Sometimes, a lot.  It was also immediately clear that the same was not true for many of my new classmates and friends.  Some went to high schools where student voice was not valued, or, even worse, went to schools where their voice was not valued.  Others were naturally timid about speaking in front of large groups, and felt even more stressed given the supposed heightened importance of Being In College.  And, I’m sure, other classmates had other stories that led to them staying silent.

            My visceral desire to speak in class discussion was always tempered by the realization that many in the classroom were chronically quiet.  Nonetheless, my first semesters at Bryn Mawr were a couple of my loudest, and I think that I learned a lot by being able to sort out my ideas in the presence of both professors and fellow students.  I never (I hope!) hijacked the classroom or rambled for minutes on end, but when I had an idea that I felt was important I never hesitated to share.  The almost tangible boundary between those who speak and those and those who stay silent continually bothered me, but it usually seemed that the onus was on the silent students to start talking, not the other way around.  Many people who talked regularly came from much less privileged backgrounds than I did, but still had a powerful voice, and I knew that many of the people staying silent were brilliant.  They could talk if they wanted to.  I wasn’t the problem.  Moreover, there is a lot of incentive to talk in class, and even more to say the right things – most syllabi put a generous part of the grade toward class participation, and professors clearly reward students who mirror themselves.  What I had to say was far from genius, but I got the benefits just from the act of speaking up. 

            Over time, however, it started to seem like some of my classmates were not actively being silent, but instead being silenced.  I can’t imagine how difficult it is to enter a classroom equipped with an outside vernacular, or an accent, or a fear of speaking.  But, it seems like it’s sometimes easy for silence to become the default.  I was not the problem, and the other big talkers were not the problem, but we also weren’t helping.  I used to think that when there was a pause during class discussion I could use it as an opportunity to immediately say what I was thinking, because it wasn’t like someone else was going to fill the silence.  But I’ve noticed that allowing that pause to hold for a little bit longer is sometimes just the push people need to break through their own speechlessness. 

            Group discussion is a well choreographed dance that I have been practicing since I first learned to talk, and slowing down a little bit and allowing others to catch up has given me the reward of hearing all the awesome things they have to say.  I don’t think that I have ever had particularly special contributions in my various classrooms at Bryn Mawr – I’ve just had the ability to speak.  Participation during class is hugely important but emphases on “class participation” sometimes sends the tacit message that the classroom is a competition and whoever speaks the most wins.  Learning to listen to the pauses and silences in class is not easy, but it’s enriching in the long run – every so often I hear a new classmate speak, and my ideas, when I do say them out loud, tend to be more developed than when they popped into my head.  Silence can be selfish when great ideas are left unspoken, but silence can also be a gift when it allows someone else to find their voice.



Anne Dalke's picture

A well choreographed dance

The first thing I notice is the striking difference between your original images--of a publicly shared day of silence in Bali--and the one you've appropriated here, of Sharaai's representation of the library, which she described as "silence on the outside, but the inner workings of the mind still ... hard at work." Be sure not to miss what Dan did w/ the same image in her essay

As you know already from our discussion in class, your reflections here have provoked me to rethink my clever quip about silence being selfish; I find very compelling your description of the ways in which "silencing yourself" " tends to give someone else the opportunity to speak and share an idea." There are some other phrases--that

* emphases on “class participation” send the tacit message that the classroom is a competition and whoever speaks the most wins

* allowing that pause to hold for a little bit longer is sometimes just the push people need to break through their own speechlessness    

* group discussion is a well choreographed dance

* silence can also be a gift when it allows someone else to find their voice

--which I also find particularly resonant, and which will be helpful in my evolving teaching practice. Thanks for adding to my repertorie of possibilities here....

I'm also wondering how--as someone who "learned a lot by being able to sort out your ideas" out loud--you will find the essay by Kim and Markus (which is one of your options for Tuesday's reading) on different cultural practices of speech and silence--the ways in which speaking can silence thinking, for instance. They turn what you present as individual personality, or as school socialization, into cultural difference, arguing (for instance) that we are expecting our East Asian students to conform to an American cultural=educational ideal [of talking as expressive of intelligent thinking] "without the recognition that what these students have to do is not as simple as 'just talking more' but actually changing a dense network of cultural values and beliefs about how to be a good person."

And what to do with THAT insight?....There's more to come, I hope.