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Silence for Visitors to Academia

jhunter's picture

Disclaimer: This is entirely tongue-in-cheek

New Yorker cartoon "Land of Academia"

Silence for Beginners: A Visitor’s Guide to Academia’s Surprising Lack of Verbosity


You’ve made the admirable choice to spend your precious time, money, and/or Skymiles on a trip to the land of “Academia”…now what?  You may feel some resentment when your search for a guidebook somewhere between Abu Dhabi and Accra on the bookshelves of your local library’s travel section turns out to be in vain.  Soon it will become clear that an English to Academia dictionary will never offer you enough phrases to communicate with the natives in this strange land.  Even worse, while others return from their journeys with Facebook albums worth of exotic photographs, you might as well leave your camera at home. Your image of a group of students at desks with a range of neutral expressions will never compare to that profile picture of your friend on a camel in front of the Pyramids.  In this economy you can’t afford a personal tour guide/interpreter.  But fear not!  (Or perhaps at least fear a bit less).  You don’t need to spend hours memorizing passages from Rosetta Stone nor do you have to stress over the possibility that your oversized Hawaiian shirt, expensive camera, and tendency to interrupt others will betray your lack of cultural understanding.  There is one simple concept that will transform you from an Ugly American to enlightened, worldly contributor to global discourse: Silence.

Naturally, you may wonder how failing to speak will rescue you from a swift descent through the seven circles of vacation hell.  “But, Julia,” you might ask, “How will they know how smart/insightful/sensitive I am unless I speak up?”  Though I’d prefer not to answer so as to further emphasize my point about silencing oneself, I’ve made a commitment to share with the everyday American the codes necessary to navigate this odd country.  The customs you’ve learned throughout your life will not serve you in this backwards place where citizens celebrate acts that we know to be bad, like “overthinking.”  In Academia, silence is celebrated as a revelatory, sacred form.  According to cultural representatives, silence transcends speech’s baser concerns and achieves a divine presence.  I know that we all would like to correct this notion with the statement that the Judeo-Christian God gave us specific, written, easy-to-understand rules for a reason.  Nevertheless, even when we know others are wrong, it’s still important to tolerate their viewpoints and to pretend that you think they’re as valid as your own, correct beliefs (for more on this read this next section on the lies that Academia tells its citizens about religion). 

Unsure what to say but want to infuse a few seconds with immense wisdom, like the sound bite equivalent of a microgastronomical offering?  Consider simply raising your hand, waiting for everyone in the area to look at you, and then not saying anything.  This may sound ridiculous but will actually make the natives of Academia consider your points (or lack thereof) with more weight than they might if you just simply answered a question with a clear statement.  In this situation there is no need to actually know what you’re saying or to offer anything other than a knowing nod and clever eyebrow raise.  From where we come, this gesture may seem pretentious, but no academics will begrudge you.  You may not know what you’re saying with your silence (nor, I insist, do you need to) but others will assume deeper meaning is attached to your wordlessness. 

With this simple advice, your vacation can be everything you dreamed.  Person by person, we can change how Academics see foreigners by approaching them on their level.  You will exist in their land with a postmodernist je ne sais quoi.  Don’t know what that means?  The beauty is that it doesn’t matter.  Just speak with your silence, and no one will know the difference. 



ishin's picture


so good.

Anne Dalke's picture

Enculturing Academia

well, this is pretty funny. Thanks for the send-up….

and thanks, too, for actually identifying academia as a 'culture' with its own peculiar codes, and its own peculiar way of dealing w/ silence. I actually think that the act with the most "social currency" here (in Christine Sun Kim's terms) is that of articulate speaking, but your riff on the possibility of transcendent silence makes that point obliquely, and quite cleverly.

I'm wondering about the trajectory here from your first web paper, about being silenced by your body; and your second, on the additional walled community you so often inhabit, that of the hospital. Is it living in these other spaces that enables you to see the weird wildness of academic life, the way in which others, inhabiting only this space, might well assume "deeper meaning is attached to your wordlessness" than you either know or intend (but hope they will, nonetheless, attribute to you)?