Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Web Event #2: Silenced by a lack of Silence

HSBurke's picture

Webpaper 2

Lately, I’ve left our class with anger nipping at my heels as I trudge back to Denbigh. Thoughts, complaints and unspoken words swirl through my already over-full mind and I just want to scream. But I don’t. Instead, I shut myself in my room and wish I had splurged for that journal I saw in the bookstore a week ago. It seems wrong, but out of desperation and lack of proper medium, I’ve turned to this essay to help me sort out my thoughts regarding my own role in our class, and also the role of silence.

I am exhausted when I leave our class. I feel the weight of my unpacked thoughts making me so heavy. My silence, I will readily admit, is self-imposed, but I won’t take all of the responsibility. I feel silenced because I just need space to think. Such heavy topics deserve a response that has been thought out. But there is no time for silence. For it seems that we would much rather talk about it than observe it.

I find it ironic that in a class about silence we are ALL SO LOUD. There is almost constant discussion. I feel like I’m watching a tennis match as my head violently pivots between speakers. Sometimes, it’s exhausting and I give up – choosing to doodle while listening instead. But when I am watching, I rarely see what I hope to. We share a lot of very personal thoughts in this class. And instead of taking it in, processing it and really listening to the speaker, we practically jump off of our seats out of desperation to add to the conversation. How much listening could really be going on here? It is uncomfortable for me when we get off on so many tangents, because I can’t help but think that these are caused by the inability to listen to the speaker before and really understand what they say. It seems that our voices move too rapidly – we don’t have time to process. The desire to have our opinions and experiences heard outweighs the need to provide our classmates with the same validation. There is so little space (sometimes it’s absolutely none, resulting in interruptions) that I don’t ever have time think. Because I’m not comfortable speaking without giving my words some thought first, especially with such loaded subjects, I usually end up just holding it all in. And that feels really crappy.

As I’m writing this my mind is reeling. I’ve already taken break after break, trying to quiet it. The most recent break took me to a blog about blackout poetry—my newest obsession. This, appropriately, was the second poem I saw:


Eerily relevant, it inspired me to go back to writing. To writing my eruption. It disappoints me that this particular eruption is so two-dimensional. I feel disappointed in myself for not speaking up in class. So, maybe less than a demonstration of power, this is a demonstration of my hesitation. I do find it extremely difficult to get a word in edge-wise, which stops me from sharing my thoughts. However, I also fear intense backlash whenever I open my mouth. I know it is not our intention to be judgmental, but these subjects of race, class and gender hit so close to home that I think it renders that impossible. I’ve felt offended by things said in class before, particularly those thoughts that speak to privilege and what that means. But conversely, I worry about offending others. Especially since some of the topics we cover are those I know very little about (and thus want to think about more deeply before making a comment).  Just like many of my classmates, I struggle to deal with assumptions that are made about me based on my race or perceived social class. However, something within me feels like my concerns are not as relevant or important to discussion.

I’ve actually found that I struggle to think about our class as a class. I am constantly chasing after our conversations, trying to connect them back to our readings, or even to their origin. On the way out after our sessions, I am unable to quantify exactly what I’ve learned or what our discussion covered, and that just adds to my frustrations. So, I’ve come to the conclusion (with a little help from Delpit) that I just need more structure. However, I am uncertain as to whether the nature of this class makes that possible. I don’t want to infringe my needs on a group of women who are clearly flourishing in this environment. But if I don’t, I fear my voice may disappear altogether.


P.S. It absolutely terrifies me to post this. I’ve gone over it multiple times in an attempt to avoid sounding accusatory or offensive. 



ishin's picture


It's really great to hear you say this.  For a lot of reasons.  One, it's everything I wanted to say in my web event but couldn't figure out how, two, it's just remarkably sharp, and three, it's accusatory in a way that people need to hear.  Perhaps I am one of those people you mention who is talking without listening--I understand my tendencies and try to work on them.  Regardless, Sarah is right, and what you say is something I think all of us need to take into consideration and wouldn't have otherwise if it wasn't mentioned.  Criticism in all learning processes is necessary, otherwise, things don't move.

There are couple of points I want to bring up with you though, and as a forewarning, I'll be speaking to and about you directly and personally:

I wish you did speak up more in class.  When you do say something, it's important, and your posts are fascinating and insightful, and I wish you would elaborate more on them in class.  Being raised in a community where the majority is Asian American is the exact opposite of the environment I found myself in, and your perspective speaks to how living in America is evolving in really interesting ways.  But I think thinking about the objective of speaking in class in terms of disappointment or failure and success sets yourself up for more of the exact thing you fear.  Above all else, just remember that discussion is about releasing and bouncing off ideas.  You deserve the exact same courtesy you give them by remaining silent.  

What's more, I think the concern over offending can hinder at times, and it's remarkably evident.  To call it straight, you can see our white peers shut up sometimes over some charged issue, or subtly apologize for privilege in the class when they do speak.  I've discussed this with a fellow classmate outside the classroom and would be more willing to speak to how people feel hindered and when we are together, but it's something that I believe we all need to address.

All of that being said, I think I want to give more credit to the class than your post seems to do.  I've been in classes that do a much worse job at listening to others. Much worse.  This isn't to say that we can't improve on this one still, but I think it may merely seem like we're not listening to each other at times because people's voices and ears are just different.  In other words, if you say something out loud, people may understand it differently, speak about it differently, and actually mean something completely differently than what is uttered. People's interpretations and perceptions are just different, and while it may seem like we're talking past each other at times, it may just be that certain thoughts are conjure up different things in different people.  When done right, this can be one of the greatest things about engaging in a class--not knowing how people will respond to something and seeing where it evolves.  It may go completely off the path in a train-wreck fashion, but other times, it may evolve in really beautiful ways you may not have thought possible.  I think we've seen both this past week, so for now, it's probably a matter of just staying vigilant, attentive, and willing.

This is my final statement, and I think it ties back to all the other points made above.  It's that a certain amount of debate and tension can be good to a class. I'll speak for and about myself when I talk about all of this to get what I mean across.  While I think my natural M.O. is to try and find ways for people and concepts to relate and coincide, god, I love debating at times.  Not because I'm necessarily good at it--I stutter to much and often don't get what I want to across--but because it challenges us to really sharpen our thoughts and forces us to really come to understand what we mean.  Without a doubt, this has happened on several occasions in the past week alone--an instance where I make an assertion, someone refutes, and I am forced to reevaluate what I said and mean--but regardless as how frustrating it can be at the time, if you let the criticism sink in, it's often remarkably helpful.

I think our time together is challenging my notions of what a classroom can and should be in great ways, but I still want to give major snaps to your last paragraph.

Sarah's picture

HSBurke, It was really


It was really interesting to read this especially because I recognize myself as a more vocal/talkative person in classes.  I sometimes understand your frustrations and feel we are all jumping to speak and sometimes see it from another perspective.  Although, I would agree that interrupting is generally rude, sometimes I know I can barely contain myself to let someone finish speaking because what they say resonates with me so much.  Again, it's not exactly polite, but I sometimes see interruptions as an act of support.

I wonder how you felt during our fish bowl activity. I know personally I felt like people were really hearing each other more during that class...

Finally, I want to say I appreciate your honesty and writing even though it was scary.  We're all afraid of offending people, but it's only when people speak honestly, and sometimes unintentionally, offensively, do we really begin to learn from each other.


Also, just something small about anonymity, but I don't know if you want to edit this paper so your full name isn't present at the top.

HSBurke's picture

Thanks so much for the bit

Thanks so much for the bit about anonymity (I hadn't noticed that!) and your understanding and support. It is interesting that you bring up the fishbowl because in all of my passion writing this paper, I'd forgotten about it. I did feel appreciative of that class because, unlike I had expected, we weren't jumping out of our seat to tap each other out, we were just listening. I fear that this paper comes across more blaming than I had originally intended. I've never been a part of such a unique educational environment. And I am lucky to be experiencing that with my fiercely intelligent and passionate classmates. But I am still working out how I fit within this scheme and how I can make it work for me as a learner.