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Two Silences

sdane's picture

Sometimes people talk all the time in class, while still staying silent. 

            Class discussion is about sharing thoughts and ideas, but sometimes it is also about sharing yourself.  Now that we are already three weeks into the 360 experience, it is becoming incredibly clear that more than one kind of dialogue occurs in our classrooms.  This is true of many discussion-based class settings, but the intimacy and intensity of our cluster of courses makes these different kinds of sharing even more apparent.  What I am still not sure of – but am very interested in exploring – is to what extent these two modes of discussion are intertwined, and whether one is even possible to do one without the other.  Dissecting and analyzing readings or books on their own is important (and is what I am usually referring to when I talk about class discussion). But telling personal anecdotes, and relating readings, theory, and overarching concepts to our own lived experiences gives a window into how we relate the subject matter to who we are. 

            For me, dialogue in the classroom has always been an important way for me to better understand what I am supposed to be learning.  I appreciate thinking through my own thoughts from up on the stage of my desk, and also gain incredible insight from hearing the ideas of my classmate who are also grappling with the same texts or ideas for the first time.  I am usually moved to speak, but try to never be a main character – I make an effort to let silences hold, to open a space for others to talk.  This kind of discussion has occurred regularly throughout my time at Bryn Mawr, an innocuous back and forth of interpretation and analysis.  Only sometimes, however, does the other silence get broken.  When people break out of the vagaries of what they have read and begin speaking about their own, personal truths.  It can be uncomfortable and unsettling, like the shattering of a window, but it means that classroom is no longer silent.  We are loud.

            But, I wonder: how do these two silences relate to one another?  If we’re well into the classroom dance, going back and forth about the topic of the day, are we learning anything if we don’t know who we’re speaking to?  Much of my time undergraduate career has been spent in social science courses, and I wonder: is it possible to even to delve into subjects like race, class, religion, and culture from the abstract?  The more I think about it, the more I think that it is not.  If the personal is political, and the political is personal, we need to be open about our lives, and not just our ideas.  Even if we fill a classroom with so many shared words that we forget another silence still lingers, we are not learning as much as if we could break that second barrier.  The value of conversation is not just what we say, it is the perspective we are speaking from.  I’m reminded of the old Indian fable where a group of blind men are all touching a different part of an elephant, and have no understanding of it as a composite.  We are the same way.  In order to even begin to talking about the elephant we need to share what it’s like to feel its coarse tail and its slick tusks.

            And yet, as much as I appreciate hearing the backgrounds and stories of my fellow classmates, I realize that we are going from a waltz to a quickstep.  It is not fair to take for granted that everyone will be able to jump in with something to say, given the opportunity, nor to assume that their reasons for silence are trivial.  Sharing one’s personal history is uncomfortable, and messy, and even louder than talking about subjects in the abstract.  This is heightened even further in a college course, where students have the weight of a grade sitting on their words. I’m not sure if the type of classroom environment that breaks one kind of silence will break the other.  If both are equally important, how do we reconcile this? Nobody should be forced to divulge personal information, but at the same time, they should be made to feel like they are in a safe space to share if they want to.  I don’t have answers.

            Even more difficult is the next question. Is everyone’s perspective equal?  If we’re discussing innuendo in Shakespeare, I always presume that the classroom is an egalitarian environment where everyone’s interpretation can add to our collective understanding of the text.  But if we’re talking about how that piece of writing intersects with our own experiences with rape or racism or family violence, maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe some people’s thoughts do become more important, and they are more deserving of breaking the silence, while the rest of the class should censor themselves.  I’m not sure if this true, particularly because it goes against many of my strongly held beliefs about equality in the classroom, but I do think that it is an important question to be asked.  At a place like Bryn Mawr, where our paths leading to the school are so incredibly varied, I wonder if certain life histories carry more authority to talk about certain subjects.

            Recognizing that two silences exist in the classroom, and that these two silences might need to be broken in different ways, opens the door to a plethora of questions.  Asking in itself brings awkwardness and discomfort.  I hate that I don’t have answers and I hate that I might need to now be silent myself and let someone else respond.