Teaching With Silence

The following essay was written by the late Dr. Elaine Smokewood, English professor:

Teaching With Silence

In August of 2007, I was diagnosed with a neurological disease that has, for all practical purposes, destroyed my ability to speak.  And so, over the last year-and-a-half, I have contemplated this question:  What does it mean to be a teacher who cannot speak?

The most obvious answer to this question focuses on technology.  I can be a teacher who does not speak by transitioning into web-based teaching, which does not require the spoken word.  Or by utilizing technology in another way–to fill the silence with artificially generated speech.  I have done and am doing both of these things:  I am teaching on-line, and I am experimenting with speech synthesizers.  Both of these technologies offer amazing potential for meaningful teaching and learning to take place.  I greatly appreciate having them at my disposal.

But the story of how these technologies help to compensate for my disability is not quite the story I wish to tell.  In the fall of 2008, I taught one of my very favorite courses, Survey of American Literature 1, without speaking a word the entire semester.  The story I wish to tell is the story of what my silence in that class taught me.

Over the preceding summer, my speech had deteriorated significantly, and I knew it was likely to worsen steadily.  With the help of Jennifer Raasch, OCU’s instructional technologist (a woman of enormous patience, knowledge, and kindness), I was able to transform the course, which I have taught regularly since coming to OCU in 1996, from “traditional” to “hybrid.” By “hybrid,” I mean a cross between the old fashioned, low-tech sort of class (in which students meet with a professor twice a week in a brick-and-mortar classroom for lecture and discussion) and a new-fangled, high-tech, web-based course (in which students and professor meet only in virtual reality).  Throughout the semester, I wrote formal lectures, which I uploaded to our course website for students to ponder on their own.  On Tuesdays, when we did not meet in person, students posted a “question for the professor” to our website, which I answered.  Their questions covered assigned texts or my lectures or both.  In addition, students wrote a weekly “paperette” in response to prompts provided by me.  Most Thursdays, we met in person to discuss assigned readings.  These discussions were facilitated by students, who used their paperettes as a taking-off point.  Most of the paperette topics I assigned asked students to approach texts critically.  But occasionally I offered a creative option, giving students the opportunity to respond to texts by writing an original poem or prose piece.  During class discussions, when I wished to make my thoughts known, I typed what I desired to say at a computer.  My typed text was projected onto a screen so that students could read it.  (That I am an exceedingly fast and accurate touch typist made this procedure less cumbersome than it might sound.)

So there was a way for me to join in my students’ conversations.  Still, everything that happened in our classroom during the course of that semester happened within the space of the teacher’s silence.

It may be that, before I lost my ability to speak, I did not fully realize the extent to which I associated teaching with performance.  I saw the classroom as a stage, with myself, as teacher, positioned front and center—in the spotlight.  While I always emphasized discussion, encouraged students to speak, and described my classes as highly interactive, there is no denying that the self who walked into the classroom twice a week was a performer—my teaching self was a performing self. And my performance medium was the spoken word.

But when I could no longer speak, that performing self disintegrated.  She was gone in a flash, utterly and completely.  To lose that performing self was extremely disorienting—it was, in fact, frightening.  I had been teaching for nearly three decades, and, like most teachers, I had developed a persona in the classroom who was a second self.  I had grown very comfortable with that persona—I was, in fact, dependent upon her.  Who was I in her absence?  What did it mean to teach if I could no longer perform?   How could I be in a classroom filled with students if I could not stand in the center front of the room and speak beautifully?

As the semester began, l found myself literally de-centered in the physical space of the classroom.  In order to type and project text, I had to sit at the computer, which is located in the corner.   And so, over the course of the semester, in my space in the corner of the room, I became a different kind of teacher than I had ever been.  I became a teacher who actively listened.

Most teachers listen, of course.  Back when I still had the ability to speak, I prided myself on being an exceptionally good listener.  Truth be told, however, perhaps I did not listen as much as I could have—or as much as I should have.  Truth be told, perhaps most teachers don’t.

I learned, in my semester of active listening, that I had in the past often confusedlistening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing.  I learned that active listening can be a nurturing, catalyzing force within a classroom–and I learned that active listening is hard work.  I learned that if I listened carefully, thoughtfully, generously, and non-judgmentally, my students would delight me with the complexity of their thinking, the depth of their insight, the delicious wickedness of their humor, and with their compassion, their wisdom, and their honesty.  I learned that, in the presence of a teacher who is an active listener—a teacher who removes herself from the center of the stage–students can blossom in beautiful ways.

From my perspective, the discussions that took place in Survey of American Literature I in the fall of 2008 were among the very best that have ever occurred in a class that I taught.  There are many reasons for this.  The students were exceptional—keenly intelligent, curious, passionate, and creative.  There was a high level of accountability in the class—students were writing weekly paperettes and questions for the professor, as well as a major research paper, and were earning points for their participation in class discussions, which they took responsibility for leading.  Very few students came to class unprepared!

But I know, too, that part of the reason the class worked as well as it did was that, rather than performing for my students, I listened to them in an active and nurturing way.  Most weeks, I took notes on their discussion and posted those notes to the course website for students to review.  And so their discussions—our discussions, because I did feel myself to be a necessary presence—were, in a sense, memorialized.  This memorialization, I feel, made our class sessions less ephemeral than traditional class sessions typically are.  Because so much of our communication was transcribed into typed text, there was a sense—on my part, at least—that the course had a durability or solidity that is seldom possible in traditional classes.

If I were to regain the ability to speak tomorrow, I would continue teaching advanced literature courses in much the same way that I am teaching them now.  I would speak, to be sure!  But I would no longer perform.  For the other thing I learned is this—that the performing self, whom I considered vital to my communication with students, actually blocked communication with them in significant ways.   I learned that, in the absence of my performing self, I am more honest with my students, more willing to let down some of my own defenses.  I learned that, in the absence of performance, the possibility of relationship is born.

What does it mean to be a teacher who cannot speak?

To be a teacher who cannot speak is to learn that students are capable of profound generosity.  One of the most difficult things about speechlessness is the ghostliness it engenders.  It is very challenging to be around people in bustling social or professional situations and be physically incapable of speaking.  It is pretty easy to feel invisible in those situations, and invisibility is not a happy feeling.  My students never, ever made me feel invisible—not for a single second.  They were tolerant of my disability, completely accepting of my speechlessness, and game to try doing things in a new way in order to make our class sessions work.  As one of my students said to me, “You may have lost the ability to speak, Dr. Smokewood, but you haven’t lost your voice.”

I have learned that I am deeply grateful to my students for listening actively and eagerly to my voice–  for nurturing the silent voice of a woman who cannot speak.

Most importantly, I have learned that gratitude is a healing, transforming force.  It is perhaps the most powerful learning tool of all—for students and teacher alike.

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  1. [...] Smokewood died, she wrote about her experiences teaching in an essay titled, “Teaching in Silence.“ Smokewood wrote that she didn’t realize before she lost her ability to speak how much she [...]

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