Tag Archives: Conversations

The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.)

Silence in the classroom has been addressed by a number of scholars. Donald L. Finkel, for example, in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), suggests ways that instructors can teach by removing themselves as the center of the students’ attention. At this time, however, I’m particularly concerned with whether silence can encourage what I would call “other-oriented” listening, which I used to think of as “real” listening, and therefore add to productive engagement in the classroom.  Because, beyond a doubt, in the world at large there’s way too much talking and not enough listening.

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John C. Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, argued that we need to be teaching our students how to listen, or, more precisely, what he termed the skill of “contemplative listening.” Contemplative listening, Cavanaugh writes, “is not the same as ‘listening’ in the colloquial sense. The latter, which tends to be the default way listening is practiced, is rooted in how listeners are consumed with how a conversation affects them.”

That last part really resonated: consumed with how a conversation affects them. Anyone who has led a classroom discussion knows exactly what this looks like. You ask your students a question. Hands go up. As the first to be called on offers a response, the others who had their hands up don’t appear to be listening to the speaker. Their faces tell you that they are thinking of something else, probably how they will answer when eventually called on. They’re thinking of how the conversation will affect them. This is pretty much the same if you “stack” those who want to answer in a queue or if you have the current speaker determine the next speaker. Both techniques can help remove you as the central hub of classroom discussions (allowing you to teach “with your mouth shut”), but they don’t address the challenge of getting students to listen to each other in order to actually develop the discussion. Students often remain focused on what they had planned to say rather than moving with the conversational flow. And, as a result, class discussions don’t develop into truly dialogic spaces capable of generating new understandings or fresh insights. Don’t get me wrong: discussions aren’t a waste of time; but they could be more productive if students actually listened to their peers.

Image taken from "Lilliput Lyrics," R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

It’s not a great surprise that students aren’t better at other-oriented listening. Truth be told, we’re not particularly good at it either. Perhaps it’s our training to be critics, but we, too, are often busy planning how we’ll respond rather than listening to what a colleague has to say. (Think back to your last faculty, department, or committee meeting. OK, don’t.)

Cavanaugh argues that traditional-aged students often haven’t developed an ability to “separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker.” (And once again I’d say, it’s not just late adolescents: Physician, heal thyself!) He cites the neuroscience research pointing to the late development of the integration of emotion and logic which is central to contemplative listening. I’m not familiar with that research, but I do know that there is a growing tendency to remain in our own “echo-chambers.” And in this aspect research has clearly shown that our conversations/reading/viewing – whether virtual or face-to-face – are increasingly with people who share our perspectives. To the extent that we only listen to what we want to hear, we are self-oriented thinkers, unable or unwilling to hear the unexpected, the uncomfortable.

Impediments to Other-Oriented Listening in the Classroom

Still, there are structural reasons that make other-oriented listening in the classroom harder for our students. Classroom interactions obviously don’t follow the same rules as one-on-one or small group exchanges, with a relatively “natural” flow of talk among conversational partners. Although, as Blyth worries, it is possible that conversation itself, “especially face-to-face [conversation] – for thousands of years the core of human interaction – is being pushed to the sidelines.”  Even given that, or perhaps because we are becoming less adept at the “art of conversation,” good classroom discussions, unlike other social interactions, require that the participants’ have prepared for them. And we all know what that can mean. But there are circumstances we impose that also lessen the likelihood of effective listening.

  • When students know they are expected to participate in class discussions, particularly if participation makes up a part of their grade, they can become more focused on the act of participating, on intervening in the conversation, than on whether what they have to say helps the discussion advance. Their interventions don’t depend on having listened to previous speakers, and they will largely focus on what they have been planning to say even as the discussion has moved on.
  • Students often recognize that they are being evaluated by the instructor (and their peers) more for what they say than for their ability to foster a discussion. They have received a message, often accurately, that it is more important to impress us than to contribute to generative discussions.

So, what practices can we employ to help our students build their capacity as other-oriented and contemplative listeners? How can we circumvent the barriers that make classroom discussions less about individual speakers and more about collaborative engagement?

Some Quick Fixes:

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

There are some quick fixes that we can use to help students become better listeners. In general, these involve explicitly raising for class members the challenge of taking responsibility for the generation of a productive discussion by closely listening to, and then addressing, the arguments and themes raised by the previous speakers. For example, think about:

  • Having each speaker sum up her comments at the end of her intervention and, if possible, raise a new question to be answered.
  • Encouraging the next person in the queue to begin his comments by focusing on the question raised by the previous speaker.
  • Adopting a modified Socratic approach. As you know, the Socratic method involves teacher-student interactions based on a shared dialogue in which both are responsible for pushing the conversation forward through questioning as a means of finding foundational beliefs, values, or principles. Socratic approaches often allow us to find new meanings through  persistent questioning. In a modified approach, students, more than the instructor, would be responsible for advancing the process of continual questioning of assumptions, and they could only do this by paying particular attention to what the previous speaker has said and thinking more deeply about its values and understandings.

But here is where silence can help. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage contemplative listening in the midst of a conversation is to employ silence. Think of John Cage. Use enforced silence to help students focus before answering, not just after you ask a question, but after the first student offers an answer and before you call on others, with the explicit instruction that no one will talk for a minute (it will seem very long) after the previous speaker to allow everyone to think of what was said, to write comments, and to respond explicitly to what was said. I can guarantee you that this won’t be easy, but don’t be faint of heart and give up after what will undoubtedly be your first disastrous attempts at it. Stay with it.

The Longer-Term: Classrooms as Learning Communities

You probably have more ideas than I do about helping students develop more other-oriented listening approaches in a classroom, and I’d be eager to hear them. But to address this issue on a profound level we have to consider some of the structural factors mentioned that inhibit deep listening. These are not just, or even, about the number of students you have and whether only small seminars are capable of generating other-oriented thinking skills. What we need to take on board is whether we are structuring our classes in ways that encourage deep listening. To return to a point I made above, except in large lecture classes, most of us, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, include a “class participation” component as part of the final grade. I did that for years without providing students with helpful – OK, any! – feedback on how their participation would be evaluated. And, when I finally did provide some feedback in the form of a rubric, I mostly stressed quantity (were they active participants?), their ability to stay on topic, and whether their interventions were informed by the readings or other assigned work. I never commented on whether they helped the class generate a productive discussion or if they raised further questions for their peers to address. In my approach, I probably convinced students either that quantity was more important than quality, or that the “quality” of their interventions was an individual feature, disconnected from the whole group’s ability to reach new understandings. I find my own practices even more curious since the very quality which I didn’t explicitly raise with students — the ability to advance a discussion — would always be at the top of my list when writing student recommendations.

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

If we are interested in supporting other-oriented listening, a listening that moves students away from thinking only about how the conversation affects them, a practice of hearing that opens them to other perspectives, we need to structure classrooms as learning communities where all participants are held responsible for producing knowledge, deepening understandings, and solving problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, “When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility.”

At one level,  this involves moving from what Paulo Freire called the “banking,” or information-transformation model of teaching to a more learning-centered, inquiry-centered model where, as Jeffrey Wilhem writes, teachers and students “work together to co-construct knowledge according to disciplinary standards as they learn and use disciplinary concepts and procedures.” To the extent that students become co-responsible for classroom learning, and to the extent that the different experiences and knowledges that they bring with them are valued, we can create a space where listening becomes an essential foundation for talking.

John Cage used silence in his compositions to help us hear what we weren’t listening to. Other-oriented listening in a collaborative classroom can also be based on the promotion of silence, both the absence of talking that allows students to think about what others are saying before speaking themselves, as well as the silence that involves stilling one’s inner voice to a sufficient degree so that they (and we!) can actually listen to what others are saying. If the work of the classroom is the work of the all its participants, then let’s cultivate a silence that helps students tune out “how a conversation affects them” and focus instead on how they can further a discussion that will support everyone’s learning.

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time

Steven Volk, October 4, 2015

As instructors bring their classes to the glorious Allen Memorial Art Museum, they begin to consider the potential not just for teaching with art, but of teaching through art. Liliana Milkova, the academic curator at the museum, and I have written about the process (“transfer”) whereby the learning that occurs in one domain can be shifted to another. In extended interviews with Oberlin faculty who have brought their students to the museum, we have found that a number of specific skills foregrounded in visits to the Allen are transferring back into the classrooms in a variety of disciplines.

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson '33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

For example, faculty members have observed that the work their students do in the museum often helps them think about the link between evidence and argument in new ways. Some of these realizations originate from the curators’ use of VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) approaches in the museum. VTS fashions a viewer’s engagement with art through three basic prompts: (1) What is going on in this picture; (2) What do you see that makes you say that; and (3) What more can you say about the object? Having the “primary source” (the painting or sculpture) directly at hand strongly grounds the student’s ability to use evidence to support an interpretation: Where in the painting do you find evidence suggesting that the man is angry? Such lessons from the museum can transfer easily to classroom discussions and written work.

Close Readings

Of the many potential elements for transfer from museum to classroom, perhaps the most frequently reported by the faculty are the impact of close observation in the museum on close reading in the classroom. Both processes are supported by holding students figuratively or literally in front of the object (or text) they are studying, giving them the time they need to observe closely. By doing this, we are teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, in the words of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts. In a widely circulated article on “The Power of Patience,” Roberts wrote, “in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.”

I thought of the importance of “slowing down” as I read Sherry Turkel’s commentary, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review. (A shorter op-ed, “Stop Googling; Let’s Talk,” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 26; her book on the topic, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is just out from Penguin.) In her Chronicle article, Turkel, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, recounted what happened in one of her recent seminars, one that was heavily dependent on personal narrative. Midway through the semester, she reported, some students came to talk to her.

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

“They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”

Let me repeat that: For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. Turkel suggested they try a “device-free class,” and observed how the students seemed more “relaxed and cohesive” in those discussions, how they “finished their thoughts, unrushed” and seemed “more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation.” While I was pleasantly surprised that her students could move from a state of technological high anxiety to unpluged relaxation so quickly, I saw Turkel’s comments as coming from the same place as Robert’s. Indeed, if I was surprised, it was only because I don’t know many instructors who actually allow texting in class. From the comments I hear, it would seem that more and more of my colleagues are going further, either discouraging or prohibiting the use of laptops or other digital devices in class. Maybe that’s just me, or just here. One large survey found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class; 15% say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

There is substantial research, some of which has been reported here, recommending the benefits to learning and memory that come when students take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Even more, as Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law observed, students who are in court-stenographer mode “sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions. If your notes are meant to capture the themes of the class, you remember your participation and you make it part of the story. If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.”

"The Phone People," Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

“The Phone People,” Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

Nor are devices a problem only in class. I am probably not alone in noticing that as soon as class ends, the phones emerge and large numbers of students are quickly absorbed in what seems to be a dangerous practice of texting-while-descending-the-stairs. Indeed, we seem caught between furiously peddling bicyclists and texting pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings as we tread our increasingly perilous path across campus.


The debate over the value (or dangers) of multi-tasking has gone on for some time. In a 2007 article, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (Profession, 187–199), Katherine Hayles argued that we are at a moment of “generational divide” between an older cohort that equated learning with the “deep attention” characterized by long focus times and what I would call a “vertical” engagement with a topic, and a younger generation more prone to rapid switching among different tasks, shorter attention times, a low tolerance for “boredom” (i.e., unoccupied time) and a more “horizontal” mode of exploration characteristic of the digital hyperlinks. Hayles’ argument is that whether or not we (i.e., the “older” generation) want this, “The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate.”

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention,” she writes, “educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. At the extreme end of the spectrum represented by ADHD, it may be appropriate to change the young people, but surely the environment needs to change as well” (195).

Hayles defined hyper attention as the capacity to negotiate “rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention” (188). She contrasted this with “multitasking” which significant research has shown to place a substantial burden on learning. A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, had students mark down once a minute what they were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the Web. He noted that their “on-task” behavior began to decline at the two-minute mark. By the end of the 15-minute study, he found that they had spent only 65% of their time on task.

Indeed, evidence of the detrimental impact of multitasking continues to grow. To cite just one example, the majority of a cross-disciplinary survey of 774 students was shown to be engaging in classroom multitasking. Further, this was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. As Maryellen Weimer suggested when pondering how to bring such behaviors under control, “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.”

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using other media. As Victoria Rideout, the lead author put it:

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside. I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

r8r, "Studying for Finals," Flickr CC

r8r, “Studying for Finals,” Flickr CC

Engaging Our Distracted Students: The Role of Conversation

So, to return to Turkel’s question: how do we teach in an age of (many) distractions? For many teaching in large universities with class sizes in the hundreds, one key was devising a way to return students to conversation, something which Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera (the provider of online courses or MOOCs) thought could be better done online than in class. (This has not necessarily proven to be the case.) But for those of us fortunate enough to teach in a school where 40-50 person classes are considered large, we know that “the most powerful learning takes place in [a context of] relationship,” at times between students and teachers, at times among peers. Turkel’s students tell her that “they want company. They are afraid that they already spend too much time alone and online.”

Turkel defends the lecture as the place where this “company” is to be found on college campuses. “For all its flaws,” she writes, “the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged.” But even as she praises the lecture – indeed, I am far more cautious of its pedagogical limitations – she, too, pivots to the importance of the conversations that can develop in a lecture, not the content that is delivered. She quotes Lee Edelman, a literary theorist at Tufts, who observed that his biggest challenge as a professor was “not teaching his students to think intelligently, but getting them to actually respond to each other thoughtfully in the classroom.” He found that his students were struggling with the give and take of face-to-face conversation.

*k59, "Conversación," Flickr CC

*k59, “Conversación,” Flickr CC

But how can conversations provide students with a steady focus and the ability to steer their way through multitasking temptations in an age of increasing distraction? Only, I would argue, to the extent that we actually think about how we “engineer,” as Roberts put it, “the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Conversations must necessarily have “empty” spaces built into them, time for thinking before responding, time for boredom. And this is a generation that is boredom-adverse. “If boredom happens in a classroom,” Turkel writes, “rather than competing for student attention with ever-more extravagant technological fireworks, we should encourage students to stay with their moment of silence or distraction.” She cites a chemistry professor who said that he wants students in his class to daydream. “They can go back to the text if they missed a key fact. But if they went off in thought … they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them.” Boredom (in its creative sense), daydreaming (and not about lunch), doodling (while thinking) all require that we allow and encourage the space that is not completely filled; that we slow things down.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker, the writer, talked about how he would read aloud to slow himself down, because when he reads aloud to himself:

“it becomes the only thing there is. I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing that you’re looking at, or reading, or listening to, is all that there is for that moment, and you really have to give yourself to it. So, if you’re in a life where everything is sort of jumping for you and you’re only spending two minutes with anything, you’re not probably going to be able to take anything at the proper speed. So, I think reading things aloud to myself has helped me slow down. I guess, remember, remember the sound of words, the sequence of words…all I have to do, actually, is put on, say, a Debussy piece, or something, and it slows me down. I think that things that take time are useful; paragraphs take time, piano preludes take time.”

Conversations take time. If we are to help our students develop their capacities for deep engagement and build their capacity to cope with the increasing distractions of a hyper-connected environment, we have to consider the pace and tempo of learning as a subject we need to address regardless of our disciplines. It is its own discipline.