Tag Archives: listening

Teaching with Tenderness

Steve Volk, February 19, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

Always start with the names:

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Mallow Flowers (ca. 1842), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

 

 

Alyssa Alhadeff
Scott Beigel
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Olivier
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Alex Schachter
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

Victims of the Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been more than 140 school shootings in the United States. And, of course, those were preceded by Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and too many others.

 

How do we respond?

The appalling toll of gun violence in this country should need no reminding. But when we, as teachers, read of school massacres, it is a kick to the gut. Again. As individuals, we feel anger and sadness, rage and compassion all at the same time. Our empathy with the victims is strong. But as teachers, our response is direct and visceral; we feel a need to hold our students, a deep desire to protect them even as we know we can’t.

How do we respond?

Do we talk to them about Parkland? Do we talk to them about Albert E. Morton, a 31 year old Black man who was shot and killed by police while driving in his car in Harrisburg, PA, one of 123 people shot and killed by police in 2018? Do we talk to them about 20-year old Alexis G. who was deported to Mexico, a country he doesn’t know, in June 2017 after having lived almost his whole life United States? “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner,” he said before being deported.

We shouldn’t be surprised if our students preferred to get on with their French lesson or hunker down in the biology lab, totally reasonable responses. And, since I never know what approach students would choose, I always check with then, and then follow their lead. So, I asked some students I’m working with how they reacted to the news of the Douglas High shootings. They all said the same thing: they have grown numb, anesthetized to events that have become commonplace in the United States. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.  Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. I had forgotten the date of the Columbine massacre, so I looked it up: 1999, which means that school massacres have been part of our students’ reality for their entire lives.

http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/

That was the end of our conversation. They wanted to get down to the work at hand. But I continued to think about how we respond to these criminal moments that crash into our daily existence. I refuse to call these events “tragedies.” As Simone Weil once pointed out, tragedy arises from a situation where one absolute obligation comes into conflict with another. Being in this country without documentation is a tragedy; massacring school kids is a crime. But how do we respond? How do we react to these continual horrors without always talking about them? Is there is a way to answer the violence around us without being overtaken by it? How can we help our students cope with trauma without forcing them to continually reflect on traumatic events?

“We are not all that is possible,” June Jordan, the remarkable poet wrote in “Outside Language.” “None of us has ever really experienced justice. None of us has known enough tenderness.”

“None of us has known enough tenderness.” The answer suggested in Jordan’s poem led me to Becky Thompson’s most recent book – which opens with Jordan’s poem as an epigraph. Thompson, who describes herself as anti-racist and feminist, a sociology professor, and yoga instructor, invites her readers to practice a “pedagogy of tenderness.” In Teaching with Tenderness, she suggests how we might adopt “gentler ways” of teaching. For those whose new-age bullshit antennae have begun to waggle uncontrollably, stay with this, at least for a few more paragraphs. I’m not going to talk about sitting in a circle and holding hands – although I could and she does. And I’m not going to suggest that our fundamental purpose as teachers is to make our students feel better. Teaching with tenderness, Thompson offers, is about locating our teaching not just in models of intimacy, but also in forms of intensity and intellectual depth. Teaching with tenderness is about improving student learning, as well as their mental health, by lending attention to emotions as well as cognition, body as well as mind.

Ritual

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
(1858), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Rituals are important in life events, from birth to death, and, Thompson argues, in class events, from first class to last.  She begins the semester with her students’ names (one reason why I began this article with names). I’ve written before about the importance of learning names at the start of class, and, when possible, taking steps to help everyone remember each other’s name. I’ve always thought of this as a form of simple politeness and inclusion. But Thompson suggests that there are deeper reasons than courtesy for this practice. We start with names because unnaming, removing names as was done through enslavement or during the Holocaust, and as is done in prisons today, is a radical form of dehumanization. Naming, then, is a step toward recognizing each other’s humanity by calling attention to the fact that names matter, “they hold stories to people’s heritage, to what they know or don’t know about their ancestors, to gender. It is a start in seeing each other” (42).

Thompson starts each semester with all the students sharing their whole name, where it came from, what it means, and how they feel about their names. The process begins with the first student, and each student thereafter has to repeat the names of all who preceded them.

Naming is one ritual, and Thompson’s classes are marked by others, such as checking-in at the start of class, and reflection at the end. It is her way of always honoring the students as individuals, as humans who stand at the center of her practice of teaching. It is a means of teaching with tenderness. 

Embodied Teaching

After many years of teaching, Thompson came to the realization that she “was passing on to my students some of the same costs I had paid to become an academic. When I was finishing one of my earlier books…I began to realize that the academy asked people to trade in their body parts, anything below the neck, in order to be successful. I remember feeling like I had ransomed off all of my body parts, except my head, in order to finish the book…After I finished, I realized that I wanted my body parts back – my legs, my arms, my core, my feelings especially…” (pp. 36-37). Tyrone Simpson, one of her colleagues at Simmons College, speaks of the academy as a “decorporealizing process.” Holding a Ph.D., he observes, is the proof that you have been “willing to be out of your body for an extended period of time.”

Utagawa Hiroshige, Akasaka, no. 57 from the series Sixty-nine Stations on the Kisokaidō (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Which is kind of weird, when you think about it, because both learning and teaching are fundamentally embodied practices. Stephen Cope writes that mind and body are “different points in the spectrum of subtlety…The body is a gross form of consciousness. The mind is a more subtle form of consciousness.” But we know this on a more obvious level: the process of imagining, studying, planning, analyzing, and creating continually bump into and interact with the limitations of our physical selves. We are tired, hungry, suffering various aches and pains. Thinking has embodied limitation. As does teaching: since we haven’t yet been replaced by robots, we still teach in our bodies, whether standing or sitting, whether we want to or not.

When Thompson remarked that the academy “asked people to trade in their body parts,” other than the brain, in order to succeed, she was speaking not only to the fact that most of us live extraordinarily sedentary lives, parked in chairs, staring at computer screens. And even if we move around class when we teach, our students remain largely stationary. (Indeed, one frightening aspect of the state of education today is that young children, beginning in the pre-school years, are required to spend more and more time glued to their desks, toiling away at “paper and pencil” tasks.)

Does “disembodiment” really matter for us, who teach college students who (generally) know how to stay (relatively) still for 50 or 75 minutes or longer? Absolutely. Consider the following: It’s Tuesday afternoon at 1:45. Class has been going on for 45 minutes and your students’ eyes have begun to glaze over; even you are feeling the energy leaving you drop by drop. What do we do? If I’m any example, we probably just soldier on, ignoring the tired or restless bodies. Or, we could take approximately 1 minute to have the students stand up and “shake it out.” Now, which approach will have the greatest impact on student learning? You can answer that.

Thompson was one of Maurice Stein’s graduate assistants at Brandeis University. Stein, a sociologist, was already a legendary instructor 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate there (he retired in 2002), and he evidently got even better over time. He always resisted the notion that there was one specific model for good teaching, suggesting that “there are probably as many possibilities as there are varieties of human beings doing the job of teaching.” When Maury felt a lull in the class’s energy, Thompson reports, he would insist that everyone get up and do the hokey pokey. “People thought that was hilarious, embarrassing, and silly,” she writes, “allowing them to roll their eyes at him as they twirled around. Perhaps because Maury is a serious scholar, and chose seriously intense books, he could get away with this frivolity, knowing that tenderness is a quality that balances between joy and rage, despair and hope” (35).

Utagawa Hiroshige, Catching Fireflies on the Uji River, from the series Famous Places in the Provinces (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Embodied teaching, of course, is neither easy nor straightforward. Tyrone Simpson, Thompson’s aforementioned colleague, is a “six-foot-one Black man with dreadlocks” who teaches in the “white space” of Simmons College. He can neither deny his body (“I am a walking limb,” he remarks), at the same time that his context requires him “to render invisible his own thoughts and experience of embodiment.” Further, the important feminist work to politicize sexual harassment has been used to render problematic attention to the body in the workplace. Nevertheless, keeping these in mind, there is pedagogic value in recognizing our own embodied ways and those of our students.

Emotional Amplitude

Thompson’s teaching-with-tenderness pedagogy is conscious of the impact of emotions on the learning process. She is a sociologist, not a psychologist, but significant psychological research has confirmed the links between emotions and learning/memory (in both positive and negative directions), and suggested that students’ emotions influence self-regulated learning and motivation, and these, in turn, impact academic achievement. Maury Stein, Thompson’s mentor, argued that it was important for students to develop both their intellectual and their emotional amplitude, and it is a lesson that Thompson uses in her approach to “teaching with tenderness.”

Allowing, let alone welcoming, emotions into class is complex and often fraught. It is difficult both for classes like macroeconomics or statistics, where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself as a “natural” outlet for emotion, as well as in classes whose subject matter foregrounds issues of social justice, particularly, she writes, as “colonialism, militarism, racism, and patriarchy remain structural impediments to tenderness” (15).  Yet the emotional life of students in either context will not be denied. Teachers need to be aware of our students’ anxieties, their feelings of being imposters in intense academic settings, or the emotional turmoil that may undermine their ability to concentrate, even as we know that we will not be privy to the specifics of their emotional states. We need to be conscious of how emotions can be launched by the subject of the class, and of our own role in dealing with the consequences. Thompson describes how she often “back[ed] people against the wall” when teaching about power and privilege, setting people apart from each other. “What I didn’t know early in my teaching,” she writes, “is that creating multiracial communities required finding ways to teach about power and privilege that loosened people up rather than hardened them, that countered defensiveness, that helped people get to a soft place with each other” (36).

Over time, she became more aware of how to deal with student anger and intensity, and the “complicated emotions that surface when examining oppressions, including how they are reproduced in class dynamics” (46). She now addresses these in a variety of ways, often through ritual, reminding students of their shared humanity by repeating part of the “Who Am I” naming procedure in every class, by changing her mid-semester evaluations (students evaluate teacher and course content, and their own participation and work of class as a collective; these are passed out randomly and, protecting student anonymity, students then read aloud their classmate’s commentary), and by introducing more literature into her classes. In this she took a lesson from the Puerto Rican poet, Martín Espada, who realized in his own work that the more horrific an event was that he was writing about, the more beautiful the language needed to be, to “keep the readers’ hearts open as they read.”

Nor are these lessons only for our students. “Teaching with tenderness,” Thompson writes, “involves a promise we make to each other, and a way of living, requiring consistent and radical acts of self-care…Tenderness opens us up to grieving, to ambivalence, to anger, to confusion…not easy feelings for sure.”

Slow Pedagogy

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bridge at Tsurumi, from the series Interesting Rest Stops at Towns Between the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1919), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Teaching with “tenderness” demands that we slow down the pace, helping to pull students out of the frantic rhythms of the news cycle that technology dumps into our laptops, and into more deliberate and contemplative modalities. Practices that slow our students down can help them resist the temptation to jump after every shiny thing that comes across their screens, to focus, and to engage with each other and with the subjects of their study with depth and respect. Holding them in front of a painting in the museum so they can become trained at careful observation, whether for use in their labs or in their daily lives; cultivating the patience they need to read a text closely, whether they are reading the news or a novel: these are practices that can help our students respond to the world around them with resilience and compassion. But above all, teaching with tenderness requires helping our students develop as respectful and active listeners.

“In academic culture,” Mary Rose O’Reilley writes, “we tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument…In society at large, people only listen with an agenda… Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted nonjudgmental reception of the other…By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.”

The same theme is woven through Anna Deavere Smith’s review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel, she writes, which “honors paying attention: seeing, listening, and, finally, singing. The novel inspires me to think that we need new songs, new ways of seeing, new ways of listening.” The importance of fashioning new ways of listening was, for me, the most important lesson of Thompson’s book as I tried to answer the question of how we respond to these continual moments of anger, frustration, sadness, and loss. “In the face of individual and collective deaths,” she writes, “we may not be able to fix anything. The most we can often do is listen.”

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.