Magazine article Times Higher Education

If Silence Is Golden, We Should Invest in It during Seminars: Opinion

Magazine article Times Higher Education

If Silence Is Golden, We Should Invest in It during Seminars: Opinion

Article excerpt

Robert Zaretsky discusses whether sustained and sustaining pauses for thought give space for reflection amid the ellipses.

Driving to campus one day last month, I turned on the car radio - as unthinking a gesture as flipping on the air conditioning in summertime Houston. But as the last movement of Mozart's Jupiter symphony sounded from the speakers, I again punched the button. My reluctance to listen yet again to a hallowed piece of music hollowed out by endless repetition had overridden my resistance to (relative) silence.

And then the thought occurred to me: had I myself become the equivalent of a radio in the classroom? When I confront my students, do I reflexively punch the on button to my professorial self? Is it better to fill the room with the noise of lecturing than to challenge anyone with silence? Are there not moments when, as in the car, I should punch the off button?

Apart from suggestions for keeping unruly students quiet, there seems to be little research into the pedagogical uses of silence, yet almost everyone but teachers seems to be talking about it. In her best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012), Susan Cain quietly praises it, while George Prochnik, in his Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2011), chases after it in Trappist monasteries and scientific laboratories. In the wake of interviews with deaf students and faculty at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, he suggests that silence allows us to see the world, both literally and metaphorically, in new ways.

When I step into a classroom, my students stop their habitual multitasking and fall silent. But it feels like the aural equivalent of the Dead Sea. No life here, I tell myself: no depths to plumb. Hence I banter desperately with them as I take the register. And when I segue to my lecture, the words continue flowing. If a pause follows one of my questions, I answer it myself; when I reach a critical moment and urge my students to "think about it!", I proceed to think about it (aloud) for them.

All of this reflects badly on me as a teacher, but it also reflects a general professorial anxiety regarding silent students. It is rather like when, upon hearing a suspicious clanking in the engine, we turn up the radio's volume to drown it out.

Of course, there might be mechanical difficulties behind the hooded gaze of the student, such as ignorance or indifference, diffidence or doubt. But the workings of reflection and thought also need time to surface.

A pianist once told me that anyone can play notes, but only musicians can play the silences in-between. …

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