Listen More, Talk Less
The academic year begins again—new courses and new collections of students in them. One of the best parts of our profession is this regular opportunity to start over, to begin with a clean slate. And what might make the courses we are about to begin better? I’d vote for listening, probably because I just read a good article about it. Author Ester Schupak (2019) begins with an honest admission: “I continue to struggle to keep my lips firmly pressed together and to assume the stance of the listener and the gentle questioner, to let [students] find their own exploratory path to knowledge” (p. 197).
She writes about “listening rhetoric” as Wayne Booth describes it in The Rhetoric of RHETORIC; Schupak sees it as more a goal than an achievable methodology. It is to “listen without an agenda, to respect the integrity of the text and to be receptive to the discourse of others” (p. 196). It can also be defined by what it is not, and there’s nothing abstract about those behaviors: listening for the purpose of formulating an answer; listening to refute or to reply; listening with the goal of correcting, interrupting, finishing what the other is trying to say; pretending to listen; listening impatiently while wanting to change the subject; hearing but not listening.
Could listening be the most ignored part of teaching and learning? Despite its necessity, it doesn’t feel like a top priority. We’re teachers, the designated experts. We are expected to talk, and boy do we meet those expectations. If only we listened as well as we spoke.
Schupak teaches in Israel, and her students are diverse. They range in age, speak different languages, and are of different religious faiths, believing or not believing strongly in those traditions. She writes that in the beginning of the course her students sit in clumps with their own kind. How can she help them bridge their differences and come together as a classroom community? She starts with explicit instruction in listening, not by telling students it’s important but with readings and time devoted to discussing the role she believes it should play in her composition courses. There’s a focus on concrete, tangible behaviors to avoid and to practice.
Though she works to model what she proposes, Schupak admits, “I’ve discovered that it is much easier to talk about listening rhetoric that it is to personify” (p. 198). She’s guided by a set of ideals; she’s not listening for the “right” answer or a range of “right” answers but seeking to truly understand her students’ words. She avoids pretending to listen. She refrains from interrupting. She doesn’t stop students. She listens with interest. “I do not (yet) embody this ideal myself, and I am honest about that with students. Nevertheless, I make it clear to my classes that listening rhetoric is an important personal goal to me, and that just as they may struggle to achieve this ideal, I will be struggling alongside them” (p. 198).
Where is the listening challenge greatest for teachers and students? Schupak would say discussion. Participation is a performance of sorts—in front of peers, yes, but also before the teacher. Most students who participate want the approval of both, but teachers give points. Students hoping to earn them aggressively seek recognition. Once when I was leading a discussion, a student held up a hastily scribbled note: “Call on me! I’ve got the answer.” It’s speaking that earns points, not silence, even though attentive listening always occurs in silence.
Schupak works to avoid evaluations—even positive ones like “great insight” and “good question.” Verbal kudos encourage some to speak, but they discourage others who don’t believe they have anything “good” or “right” to offer. Her goal is responding “to every comment with an equal degree of respect, addressing the content rather than rating it” (p. 199). That doesn’t mean factually incorrect statements or racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, or other offensive opinions are allowed to stand, but they are corrected gently.
I’ve been trying to do a better job of listening, taking my cue from Maple, my beagle puppy. She’s still got a lot of behaviors to learn, but she knows how to listen. Her hindquarters go down and she cocks her head, fastens her brown eyes on mine, and hears me out. I don’t listen as well to her. Maple communicates with behaviors I don’t understand and don’t always hear, and she takes action if she isn’t heard or understood. Listening to puppies, to students, and to each other is work, but listening motivates learning.
Schupak, E. B. (2019). Listening rhetoric in the diverse classroom: Suggestions for praxis. College Teaching, 67(3), 196–204. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1614899