A pedagogy of silence

The Quiet Carriage by Callum Baker via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/curiosdusteye/

The Quiet Carriage by Callum Baker via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/curiosdusteye/

On reading Robert Zaretsky’s article in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, I had the horrible sense of creeping realisation. “I do that!” Arrgh! What am I doing wrong/with my life, etc. What was Zaretsky (A professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston and author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning) talking about, well, silence. Not nothing, which I almost typed there, but silence, the presence of absence as Derrida might have it.

Zaretsky asks what is the purpose of incessant talking? He, as I, is an academic, and fears “the silence”. In the seminar or after the question posed in a lecture, a deafening silence. This silence for the academic is scary, one begins to think what am I doing wrong here? Have I baffled them completely? Are they awake? Are they dead‽

This leads to chattering; to the answering ones own question if no answer is forthcoming from the room in a fraction of a second.  He refers to this silence feeling like the “…aural equivalent of the Dead Sea, No life here, I tell myself: no depths to plumb.” However this article is not a critique of the lazy or indifferent student stereotype, it is a critique of the academic. Why can we not just shut the hell up sometimes!

Academics do like to talk it’s true, it’s what we are paid for, it’s what we have chosen to do with our lives. Talk, talk and read, and mark of course. However we perhaps need to remember that we all take time to process new ideas, and (hopefully) the ideas that one as a teacher is imparting to students are new. These ideas need to be given time to filter through, to be processed, the silence may not always be due to unconsciousness (unless its before 10am of course!)

As Zaretsky himself stresses this silence is not the dramatic pause after the controversial or “funny” comment. For although lectures are certainly performances they are not supposed to be emotionally overwhelming all of the time, some degree of security should be provided. Silences can be intimidating for both lecturer and student alike, the desperate need to fill the void takes over, and it becomes an awkward silence. However silences need not be awkward or confrontational, like when in the company of particularly good friend you can be silent with each other and just enjoy the silence of each other company.

So let us treat the ideas expounded upon in the lecture not as great monoliths of knowledge that have the battered in to dust by the stream of words from the lecturer and instantly comprehended by the audience. They are perhaps more akin to the metaphor of the friend, to sat down with and chewed over in quiet contemplation. Of course the luxury of time is something we often lack in our modern white-hot technological age. We are all rushing from one thing to another, one hour in the lecture theatre, which is actually 50minutes, waiting to get in, and making sure you’re out on time. Trying to cram too much stuff into the session, forgetting something important, extemporising for five minutes and losing ones thread, and probably the audience in the process. These are all reasons why the silence doesn’t happen, isn’t available, feasible, possible! But making time for silence seems all the more pertinent given the lack of time for quiet elsewhere in our day.

More silence is called for, less talking and more thinking. So if I shut the hell up once in while in a lecture I’m just giving us all thinking space, I’m not asleep.

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All my posts on this site can also be found on my personal blog at http://aviewfromtheinterior.net

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About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

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