The Sound of One Hand Teaching

On Monday my first-year honors seminar was practically catatonic. I would ask a question and they would stare at their desktops in silence. I tried every teacher gimmick in my big bag-o-gimmicks, but they were having none of it. I could have lit my hair on fire and the students would only have glanced up briefly before retreating into the "I am not talking" fortress of solitude.

I hate when this happens because I depend on them talking to know how well they are grasping what we are reading. If I can hear them making arguments, asking pointed questions, even expressing their frustration, then I know what to do. When there's silence or, worse, when the students and I get into a pissing match and I have to force them to talk, then I've already lost.

I can get pretty desperate, too, like a car salesman with a quiet customer. "What? You don't like the color? I can get it in red? Is red what you want? Maybe you'd like bucket seats. Bucket seats are nice... What? What? What is it you want!" This is never a good place to be with your class. Believe me. Letting them see you are desperate is not good. They are perfectly content just to sit there and watch you die.

So yesterday, Tuesday, I strode into class and began writing on the whiteboard: "I have lost my voice, so you will have to conduct the discussion yourselves today." I put a few ground rules on the board about appointing a discussion leader who needed to call on people, redirect questions and sum up the debate. Of course they knew I was faking, but they played along. For over an hour they explored some rich seams of Paradise Lost. They trotted out their books, pondered the meaning of lines, made arguments, even challenged one another on major idealogical fronts. And all the while I just sat there. About 10 minutes before the end of the period, I announced my miraculous recovery and heaped genuine praise upon them for how wonderful they were.

I have always been a Chatty Cathy; it's part of my style. I explore ideas with words and often start sentences that I don't know how to end. Sometimes the students like that. They often remark on my class evaluations that they never really understand it until they get to class and hear me talk about it. That's flattering, of course, but I can't help thinking that I need to put more silence into my teaching. I remember reading about some great Japanese poet’s attempt to write about a mountain. He merely sighed the mountain’s name and then stopped. There it was, though. He got it right by at least not putting it wrong.

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