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Sounds of Silence Breaking: Women, Autobiography, Curriculum

reviewed by Nina Asher - August 16, 2006

coverTitle: Sounds of Silence Breaking: Women, Autobiography, Curriculum
Author(s): Janet L. Miller
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820461571, Pages: 328, Year: 2005
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Janet Miller’s book, Sounds of silence breaking: Women, autobiography, curriculum, is a must read for any scholar in the curriculum field today for several reasons: First, because it provides a nuanced and detailed history of the field, refracted through the three decades’ worth of experience Professor Miller has garnered as a curriculum worker as a result of her insistently self-reflexive eye; secondly, because it realizes the concept of praxis as Miller works rigorously and recursively to bring theory, practice, research, and writing together to inform and interrogate each other; and lastly, because it serves as an example of the kind of risk taking that is critical for crafting an “engaged pedagogy” (hooks, 1994). Miller not only writes as a “scholar,” a “researcher,” a “curriculum worker,” and a “teacher,” but also squarely locates herself as a person, a friend, a woman who is white, middle class, and in a relationship with another woman. In other words, Miller is not only writing about autobiography and curriculum, she is doing autobiography, between and across all these dimensions. It is this personal voice that synthesizes the book and breaks the silence around the differences, contradictions, and struggles that all of us confront as we actually do curriculum work and generate the seemingly flawless, smooth, polished essays required to succeed in the publications market. In the paragraphs that follow, I present first an overview of the organization of Sounds of silence, and then offer specific examples as I elaborate on the above analyses.

Sounds of silence, a collection of Miller’s earlier writings, is anything but linear in its organization even as it moves from the past to the present. Miller has re-narrativized and juxtaposed her essays to draw out her manifold voices and locations as they have evolved over the decades. In its recursive unfolding it travels from the inner/personal to the outer/professional and also achieves that delicate balance of working (at) the fine edge where the two meet. The four major sections (Curriculum, Autobiography; Women Autobiography; Teachers, Difference, Collaboration; and Autobiography, Curriculum) are each comprised of several chapters, interspersed with brief “interludes,” which serve as signposts and passages of transition. The 16 chapters and 12 included interludes (along with a thoughtful, detailed preface by series editor, William Pinar, an introduction, and a coda) together provide both a retrospective and a “future-spective” of the curriculum studies field. They engage issues of generationality and gender (particularly, feminism and queerness), seeking and identifying new directions in the field 30 years ago and today, collaboration and inquiry, and commitment to both theory and practice. Given that this painstakingly footnoted and referenced collection maps the evolution of the field over three decades, it is not surprising that details in the various chapters occasionally overlap and cross-reference each other.

Miller’s committed, self-aware focus on re-telling, engaging excessive moments, and attending to in-betweenness are some of the recurrent themes that make the Sounds of silence such a powerful and thought-provoking book. For instance, she writes, in Interlude 1 (“Hermeneutical portraits: The human histories,” originally authored in 1996):

…[T]he reconceptualization was about understanding curriculum as intersections of the political, the historical, and the autobiographical. Thus, ideas presented and issues wrestled with at Bergamo did not just spew forth from ahistorical, de-contextualized talking heads, but rather emanated from actual persons working (differently) within particular historical moments in US education. Even as our theoretical perspectives differed, as did we ourselves, we seemed to share, at the minimum, a deep commitment to moving the curriculum field from a technical and prescriptive emphasis on content design and development to a focus on understanding the nature of educational experience, broadly defined. (p. 19)

This passage also conveys a sense of a grassroots movement and struggle in which Miller invested herself, professionally and personally. When she talks later in the book (p. 36) about waiting on the lawn of the Airlie Conference Center (near Washington D.C.) in 1979 to receive participants arriving for the reconceptual conference—a landmark because it was the first one officially sponsored by the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing (JCT)—she once again brings alive the sense of purpose she and other (now well-known) curricularists brought to rethinking the field. Since then, the JCT conference, which has come to be widely known as the “Bergamo Conference” (because it has met for the most part—and even today continues to meet—at the Bergamo Conference Center, in Dayton, Ohio), has become legend. But Miller is not complacent; she continues to question, interrogate, re-turn, rethink, re-tell. In Chapter 13 (“What’s left in the field…A curriculum memoir,” originally authored in 2000) she acknowledges, with characteristic candor, that although in the early years she was “unwelcoming of conflict, any kind of conflict in the field” (p. 206), she has come to recognize that conflict can be a “productive element in the field” when we understand that “multiple perspectives can be held in productive tension with one another” (p. 207). Indeed she argues that the “riotous array of theoretical stances”—such as phenomenological, feminist, psychoanalytic, postmodern, cultural studies, and advocacy-oriented—on which the curriculum field draws, “challenge any construction of curriculum that ignores its psycho-social, historical, political, economic, cultural and discursive dimensions” (p. 207); furthermore, these frameworks can offer us new opportunities for dialogue across difference and rethink technocratic approaches to curriculum.

We see this same recursive interrogation of both the professional and the personal as Miller examines her work and positionality as a researcher collaborating with schoolteachers and as a scholar working with friends, including her partner. For instance, in Chapter 10 (“Teachers, autobiography, and curriculum: Critical and feminist perspectives,” originally authored in 1992), she articulates a nuanced and uncompromisingly rigorous self-reflexive analysis of how she, the university professor, and her collaborators, a group of five K-12 teachers, negotiated issues of voice, power, and representation as researchers and educators. She notes:

Working together now for six years, we have begun to challenge power relationships and totalizing discourses that often characterize even inquiry that supposes to be collaborative and reciprocal…we have come to understand that “finding” our own voices as teachers, and creating spaces for collaborative and critical inquiries about schooling are never definitive, boundaried events but rather ongoing, constantly changing, contradictory and complex. (p. 159)

Similarly, in Chapter 8 (“Excessive moments and educational discourses that try to contain them,” originally authored in 1996), Miller and co-authors, her friend Mimi Orner, and her partner Elizabeth Ellsworth, break the silence around such constructs as “pedagogy,” “writing,” and “research” that work to contain themselves as bounded, discrete categories. As they make the case for engaging “excessive moments,” which occur between these dimensions, they also interrogate the binary thinking that shapes discourses of race, sexuality, women’s studies, and so on.

As I mentioned earlier, Sounds of silence also addresses issues of generationality and gender. I discuss this last because it is, in my view, the richest, most generative of the themes that stitch this collection together. Chapter 3 (“The sound of silence breaking: Feminist pedagogy and curriculum theory,” originally authored in 1981) exemplifies these themes, as Miller weaves skillfully between and across autobiography, feminism, gender, curriculum reconceptualizing, theory, teaching, and research. She writes with characteristic, uncompromising candor:

I have attempted to break my own silences; I have voiced my concerns about the subordinated roles of women in K-12 and higher education and have questioned oppressed forms of “educational consciousness” that characterize many women who choose teaching as a profession. I especially have questioned ways in which I transferred socially constructed expectations of myself as a woman into my role as teacher. (p. 61)

She also relates this autobiographical inquiry to the curriculum field when she writes, “Similarly, curriculum theorizing in the United States recently has refused to pass on its ‘received heritage’—a heritage that framed curriculum as an administrative designation…” (p. 62). Miller continues to develop her analysis and synthesis of these issues in the next chapter (“The resistance of women academics: An autobiographical account,” originally authored in 1983). For instance, she writes:

As a high school teacher for seven years, married to an industrial engineer, I had experienced acceptance and encouragement for my teaching career. I was not in any way prepared for murmurs that followed my divorce, the completion of my doctoral work, and the beginning of my career as a university professor. Sighed one of my elderly colleagues at the university…who welcomed me into the male-dominated department: “Well at least you’ve been married.” (p. 70)

This straightforward, eloquent passage conveys, simply and powerfully, the sustained effort that Miller has dedicated to breaking the sounds of the many silences that work to contain self and other, curriculum and pedagogy. Writing at the end of three decades of work, Miller commits herself anew to the struggle, facing the ambiguities and challenges of engaging “The necessary worldliness of American curriculum studies” (Chapter 16, originally authored in 2003) today. The words she first wrote in 1983, she affirms in 2005:

I still float. … The new ways of knowing can be strange, alien, and frightening. The vision is gaining substance, however. As academic women continue to work to understand ways in which we might resist the infiltration, in our minds and hearts, of oppressive conceptions of our (dis)ability and (un)desirability of action, we can continue to move toward truly becoming knowers in our world. (p. 76)

Perhaps curriculum workers can follow Miller’s example and, with fortitude, break the silences over and over again as we struggle to engage—rather than deny or contain—the newnesses that digitization and increasing global interdependence are bringing to the very doors of our homes and schools, within and beyond the United States.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12670, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:50:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Nina Asher
    Louisiana State University
    E-mail Author
    NINA ASHER, Ed.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Practice, at Louisiana State University (LSU). She is also on the Women’s and Gender Studies faculty and an affiliate of the Curriculum Theory Project at LSU. She has published in the areas of postcolonial and feminist theory in education, multiculturalism, and Asian American education. Her work has appeared in several edited volumes and such journals as the Teachers College Record, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Theory and Research in Social Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Urban Education.
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