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Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students

reviewed by Stephanie Burdick-Shepherd - August 24, 2009

coverTitle: Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students
Author(s): Mary M. Reda
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 079149361X, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
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Mary Reda begins her work, Between Speaking and Silence, with a particular episode from her teaching life that I believe will ring universally true for almost any professor:

Frank writes, Maggie smiles, Alice chews, Steve’s baseball cap bobs. They’ve written; they’ve been physically present; sometimes, they’ve even tried to laugh at my jokes. But not one of them has spoken. Their silence, their sheer determination not to say anything, their presence reproaches me. (p. 1)

Reda immediately draws this reader into her work with this opening sentence. I want to know how she handles the above situation in her own teaching. I am curious to see how she will engage the subjects in her qualitative study to discuss silence (a seemingly paradoxical research proposal)! Moreover, I am drawn into this work because Reda lets the reader know that this is not an empty theoretical exercise for her, this work will make Reda a better teacher, a better professor, perhaps a better researcher. This work has real utility for Reda as a professional. Reda’s work then centers on the problematics of pedagogies of dialogue.

Although Reda discusses dialogue from the vantage point of the composition classroom, her understanding of the pedagogy of dialogue will resonate with many teachers in higher education.  We teach through dialogue to disrupt the power structures that limit our students. We teach through dialogue to engage difference and diversity in our classrooms. We teach through dialogue to make the classroom an experience. We teach, as Reda acknowledges, through dialogue to become great teachers of our subjects.

Thus, silent students, those students who watch, who listen, who take notes, who are awake in our classes but who do not speak challenge any professor who struggles to open up her classroom through dialogue.

Reda does not want to dismantle dialogic practice. One of the strongest aspects of the work is her ability to maintain a strong commitment to dialogical pedagogy while also problematizing it.  She is well versed in the philosophies of Dewey, hooks, and Freire. However, Reda is not content with the practice of dialogue current in the university, for she sees a limitation with the pedagogy that makes her pause. She writes,

In this paradigm, the good student, the student who learns, is the ‘active’ student; active has become synonymous with highly vocal. When our mode of education posits highly vocal students, those quiet students in our classrooms, then, may appear to mark some sort of failure or breakdown of this pedagogy. (p. 6)

For Reda then, we are missing something in our dialogic practice when we ignore the questions that silence brings into our classrooms. Instead of ignoring those painful moments when we ask a question or pose a dilemma to our students and a giant pause of seconds and minutes passes, these are exactly the moments that we should be called to question our teaching practices.

The study begins then with these questions.

How do we know silence? What relationship do we have with silence to what extent do we read our students’ silences as ‘natural’? How is silence consciously or unconscious fostered, and how does this affect our response to it? What do we know about silence beyond the contextual and linguistic associations we have taken for granted? What assumptions do we make, what conclusions do we draw based on the outward appearances of silence? (p. 22)

But Reda does not immediately introduce us to her students. She first moves through an autobiographical narrative outlining the role that silence has played in her life. We see that Reda has not always had the easiest of classroom experiences and the tension between speech and silence weaves throughout her entire academic life—from kindergarten to her doctoral work. This sentence made me pause and reflect upon my own graduate school experience.

How different my college life would have been if I had been able to stand by the conviction that silence can be a valid choice in the classroom, one that does not signify laziness, disengagement, hostility. (p. 61)

Reda reminds us that as students taking those first steps into the professorial life—aspiring to become experts in our fields—we are not always in places where we learn to listen and are listened to.

Having given some autobiographical authority to the questions of silence, Reda does not stop there. This is not a memoir. This is a study of silence. Reda moves throughout the work noting both the literature that encourages dialogical pedagogy and speech and the small amount of literature that looks at questions of silence. She carefully underscores the importance of looking at silence from a critical race, gender, and class perspective. She is adept at recognizing that often students are silenced rather than choosing to be silent.

Thus, the subjects of the study, students at UMASS, are studied both when they are oppressed (because the teacher wants the right answer from them, because of peer pressure, because English is a second language) but also for the times when they choose to be silent. It is these later (and unfortunately more rare) moments that Reda wants to pay the most attention to. Not because the oppressive silence is not important but because non-oppressive silence is both not studied and is not valued.

Reda importantly transcribes many moments of interviews she had with 5 of the students from her study which allows the silent voice into the work in a way that does not overpower her analysis. Instead, the transcriptions serve to highlight, problematize, and move Reda’s work forward.

Reda’s conclusions are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book for they do not ask the teacher to necessarily change practices radically but to be more self-aware of the positive presence of silence in her classroom. She chooses the subtitle of her 7th chapter as that of “reimagining silence” (p. 151). In this chapter she pulls out three important ways to see silence in a new way: silence as an identity chosen by the student, silence as an activity in the classroom, and silence as internal dialogue. However, one cannot simply read chapter 7 as a list of conclusions, the conclusions are really the ends of a long narrative that has been woven throughout the work. This is the best structure because her answers to her questions lead her to recognize that silence itself, in order to be generative and transformative (what she concludes is the value of the choice to be silent) must become a question and have its own presence within the classroom that is recognized by professors and students alike. She also concludes that silence is not dialogue’s opposite but something that is an essential aspect of any dialogue. Silence needs its own book, its own work, it cannot be simply a chapter in a book on dialogue. And this is what Reda has done.

So, although her last chapter briefly makes some recommendations to professors for dealing with dialogue and silence, she is careful to note that dialogical pedagogy which recognizes the value of generative silence is something that must be negotiated by the persons within the community in the time of that community. This may be a frustrating conclusion for practitioners looking for an easy fix to those dreadful pauses in the university classroom, but I think it offers professors looking to become great teachers a utility beyond a set of exercises; it offers an inquiry and a set of questions that just may transform our teaching practice.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15756, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:19:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Stephanie Burdick-Shepherd
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE BURDICK-SHEPHERD is a PhD student in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She teaches Philosophical Orientations to Education at Montclair State University. She co-chaired the Graduate Student Conference of Philosophy and Education 2008. Her research interests include childhood, feminist theory, and the art of writing.
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