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Teaching Listening: The Unspoken Element in “Class Participation”

by Mary M. Reda - November 29, 2010

Much contemporary pedagogy has foregrounded speaking and dialogue. In this commentary, a professor who has done extensive research with her “quiet students” considers the need to teach in composition classes after considering her students’ responses to recent local and national events.

I’ve been thinking about silence for a long time now, at least since my years as an undergraduate in the 90s, at a university where “class participation” was a staple (if unexplained) element on course syllabi. As I looked around at my classmates, I was surprised to realize that many seemed to excel, seemingly effortlessly, at raising their hands just the right number of times, with casually insightful comments. 

When I became a college writing instructor, I was deeply conflicted. While I suspected that students might have good reasons for choosing silence—reasons that were rarely discussed in the professional literature that spoke of student resistance, marginalization, and students’ “absence”—I also knew that for courses rooted in feminist and collaborative pedagogies, student dialogue needed to be at the heart of the classes I taught.

After a year-long study of self-proclaimed “quiet students,” I have developed a new understanding of students’ perspectives, ones that are often overlooked in our literature and our own conversations.

Now, several years later, I still find myself frustrated on those days when classroom discussions creak along, when students look anywhere but at me as the silence after a question balloons to seemingly endless proportions, when I scramble to reorganize class plans around my quiet students. I must remind myself that student silence isn’t necessarily the sign of failure.

In recent weeks, I’ve been finding myself thinking about “participation” in another way, one that garners very little attention in our professional discussions about quiet students, in our analyses of the political and social causes of this behavior, and in our strategies for “how to get them talking.” Prompted by a series of events, listening—good listening—has become a recurring subject of conversation in my College Writing class this fall.

First, I shared a campus security alert, one that reminded students to be alert and careful when walking at night, to walk in pairs if possible, to avoid unlit areas. One student remarked, “Really? It’s not like this is anything new. Everybody knows this campus is dark and kinda sketchy at night.” Surprised at this response, I asked if they had brought their concerns to anyone’s attention. “Who would listen to us? Would it really matter if we spoke up?” I suspect my cheerleading efforts did little to encourage them that their voices matter on their campus.

Within a week of this dispiriting exchange, Tyler Clementi’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it haunted the New York-area news. Then, the revelation of at least three other teen suicides—kids who had been the victims of bullying—emerged in places like People magazine and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I arrived in class to hear a few students discussing these deaths. One woman mused, “I wonder why those kids never spoke up about being harassed.” Her classmates’ response was depressingly similar to their conclusion about potentially dangerous campus issues: who was going to listen to them?

Such conversations seemed eerily reminiscent of bell hooks’ (1994) exploration of the experiences of students of color and some women in Teaching to Transgress, asking, “Who speaks? Who listens? And why?” (p. 40).

I found myself puzzling over my students’ perspectives and their sense that no one would listen, a worldview that seemed at odds with the stereotypes of Gen Y-ers as self-assured, even narcissistic. Then Bill O’Reilly appeared on The View, prompting yet another conversation about listening. My students debated O’Reilly’s performance and, more compelling to me, the logic of Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar’s decision to walk off their own show. Some thought it was badly executed; others thought it was a quite reasonable way to protest: if you don’t like what someone’s saying, then just don’t listen.

Ironically, my students were reading articles and writing essays dealing with free speech, hate speech, and political correctness. There were predictable gaps in logic and reasoning in their drafts, and many students fell back on the “It’s-just-my-opinion” defense. It’s not difficult to see how they arrived at this defense.

To what extent does this attitude, one that shapes so much public discourse—from talk radio to presidential debates—infiltrate our students’ attitudes about the classroom and, in the context of a composition classroom, affect their writing?

Then it hit me: what’s between speaking and silence? Among other things, there is listening.

In my research with students, one woman who rarely raised her hand in our small seminar-style class reported that she was far more able to speak up in her large lecture classes: “I can say anything there. It really doesn’t matter; no one’s really listening anyway.”

Certainly I am not the first to argue that we need to teach the discipline of listening. For example, Peter Elbow has argued that reading aloud and listening to one’s own language is a means to improving one’s writing. And in “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,’” Krista Ratcliffe (1999) reminds us that listening, along with reading, writing, and speaking, has been a central component of western rhetorical studies for 2000 years; in current composition pedagogy, listening trails far behind in our imagination as a “trope… for interpretive invention” (p. 195).

So as this Fall semester winds down and I begin thinking about how I will revise my courses for the Spring, I’m left thinking about these questions: how do we teach listening in a structured and meaningful way? More specifically, how can we teach students to listen as academics? How, in courses like College Writing that seem over-burdened already in their mission to teach students critical reading and thinking, college-level writing and research skills, can we find space to add yet one more component? Can we afford not to?

As a starting point to answering these questions, I’ve begun collecting exercises for my comp classes that will integrate listening as a key component: a colleague suggested having students interview each other and use their paraphrasing as a means of teaching appropriate ways to use sources. And numerous scholars have used the metaphor of “conversation” to describe academic discourse. A text like They Say/I Say (Graff & Birkenstein, 2006) provides one kind of practical approach to help students see their own voices in dialogue with others.  

As I assemble this set of practical tools and approaches, I am reminded that we cannot assume that listening is a “natural” skill, anymore than we can assume students will understand the intricacies of APA citation, human anatomy, or differential calculus without our assistance. Because, ultimately, it is not enough to teach students to speak; they—and we—need to listen as well. We need to teach students that someone is listening and ensure that’s true. We need to help students understand that public discourse is not a matter of dismissing and ignoring the voices one doesn’t want to hear; those are the voices that one most needs to listen to. And finally, we must help students understand that being good listeners is not simply a matter of civility, although it is essential for participating in a civilized society. 


Elbow, P. (2000). Everyone can write: Essays toward a hopeful theory of writing and teaching writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2006). They say/ I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: WW Norton & Company.

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

Ratcliffe, K. (1999). “Rhetorical listening: A trope for interpretive invention and a ‘code of cross-cultural conduct.’” College Composition and Communication, 51(2), 195-224.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 29, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16247, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 12:25:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Mary Reda
    The College of Staten Island, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    MARY M. REDA is an Associate Professor of English at CUNY/ The College of Staten Island, where she has served as the Writing Coordinator and the Chair of the English Department. She has published most recently on issues of silence in the college writing classroom, including Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students. At present, she is writing about the use of pop culture in the writing classroom and co-editing (with Dr. Susan Kirtley) a volume of narratives by teachers exploring issues of identity and the academy entitled Composing Identities.
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