In Praise of Quiet

By Mitch Nakaue, The University of Iowa.

As a deeply introverted person, I’ve always been interested in the power of writing center work to incite talk.  As a graduate student at UW–Madison, I learned to cultivate an expressive and even outgoing classroom teaching persona, but found myself much less drained by one-to-one discussions with students.  Writing center teaching, which I began in 2004, capitalized on my preferred mode of interaction: focused and detailed exchanges with one person.  And to my surprise, writing center teaching wasn’t draining; in fact, it produced a buzz.  I think many of us are familiar with the buzz — the euphoria we feel when the thirty or sixty minutes fly by in a whirlwind of student and tutor collaboration on the development or revision of a piece of writing.  Indeed, we might even gauge the success of a tutoring session by how much was said.  We talked the whole time!

How might we understand quietness differently?  Kathryn SanGregory, 2013.  Used by permission.

How might we understand quietness differently? Kathryn SanGregory, 2013. Used by permission.

In my current position as the assistant director of the Writing Center at The University of Iowa, most of the tutoring I do is conducted asynchronously and online, and I relish the relatively rare opportunities I have to tutor face-to-face.  Despite my introverted tendencies, I have to admit: sometimes it’s nice to say something with my actual mouth, and have someone else reply.

Although I often tutor writers who face particularly difficult obstacles, I wasn’t prepared when, last summer, I worked face-to-face with a student who confounded many of my ideas about the role of discussion in the writing tutorial.  K was a humanities graduate student who had sought out the writing center because she suffered from chronic overwriting, producing eighty pages, for example, when only fifteen were required.  She came to the center late in the afternoons after we were officially closed because the voices of other student-tutor pairs overstimulated and distracted her.  After a session or two, I could see why: she needed quiet.

K was entirely personable and had no trouble explaining her disciplinary requirements and her writing process, but when it came to discussing specific concepts she was writing about, she grew intensely quiet, sometimes for significant periods.  Sometimes we would sit still for five or more minutes, which can feel like a very long time, especially because we would stare at each other, never breaking eye contact.  On more than one occasion someone wandered into the room and, finding us this way, backed out, startled and disconcerted.

Finally, K would start talking, articulating her argument in precise, almost prose-like diction.  She explained that while she could mentally visualize the entirety of the paper she intended to write, it took considerable effort to present her ideas discursively.  She liked having an interlocutor, but couldn’t bear being rushed to talk through her thoughts or speak at all before she was ready.  She liked the eye contact because it reassured her I wasn’t embarrassed by her silence.  Oh no, I remember saying.  I’m good with quiet, as long as you are. Yet, in the weeks and now months that followed, I found myself wondering to what extent that was true.

On the one hand, K was directing the tutorial by instructing me that she needed quiet in order to translate into language thoughts that existed in what she called shapes and forms; on the other hand, it was difficult for me to reconcile her stated need for silence with what I had learned from experience, from anecdote, from reading: that the hallmark of a good tutoring session was sustained discussion about the writer’s text.  But because K did not have any texts (her inability to write anything to her satisfaction was, after all, why she was there in the first place), a lot of what we did together involved sharing silence.  Since we were generally alone, only rarely did anyone else notice or witness this; however, every time we were “caught” not talking made me aware of the profound anxiety that writing center tutors face when confronted with students who won’t or can’t express themselves verbally, an anxiety that is aired, often at some length, on list serves, at informal and professional symposia and conferences, and in tutor training scenarios, in which students who don’t talk are categorized as problematic and disruptive to the discursive collaboration that grounds writing center pedagogy.

Thinking, speaking, and writing have all been established as primarily social activities.  Mitch Nakaue, 2012.

Thinking, speaking, and writing have all been established as primarily social activities. Mitch Nakaue, 2012.

Indeed, speaking, which is to say giving voice to the text on a printed page or laptop screen or being willing to prefigure verbally writing that has not yet been produced, is codified in each stage of the writing tutorial.  Students are encouraged to read their drafts out loud, engage in Socratic dialogue that, ideally, will enable them to assess the draft’s strengths and weaknesses and arrive at strategies for revision, and, in the closing of the tutorial itself, they are asked to recapitulate the preceding events in order to solidify the steps they will take to execute the revision.  If talk is the standard currency and the product of the tutorial, it is also the price of admission.  Students who can’t or won’t talk destabilize the tutorial to its core and disrupt its primary purpose.  On more than a few occasions I have heard tutors complain, I don’t know why she even made an appointment if she didn’t want to talk. I’ve probably said it myself.

It seems to me that our anxiety over student silence and our characterization of quiet students as “difficult” stem from a long association between talk and thinking.  In other words: spoken words are the outward sign of interior reflection on and engagement with intellectual problems.  Indeed, the notion that speech is the natural organ for expressing thought has roots that go back at least as far as Plato, as does the idea that speech is anterior to writing.  A couple of millennia later, we can see evidence that these assumptions have become universalized in the context of education.  Heejun Kim argues that the field of education has characterized talking as a positive act because it expresses the individual and because it is associated with thinking, noting that “it is assumed that the close relationship between talking and thinking is true for everyone, and the same positive meaning of talking should be shared by everyone” (828).

In our field specifically, the association between thinking and talking is deeply engrained.  For example, in what is probably the most-read article on writing center tutoring, Kenneth Bruffee does not characterize talk as evidence of thinking, but rather, thought is “internalized public and social talk” (641), which, in a sense, figures speech as anterior to thinking.  Bruffee follows, “If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized” (641).  Similarly, Melanie Sperling contends that “acquiring and developing written language . . . is learning to speak, a fundamentally social activity, embedded in interactions with . . . others” (281).

If, here, I’m giving the impression that I am working myself up to a denunciation of speaking or a wholesale repudiation of the educational assumptions I have outlined above, I hate to disappoint, but I’m not going to.  In many ways, I am invested in the idea that thinking, speaking, and writing are interconnected and that discursive clarity can reflect substantial effort in the internal working through of an intellectual issue.  I do feel an urge to raise caution, however: in our enthusiasm and willingness to embrace the assumptions about the positive relationships we see between talking and thinking (and talking and writing), we should not rush to interpret a lack of talking as a lack of thinking.

If we go back to my student K, I doubt that even a casual observer would interpret her silence as nothing going on in her head.  Though she displayed little affect when she was focusing on her work, she otherwise presented herself as sensitive and cerebral, and in the course of our time together, she revealed herself as a capable and well-liked teacher who had won several prestigious fellowships and who had a degree in neuroscience.  Most importantly, when she did verbalize her ideas, they were as complex as the syntax she employed.  Clearly, K was no slouch.  But, despite her proven capability, her difficulties with expression — both verbal and written — were hampering her progress in her degree program, and giving rise to feelings of insufficiency as she struggled in a departmental climate that prized discursive facility and, to some extent, combativeness.  If K’s need for quiet and her difficulty with speech produced such deleterious effects on her sense that she belonged within the academic community, I can only imagine the experience of students with less experience, fewer successes, or who are marked in other ways that could, when coupled with quietness, lead them to be dismissed by their teachers and peers as disengaged or unintelligent.

Quietness, then, should be given careful consideration in the academy at large and in the writing center.  I’d even suggest that it’s necessary to be attentive to the silence or monosyllabic utterances of students who are clearly engaged in performed helplessness or acts of self preservation or defensiveness, as challenging as it can be to interact with them in a writing tutorial, dependent as it is on linguistic give and take.  As Laurel Johnson Black notes in her study of student-teacher conferences, students may use silence in order to efface personal qualities they perceive as deficiencies (she provides an anecdote of her own self-consciousness of her working-class background as an example), or, possibly, because they are used to learning in such over-determined contexts that statements like “I don’t know” are the only ones they can utter without being challenged or refuted (24).  The point here is that while silence or recalcitrance certainly can express a generalized or misdirected anger or other issue beyond the purview of the tutor or the tutorial, it cannot always be interpreted as such.

Writing centers can acknowledge that for some, quiet is vital for learning.  Mitch Nakaue, 2011.

Writing centers can acknowledge that for some, quiet is vital for learning. Mitch Nakaue, 2011.

Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind that the assumption that learning and thinking are facilitated through speech is, in fact, an assumption.  Kim points out that “the meaning of students’ silence can be the engagement in thoughts, not the absence of ideas” (840), noting that cultural differences or personal learning styles can cause students to seek knowledge in a variety of ways.  In the tutorial, students can be confronted with so much information that they require space to absorb it, which can be more difficult for some if they are simultaneously required to talk it out.  Studies in foreign language acquisition have found that it is not uncommon for new language learners to enter what is called a “silent period,” in which all of their cognitive energies are devoted to listening and comprehending, not producing utterances in the target language.  Notably, one study posited that “inner-directed learners,” who are prone to perceiving language learning as an intrapersonal task and thus focus on mastering the codes of the new language, are more likely to enter a silent period because they are less concerned with using the language as a tool of social communication (Krupa-Kwiatkowski 135).  Like K, such learners, when they do begin to speak, often do so in complex ways, demonstrating that their silence does not put them at a disadvantage with their more outwardly-directed counterparts.

If we stop to consider it, learning how to navigate the writing center tutorial is somewhat like learning a new language, although a better analogy might be finding oneself, quite suddenly, in a foreign land that bears some resemblance to one’s home country, but with different social rules and vernaculars.  Black states that “a conference is a web of ideas, beliefs, and values — a community shaped by its values and the knowledge it holds to be truth” (47), which might be obvious; however, as tutors, we can all too easily forget that for the first-time writing center student, the tutorial can be disorienting as it presents vocabulary, practices, and attitudes the student may never have encountered before.  While it’s standard practice to explain the trajectory of the tutorial at the beginning of a session, such an explanation does not guarantee that the student will understand or accept it, or that he or she, even if willing, will be able to respond quickly or at all.  Because of time constraints and the tutor’s agenda, students who need quiet processing time may feel compelled to offer brief responses for the sake of responding, default to “I don’t know,” or say nothing.

In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that time constraints and other exigencies aren’t real, or that tutors should pitch their agendas, or — worst of all — that students should be allowed to struggle in silence if silence isn’t what they require to learn.  What I am saying is that while many students flourish in sessions that are heavily invested in talk, the success of other students requires space for quietness; additionally, even enthusiastic and talkative students could likely benefit from a few moments in which to engage in interior reflection.  While I’d never want to see writing centers adopt the ethos of the mortuary, I wouldn’t mind if they were known as sites of contemplation as well as talk, and as spaces where quietness is embraced with charity and patience.

I hope that you will respond to something I’ve written here; I’d like to know your thoughts.  But it’s okay if you need some time before you do.  I’m good with quiet, as long as you are.

Works Cited

Black, Laurel Johnson.  Between Talk and Teaching: Reconsidering the Writing Conference.  Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998.

Bruffee, Kenneth.  “Collaboration and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.'” College English 46 (1984): 635-652.

Kim, Heejun.  “We Talk, Therefore We Think?  A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83.4 (2002): 828-842.

Krupa-Kwiatkowski, Magdalena.  “‘You Shouldn’t Have Brought Me Here!’: Interaction Strategies in the Silent Period of an Inner-Directed Second Language Learner.”  Research on Language and Social Interaction 31.2 (1998): 133-175.

Sperling, Melanie.  “I Want to Talk to Each of You: Collaboration and the Teacher-Student Writing Conference.”  Research in the Teaching of English 24.3 (1990): 279-321.

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