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.

20 thoughts on “In Praise of Quiet

  1. This is a timely post, because I’ve just had to pour oil on troubled waters following a session where a very talkative writing assistant worked with a very quiet student. From what I gathered, the WA read the writer’s silence as disinterest, and opted to shift his strategy from his earlier chattiness to an “I’ll wait you out” approach. The writer, for his part, read the move to quiet as a sign that the WA had checked out. Rather than the productive silence you shared with K, the WA and student descended into a sullen silence. Rather than turning inward to find words, the writer apparently circled back into himself and focused on the events of the session. Both sides ended up writing me to talk about how the other was a jerk. Yes, some jerkiness was there, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not more of an example of your point about how we interpret silence.

    I’m fairly introverted (as is the WA), but I think both of us tend to deal with our anxiety about silence by filling the space with talking. There’s noise, but it some ways, it’s just more silence, since we’re really not communicating, we’re just yammering. I actually really admire your ability to be silent with another person–it’s a skill/gift/talent that I would like to work on. I worry, especially when working with some of our quieter students and our English language learners, who are often hesitant to speak due to nervousness about correctness, that I talk over them. I think my goal, as WA and director, is to figure out a way to help move the center to “site[] of contemplation as well as talk, and [a] space[] where quietness is embraced with charity and patience” (love that phrasing!)

    On a scholarship note, have you read “Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts,” the recent-ish collection edited by Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe? I haven’t had the chance, but there’s a lot of really interesting people in the TOC.

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that the value of silence in the tutoring session is not given due credit. Even in my short time as a writing tutor, I have encountered students who need those several minutes of introspection to really get familiar with a new concept – time to reset their internal writing compass, so to speak. Thank you for posting this!

  3. Mitch, I’m glad you brought up the nature of silence and how important it can and should be in sessions. As an extrovert slowly adopting more introverted tendencies, I have become increasingly aware of how powerful and restorative silence and meditation can be in the writing center.

    I agree that when people look into a center, they expect to hear lots of chatter and noise, and the assumption is that learning is taking place. However, depending on a student’s writing process, verbally engaging with others might not have its place in how that student learns. Writing center sessions might not seem to be a lot of “work” to seasoned writers, but to students who are trying to discover their own writing process while also learning how to generate thoughts and then articulate them in a way that adheres to the demands and conventions of the discipline, there can be A LOT that goes on in a session (and I even left out some features!).

    Giving students that downtime to actually think about how the discussion fits into their existing schema and then to internalize what all that means to them should take time, and writing tutors have to be aware that lots of talk does not always mean the session was successful—sometimes the opposite is true, even. All writing tutors have an obligation to observe what the student needs at the time and then adjust accordingly, which is, obviously, easier said than done.

    However, I think of a lot of talk happens in the centers because tutors can become addicted to the high of a session that has a lot of tutor-student talk and interaction. I, for one, am definitely guilty of that. My writing and learning process has a social component to it, which means that I need to talk to others about my ideas, but in the last few years, I realized that just because it’s part of my process doesn’t mean that should be part of someone else’s.

    In conjunction with discussing with my peer tutors about student silence and wait time in sessions, I talk to them about the importance of silence for themselves as writing tutors. They, too, need that time to slow down and think in sessions; it’s their turn to ponder and internalize what the students are saying to them, and they should take time to consider what to say in return. Besides, people get tired when they talk for extended periods of time.

    I can also see that writing center admins and tutors can embody the spirit of quiet by just slowing down the talk in sessions and centers. We don’t need to rush, we don’t need to hurry through, we don’t need to cover EVERYTHING. We can slow down and take the pacing down a notch. We can embrace—and enjoy—both the quiet and the buzz.

  4. This is really interesting, Mitch.

    I’ve never had such an experience myself, but it definitely raises some fascinating issues.

    As a tutee, or at least someone on the more receiving end of a conversation about ways to improve my work, my greatest anxiety has always been talk-related. During a conference, I always find myself incredibly stimulated, full of ideas about how to work with my writing and, to use some of K’s formulations, visualizing all kinds of potential new or shifted shapes and forms for whatever it is that I want to achieve. Tutor talk, for me, has always been productive and exciting. And yet, when I would return home, rejuvenated from feedback and ready to re-enter my word document again, often re-armed with a fresh perspective and all kinds of new or at least loosened ideas, I inevitably hit moments of terror and loss—-but what we said was so GOOD, I will find myself crying, or, but we worked this out, and it was WONDERFUL…and now it has faded and gone. True, this doesn’t always happen, or can happen to greater or lesser degrees, but the fact remains that, for me, the talk, however generative and amazing, doesn’t always lead to the writing that it should (or the writing that, in the moment of the talk, it seems it so very very easily and fluidly could).

    As a tutor, I sometimes hold a similar anxiety: after talking with a tutee and working out something very complicated—a new thesis, a complicated elaboration on the implications of an argumentative point, etc—-I have found myself thinking, wow, that was great, look at the work we just accomplished together…..and then feeling a certain anxiety when I recognize that it was all done in talk. Will it get translated to the page? And if so, will that transference work well, will it be a struggle for my tutee? We all know we can’t control what happens when a student leaves a session, and often might not ever know what becomes of the product, or sometimes even that writer, but as these questions lurk in the back of my mind, I often then find myself prompting: ‘yeah, that should work really well here, do you want to try writing that down?’ in an attempt to ensure that all this talk makes the leap into an actualization of the ideas it represents.

    As a tutee, I would leap at that chance to cement a breakthrough moment of glory, and to record my help for posterity (and prosperity), but as a tutor, I’ve been amazed at the variety of responses. Some students are happy to work it out with a pencil after significant verbalization and dialogue; some students choose to only make a few notes or jot some cryptic keywords that, I assume, they feel comfortable fleshing out later; and some simply sit back and say, ‘nope, I’m good’ with pleased if tired smiles.

    As someone who never liked speaking up in a classroom setting, which I, too, always understood as something deeply problematic about my ability to display my ability to think, I’ve often wondered about the value and place of talk as academic currency, and I think your discussion does a really nice job of complexly treating the work of not only talk, but also silence, for the learning process, especially for those students whose first instinct is not to immediately verbalize, or at least not to verbalize clearly.

    In particular, I think this discussion has a lot of really interesting implications for our work as online tutors.

    So much of the literature about AOT has to do with an anxiety of being faceless—here, your blog is pushing me to think more about voicelessness.

    The line that sticks out most for me is this:
    “If talk is the standard currency and the product of the tutorial, it is also the price of admission.”
    This seems very true when we consider our traditional practice, since, as you say, what we learn from experience, from anecdote, and from reading, is that the hallmark of a good tutoring session is a sustained discussion about the writer’s text. However, online, as we often lament, the kind of talk we so often employ and expect simply cannot take place. It’s a different arena entirely, a different rhetorical situation where this precept can go out the window. This lack of dialogue is often viewed as a significant downfall of online tutoring when compared to f2f, but a student like K seems ideally suited to an exchange that would, effectively, circumvent the need to give voice to one’s text. As we so often say, online, the text must speak for itself. And this, while potentially a negative, is something that, in this case, seems to emerge more and more strongly as a potential positive. Being forced to think about writing IN WRITING rather than through talk may only benefit the articulation and clarity of that writing. I’d be fascinated to know if K ever tried online tutoring, and if she found it helpful to her particular process or not.

    In any case, this certainly makes us think about what and who our traditional practices privilege.

    Cassandra Bausman

  5. As a tutor, I tend to have a very verbal style; I like to talk to my students, I like to discuss options with them, and I want to engage with them in dialogue and debate. My upbringing led me to this style, and it’s often hard for me to avoid. Some students respond well to this and some do not, and it is incumbent upon me to ensure that I pay close attention to what an individual responds well to and what is less helpful. Your discussion here on the value of silence and quiet is fascinating to me on a number of levels, but I’ll keep this relatively brief and look at just two: the tutor/student match and perhaps an ethics of availability.

    Thinking about tutor style and student needs spurs questions of “fit” in any given pairing, and though I doubt there is any truly effective digital way to establish a mesh-able set of tutor characteristics and student learning styles, I’d imagine that in a long-running center the administrators become aware of their tutors’ identities and styles, and, when faced with a student that may need a specific kind of tutor, can work to ensure that the best help is available. Even if this is not something that can be automated, perhaps it should be discussed more openly. One of my longest-term students began working with me at the behest of another tutor who saw the way I interacted with my students and wanted to make sure her student was transferred to someone similar to her before she left graduate school. This kind of thing happens, and perhaps we might try to consider it more actively.

    That leads me to what we might think of as an ethics of availability, perhaps borrowing heavily from Levinas, in which we as tutors might see our interactions with our students in terms of what we can give to them and what they need. Your experience with K is one wherein you discovered her needs and were capable of meeting them–not to mention willing to try. You were available to the student’s situation, which led to a far more rewarding relationship than sticking to the traditional model might have produced. We might not be able to expect all tutors to be capable of meeting the needs of every student, but we might equally ask tutors to consider what their students needs and what they are capable of providing themselves. These might be confined by all kinds of issues, from department policy to personal safety and comfort, but opening the discussion seems both necessary and wise.

    The paradox here is that some kind of dialogue is needed to establish the level and kind of dialogue that would be best, and I’ve no answers for that. But tutoring isn’t supposed to be perfect, and working with our students to learn what they need–especially if it’s a moment to think–seems a vital part of tutoring as a practice.

  6. This past week, I had the pleasure of evaluating a fellow tutor in the drop-in writing center where I work. When I found it difficult to describe this tutor’s extremely gentle and empathetic manner, I simply wrote: “X is a wonderful addition to our team because we tend to have louder, more boisterous tutors in the writing center.” Counting myself among the “boisterous,” I wondered: How can I welcome and better meet the needs of our less talkative students? Has our entire writing center staff self-selected so we’re all Chatty Cathys expecting constant conversation?

    Then, I recognized a familiar tune in the discussion of your tutee, K. I have a one-on-one writing appointment with a similar student, L. While L appreciates a lengthy pause before responding to a question, I estimate that I don’t typically wait more than a minute or two for L’s response. However, when L returns to the conversation, I have my pencil poised because I know that a perfectly crafted sentence is waiting at the other end of that silence. Eyes shut tight, sometimes L will even ask me to repeat my question mid-pause before, as I say in my typical rowdy inelegance, L “spits gold!”

    In this scenario, I know that L is one of our students with disabilities, but I also know that L has learning preferences contrasting my conversational style. Formerly, I assumed students who prefer quiet would tend to use online tutoring instead of f2f options, but what about students who prefer a quieter, different-paced f2f conversation? I think cultivating an environment conducive to quiet is difficult due to the nature of the drop-in center where I work: hustle, bustle, hellos, goodbyes, panics, sighs – our center has a certain level of continuous commotion that may not be inviting for some writers. We may have talkative tutors, but our environment may also encourage us to hurry, talk, and hope tutees reach a concrete “next step” in their writing before we can jump to work with the next person.

    Here’s the most interesting point for me: as I return to a formal learning setting after a three-year hiatus, I find that I hesitate to – gasp! – talk or respond. Formulating a verbal or written response quickly is increasingly troublesome for me. Part of it is lack of confidence – I haven’t been here for a while and there are so many thoughtful responses emanating from my more talkative colleagues that I can’t find my footing in the conversation (similar to Black’s argument).

    The other part? I’m sick having to respond so quickly to everything in my work and private life. I have the ability to be connected every hour of every day to my colleagues and friends. Yes, I am a “digital native,” but I have become an immigrant “mole person,” burrowing into the grace of solitude so I can think quietly before I speak or write. Unfortunately, because I associate “quiet” time with solitude, I never considered that there might be a fellow mole person next to me. In our quiet space, this person could help me articulate my thoughts and challenge my assumptions as you have done with your tutees.

    Perhaps the tutees of the drop-in center would also appreciate some quiet before and during our conservations about assignments. Perhaps, as Rachel Holtz mentioned, my questioning techniques would be more effective if I left myself more open space to develop my thoughts. Thank you, Mitch, for helping me realize that the level of comprehension and organization I assumed could only occur in ISOLATION really can occur anywhere there is…

    (chirp chirp) quiet, and that having someone nearby when you emerge from the silence can be invaluable to helping you grow as a speaker and writer.

  7. Mitch, what you’re saying here is interesting to consider alongside of the conversations we often have about class discussion, puzzling over the best approach to students who won’t “participate” in our composition classes. Rebecca, I’m intrigued by your confession of being sick of having to respond immediately and all the time, in private, academic, and professional settings. I feel the same way! –And at the same time I see that I may be part of the problem, for my students. As a teacher, of course I’m always looking for ways to facilitate active participation–and ways to assess it fairly—while respecting students’ different interaction styles. But I also try to keep the students busy, to make as much happen as possible during our precious 50 minutes. Now I’m wondering what can be done to allow more time to think in the classroom, where I have some control over the pace and the noise level. I wonder whether I’m giving the opportunities that some students may need for quiet in the classroom. Can there be—should there be?—silence, space for thought, in a classroom setting? Can an in-class writing assignment be the same thing as allowing space? The room is quiet, but students are expected to be busy responding. Hmmm. Maybe the way I assess ICWs, and the expectations I set for them, could work to open up space for quiet reflection more effectively than they do now. I tend to get excited by the responses that show that a student lit up and scribbled madly for the whole 8 minutes. And, on the other hand, I tend to think that something’s gone wrong when a student produces only a couple of lines. I’d like to do a better job keeping in mind that the ICW should be a processing activity, and not a race to produce a great product. Thanks, all, for the thought-provoking post and comments!

  8. Very thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post, Mitch!

    And your insights come at the right time for this here teacher of writing.

    Just yesterday in class, I ranted and raved for a bit about my students’ lack of regular, active participation–understood here as simply talking in class (questions, comments, etc). I’m teaching one of the quietest classes I’ve worked with in a long time, and it is, quite frankly, not only unnerving but also annoying at times. However, after reading your thoughts, I realize that I am undoubtedly guilty of what you caution against here: “We should not rush to interpret a lack of talking as a lack of thinking.”

    I fear I have done just that. Certainly, some of the quiet students in class are quiet because they’re bored, they’re not as engaged as they should be (or, as I would like them to be), etc. However, it’s crucial for me to remember that some to many of the quiet students are still actively engaged in what’s going on. Their lack of talking, in other words, does not equal a lack of thinking.

    Thanks for this fine piece.

  9. Wonderful essay that makes *such* important points.

    I’ve been teaching for many years in writing classrooms and writing centers. For most of that time, I operated under the assumption that the best class was the most visibly (and auditorily) active—students jumping into conversations, taking over one another, debating loudly and demonstrably. In the same way, I assumed the best writing center sessions were those in which the conversation was rich & flowing & boisterous.

    My thinking changed when I taught a course on the literature of disability—novels, biographies, theory. Over the course of that semester, several of my students let me know they had disabilities that made it difficult for them to participate in the kinds of class discussions that I associated with learning. They wanted me to know, these students, that they *were* learning, but that they needed to do so in ways that privileged silence and reflection over debate and oral argument.

    It was a lesson for me. Though I would have said I respected learning differences, I had to admit that I didn’t — not really. Instead, I wanted everyone to demonstrate, in ways I understood, a certain kind of classroom conformity that I would reward with praise and good grades.

    I’ve tried to keep learning that lesson and apply it in other classes, with other students. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? Some students want and need to be pushed into expressing themselves in the classroom. They learn that way. Others learn differently, through silence and contemplation.

    Mitch’s fine essay is a reminder that we can and should acknowledge such differences in our classrooms and writing center sessions.

  10. First, I was disappointed to learn that the title of this was not a reference to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. (Which is awesome and should be read, an antidote to hermeneutics—I’ve heard some say.) Particularly when I remembered this quote:

    There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam […] though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.

    It seems, suddenly, to me that we have assumed a number of equivalencies in the tutoring process—or the process of learning to tutor—that have the potential to limit our capacity to positively contribute to the learning and creative process of our tutees.

    Along with equating the frenetic—sometimes stuttering—verbalization of ideas to tutoring success, has, perhaps, also come the paradigm of “chaos creations” and “tranquil cessation.” Constant speech is to thought… is to intelligence… is to progress… is to… writing centers. “Write, talk, write, talk, write.” Simultaneously, however, “tranquility” bears no stigma, and does not exactly seem incompatible with the ideas or goals of the writing center. I’ve heard some tutors, in fact, explain the writing center as a “refuge” and a “place to slow down and sort things out.” That another mind is another space and two minds in conversation can become the performance of extended space—a larger room in which to unfurl long-scroll ideas at their length. If this is the case then silence, perhaps, should in many occasions become an integral part of the tutoring process. Of course, all this within the context of individual learning styles, etc. But still, I think this equivalency deserves some further exploration. What is the role of tranquility in creation? Surely, frenetic motion alone cannot be considered the sole source of thought, nor silence and tranquility its antidote.

    As if I didn’t have enough rattling around in my cardboard skull. Thanks Mitch. (Smiley face.)

  11. Mitch nailed down the cultural imperative to Fill the Silence. Even though good pedagogical practice reminds us to give students “space to think,” how many of have to bite our tongues during those pauses. A minute feels like forever. In most social situations in this country, a minute of silence between anyone other than close friends is usually awkward, even rude. But of course writing consultations are special kinds of social events. The agenda is usually specific and initiated by a student seeking assistance from me, and I generally equate “assistance” with some sort of verbal response.

    Mitch’s insight about K’s silence enabled her to provide K with the silence she needed to break through her writing impediment. Mitch also reminded us of other situations and purposes–as in English language acquisition–in which silence indicates cognitive processing. In those cases, I suspect the student may not even register the consultant’s silence or any awkwardness that may be associated with it. Mitch eloquently made a case for tactical silence.

    However, students’ silence can mean “I am thinking about what you said,” “I am thinking about what I mean,” “I don’t know what you mean,” “I don’t know what I mean,” “I don’t want to think about this; just tell me,” “I’m afraid to show my ignorance,” “Where I’m from, students only listen, only teachers speak”–and much more. Alan Benson, in his response to Mitch, provided an example of how two people may have misinterpreted each other’s silence.

    I need to think more about how I interpret silence. I also need to think about talking less in order to let latent silence emerge. It’s one thing for a student to be silent while I am talking, and quite another for a student to be silent when I’m not.

  12. As an introverted tutor myself, in moments of uncertainty in the writing center, I sometimes desperately wish I could mimic the styles of the more extroverted tutors around me, who seem to be doing so much more. “More of what?”, though, is a question that needs interrogation. In those moments I’m sure many of us have had, those moments where we quietly panic under the façade of composure where we ask ourselves, “How on earth did I think I could do this?”, we turn to our training, our environment, to filling space with chatter in an almost free-writing manner that isn’t always productive. And perhaps, unfortunately, by doing so, we are instructing our students in how the writing process should work as something external; while the student will spend the majority of writing time alone with his/her own thoughts.
    Is silent reflection secondary to oral discussion? Are we teaching our students to take the time to express themselves carefully through prose, or to rush to the end result through conversation?

    More often, as I think Mitch is suggesting, we might consider, instead, turning inward, slowing down. How often in our own writing processes do we find ourselves sitting in front of our computer screens, our fingers poised over the keyboard, waiting for the right words to come? Would we always want a voice in our ear pushing us to think a little faster, a little louder?

    I do think, also, that moments of silence are just as important for the tutor as they are for the student. Consideration of the tutor’s teaching style can be just as critical as consideration of the student’s learning style. By utilizing my own strengths as a learner, I am sharing with my student, through the practical implementation of it in the session, what I have learned of tranquility as a necessity in my own unique writing process.

    Now, this is not to say that as an introvert, I need to cling to my introversion. There are times, as Cheryl has outlined above, when silence can lead to more confusion. But silence does not “fix” a tutoring session, just as the writing center doesn’t “fix” everything—nor should it be our aim. Instead, quiet is a tool we can use, and in those cases where silence instead seems to be complicating the problem rather than letting it unravel through a moment of interiority, it is then appropriate to rephrase questions, to ask, “Was I clear, or are you still confused?” I do not think Mitch is suggesting that silence is an appropriate response to every situation in a tutoring session, but instead that it might be a first response, rather than a last resort.

  13. Excellent post, Mitch. I may use this essay next year in my student consultant training sessions. Being comfortable with quiet also means we are comfortable giving the writer space to think – that we respect her ideas enough to give her the space to really put them together in her mind before speaking. While my consultants often struggle with silence for the very reasons you point out, they also are quick to notice the improvement in their conferences when they do allow for that silence. Thanks for bring this point up.

  14. What a thought-provoking piece, Mitch. Your post pinpoints an issue that’s been swirling in my mind since my first semester in graduate school twelve years ago. At least one professor equated my lack of talking with lack of thinking, but the reasons for my silence were far more complex. At play were cultural and class differences, gendered discourse, and frustrations with what I’ll call academic “over-talk.” As a quiet (but contemplative!) member of the class, it was difficult to watch a few garrulous students earn favor by talking just to hear themselves talk, talking while saying nothing, or talking to outtalk others. These students were repeatedly congratulated and encouraged—more than those who made one or two well-formulated comments per class.

    When I began teaching the following year, I quickly understood why instructors are inclined to reward students who keep the discussion going. Silence feels awkward. Especially if the stated goal of each class is to achieve a lively discussion. Even so, the memories of my silent semester continue to shape my approach to classroom talk and silence, two activities I’ve come to see as mutually reinforcing. I’ve found that creating time in the literature classroom for students to be quiet (to collect their thoughts, look at their notes, freewrite, work on a specific task) oddly energizes discussion and, perhaps more importantly, gives it direction and purpose. By demonstrating the synergy between the two—and validating each activity’s place in the classroom—I hope to communicate the importance of both reflective talking and quiet thinking in our collaborations.

    Thanks again for “praising silence,” Mitch. I’m looking forward to thinking more about this topic.

  15. Excellent post, Mitch. This topic is definitely something that is important for me to remember and think about as I tutor in the writing center. By nature, I am a very talkative person, and as a tutor, I often try to avoid moments of silence. They make me feel uncomfortable, and in turn, I worry that my student at the time is also feeling uneasy. Your example of student K is a prime example that allowing students time to think and process can be essential for the tutoring process. It makes me think back to when I was the student going in for a chemistry student session, and I had no idea how to answer the questions my TA asked. I often sat in silence, panicking about how to answer the question for which I had no answer. In this case, my silence was an indication of struggle, which is probably why I do not like silence when I am the tutor. I think it is wise that you caution that silence is not always what the student needs. And as you described that student K was clearly thinking and processing during the silence, I think it is important, that we as tutors, listen and judge each session by the student. As a tutor, I will definitely try to allow silence, moments to think and let the student process. Your point that talking does not equal thinking is excellent, something I plan to think about more myself. Thanks again for this wonderful post!

  16. This is a really thought-provoking and beautiful piece, Mitch. I agree with Laura – I think I’ll include it in the training materials I’m putting together for the fall.

    Reading this piece shed some new light on a conversation I had with one of my students during a paper conference last semester – she was trying to describe how she had evolved as a writer over the course of her four years as a college student and she identified her participation in (religious) retreats as the primary catalyst for any significant change in her abilities as a writer. At the time, she said that she had always experienced a high degree of anxiety when it came to writing and talking with others (peers, instructors, etc.) about writing, but once she had adopted certain habits of meditation/prayer, she found she could write in a more focused, productive way and that she wasn’t so intimidated when she had to participate in peer review or meet with a professor to discuss her essays. I think that what you describe in your post offers me greater insight into what this student was trying to tell me and as a WC director at a religiously affiliated institution, I’d be interested to talk further with you about thinking about silence in such a context. For instance, it seems to me like this might be one way to talk with some students about the writing process that might surprise them, yet illuminate a deep connection between their writing and some of their other daily or regular practices/habits.

  17. I’m overwhelmed by the thoughtful responses you have all given to this post, especially because I really had no idea when I sat down to write if I was, in my urging that we consider the productive and positive ways quiet can operate in the tutorial, stepping on a hornets’ nest of extroversion. I’ve been surprised and humbled by the number of you who have come out, as it were, as introverts, challenging the assumption that writing center tutors are, to use Rebecca’s alliterative description, “Chatty Cathys expecting constant conversation.”

    As Jane, Rachel, and others point out, time for quiet introspection is often very useful for both students and tutors, but, as Cheryl and Alan mention, silence can be awkward and, as Katie notes, a signal that one partner in the conversation is experiencing some sort of internal distress. It saddens me, somewhat, to know that our culture tends to equate garrulousness with happiness and functioning, and quiet with disquiet (case in point: how many times have we asked one of our friends “what’s wrong?” if she hasn’t spoken in a while?). At the same time, I think that writing center tutors’ discomfort with quiet emerges from genuine concern for the writer: just in the way that many of the commenters here recalled the shame surrounding their own silence in academic situations, tutors tend towards encouraging quiet students as a means of empowering them to speak without fear of reproach or judgment. In other words, they assume, quite generously, that the student does have something to say, and they use talk to demonstrate that they respect the student’s ideas by drawing that something out. The trick, as Laura notes, is to find ways to demonstrate respect for students’ silence as a respect for the ideas they are formulating or wrestling with.

    I was struck by the number of comments that addressed the overlap between writing center and classroom teaching, and the disjunct that can occur when students are required to make public and verbal the relatively internal work of reading and writing. While, as Rachel noted, many writers embrace the social dimension of the writing process, both the discussion classroom and writing tutorial demand this externality, which may confound students who do not know how to translate their thoughts into spoken discourse, or to discuss written artifacts on a metatextual level. I appreciated Michelle’s insight that in these situations, in which we are asking people to perform in ways that may seem highly unnatural, speech and internal reflection can be mutually reinforcing and that providing time for participants in the conversation to gather and direct their thoughts can improve and structure the conversation’s trajectory. While it may seem counterintuitive to slow down given the time constraints under which we operate (Beth articulates very well the instructor’s desire to make every moment count), such a step back may be necessary to promote meaningful discourse, not just an excess of talk. As Lina writes, much more poetically than I, the writing center — and perhaps even the composition or literature classroom — can be a “place to slow down and sort things out” and to enact a logic in which “another mind is another space and two minds in conversation can become the performance of extended space—a larger room in which to unfurl long-scroll ideas at their length.” And, as Cassie describes, creating moments of introspection can help writers solidify and concretize the thoughts that emerge in the mutability of active verbal discourse.

    In praising the generative and heuristic possibilities of quiet, though, I don’t mean to suggest that quietness is always positive. Patrick’s frustration with his eerily silent writing class and Alan’s tutor’s interpretation of his student’s silence as disengagement are not, to my mind, confessions of failing so much as expressions of recognition of the primacy of (coherent, “intelligent”) speech in academia — and, as Cheryl reminds us, the elision of “assistance” and “verbal response” in the tutoring situation. Despite the constructedness of the classroom, which has been ordered in such a way that teachers are conditioned to expect, to use John’s words, “a certain kind of . . . conformity that [they] would reward with praise and good grades”, the classroom is a microcosmic iteration of the larger social contracts into which we enter as citizens and members of communities. If those contracts are broken, the social space can be rendered inoperative, which, I think, leads to the instructor’s anxious negotiations and goal of keeping the conversation going, sometimes at all costs. However, as many of you have revealed in your responses, quiet can be codified in even these most social of spaces so that the mutuality that Michelle mentioned is made explicit and so that both introverted and extroverted students can be pushed, with guidance, to think in ways that challenge their natural tendencies.

    Finally, I think we must take care not to overinflate the stake we put in talk and in what students get from their interactions with us. If our role is to guide, as I hope I’ve suggested in my original post and in this response, then we are one (and just one) of the means by which writers and students develop their own processes and tactics for thinking. To clarify, K did not even remotely approach overcoming her writing disability through her work with me; in fact, I think she got way more results from downloading dictation software than she did from our silent communion, and from the realization that writing would always be for her a miasmic, uphill crawl. So no, I didn’t “fix” K. But really, K didn’t need to be fixed. She simply needed strategies that allowed her to participate more fully and completely in the academic world she loved. I haven’t seen her since last summer, and I frequently find myself wondering how she is, and wishing I could have done more. But, as Jacob reminds us, as he reminds me, “tutoring isn’t supposed to be perfect, and working with our students to learn what they need–especially if it’s a moment to think–seems a vital part of tutoring as a practice.” Quiet moments are really all I could give K, and, in that space and time, they were enough; sometimes, quietness can help us, and our students, in that difficult work of discernment.

    (Confidential to those of you who asked me over email: five minutes of total silence? It feels like an eternity.)

  18. Thanks, Mitch, for helping me rethink what tutoring, teaching, learning, and thinking look like.

  19. As you point out, Mitch, conversation grounds much of collaborative pedagogy; however, and this is what your post so sensitively performs, honoring the person sitting next to us under-girds writing center work, as well. You bring to mind Glenn and Ratcliffe’s work on silence and rhetoric, too. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I’m happy to share it will our staff.

  20. I am really appreciative of this conversation. As a naturally shy introvert myself, I’m sensitive about the speaking=thinking assumption.

    It’s interesting to me that in classroom teaching, we’re probably not surprised when some of our quietest (or even silent) students produce papers that indicate the highest levels of engagement with the class. But for some reason in one-on-one sessions, we expect even quiet students to feel at ease and able to express themselves openly. Even if we don’t realize it, we may be taking students’ talkativeness as judgment on our own skills at creating a safe environment.

    Taking time to digest questions and information is a wonderful thing for students to do – and something some of our students need to learn to do. I very often have students who are easy to talk with, but I certainly get the feeling that they are expressing too much confidence too quickly about understanding everything we’ve discussed—piping up with an immediate answer to a question that I expect needs time for thought. These students may be uncomfortable expressing uncertainty even if they are comfortable talking. Students who are slower to respond also sometimes open up a space for me to rephrase a point or reframe the conversation, which can be helpful.

    Finally, Mitch’s thoughtful post reminds me that we should never assume we know what’s going on in our students’ heads. Both writing and talking are translations, not reflections, of thinking. A quiet student may be intently focused on that process of translation – which, as writing teachers, is what we want.

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