Claudia Morris’ comments on “silencing,” our first day of Voice Lessons have left quite an impression on me. “Silencing” is a big issue in composition circles, and even more so in the sub-set of composition related to women and writing. Women’s voices are “silenced” when “anonymous” is the author of a work and the evidence leads to the conclusion that “anonymous” was a woman.
Claudia is our dance teacher in the Department of Visual and Theatre Arts at UT Martin where the program’s emphasis is dance education. Until Claudia’s teaching demonstration, I never had thought of things this way—that the “dance master,” or dance studio director, is in charge with no other voice on the dance floor assumed to have any dance expertise. Girls (and boys) are arms and legs to move in ways as instructed by the dance master. Claudia wants her students to know and believe that they are more than arms and legs, that there is something inside, and that that inside is them.
Pondering Claudia’s insights about silencing I think, wait, that’s an issue for all faculty. All our students come to college “silenced” by teachers, school policy, the culture of school, parent expectations, and the church.
What keeps me from writing?
Sometimes doing something irrelevant—like eating breakfast at Generations or a lingering time at the Calla Lily—keeps me from writing. Sometimes doing—taking a ride somewhere “to look”—keeps me from writing. Sometimes the voice of my college composition teacher lingers a bit. For a long time, I left that voice of doubt about my writing tell me what I could and couldn’t do. Sometimes I let a comment—negative—be my word for myself, as happened six years ago. I thought I would never write or talk to that family member ever again, but time does heal, and now I do. What sustains me is knowing that writing is work I can do, that my morning writing is always OK, that nothing or nobody interferes with that. The pleasure that comes from writing. That sustains me. After Kendall’s writing invitation Feb. 13.
Now, with Claudia’s help, I have a context for understanding what I observed in my English 111 students, this past semester. More than half —and I started with seventy writing students in three classes—failed the course and their failing had nothing to do with the poor quality of their work. It had to do with not enough work (too few writing tasks undertaken) and not enough being present for class. I do not want to be the professor who sees irritating (or absent, or non-writing) students as the students from hell, about which Parker Palmer writes so thoughtfully in The Courage To Teach. But this semester, especially, I’ve had to work hard not to be.
Write a prayer, “a supplication to all good things.”
This is to that little plot of land at 40th and Orchard, three blocks south of the East Campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It is parts of three lots, or something equally less straightforward, watched over by the “Wednesday morning girls,” the quilters who catalogued Nebraska quilts and wrote their history and still meet. This is for that plot’s neighbors—the math teacher to the south, the real estate broker to the north, the dog woofing and snapping at the at-home childcare center east of the asparagus. This is to the neighbors on the other stretch of Orchard, on Dudley, Apple, and Starr, on North 39th, North 38th, and Idylwild Drive, to Doc Davis, Prof. Lambert and Prof. Elliott, to Phil Cole and Kay, who lived there once. After Carl’s writing invitation, April 30.
If, in their K-12 education, students believe they aren’t valued (I think here of the stories students tell of their writing in the upper grades marked with a grade, with corrections, not with what students see as engagement with the teacher), isn’t that a way to silence students? Opposite of high school stories such as these are stories from middle and grade school, stories about teachers who students knew loved them, stories of writing fantastical tales and student work hung on the clotheslines across the room or tacked to the bulletin board in the hall.
I do not want to be misunderstood. “Silencing” is not the fault of high school teachers, most of whom are asked to teach too many students. Some high school English teachers see at least 145 young people every day, every week, every year. All of us who pay taxes—and all who shop do—are responsible because it is our job to be informed and then to act in the interest of kids, teachers, and schools. The minimum we must do is register to vote and then show up at the polls.
We need to dig around.
Some non-poetic words: toilet, disposal, restroom, silage, forage, compost, mold, dust, feedlot, stomach, intestine, colon, disease, tuberculosis, dishwasher, sink, coal dust, sawdust, musty, infectious, HIV, AIDS, elbow, wrist, oily, greasy, disposable, garbage, scum, crud, river bottom, muddy, pollution, smoke. After the writing invitation from Joel, Feb. 22.
Testing frenzy silences students. Tennessee is not alone in this with writing assessments in elementary, middle, and high school; Gateway exams in math, biology, and English for high school students. Days upon days of instructional time are lost to test taking. Authority figures have written the test, decided on the correct answers, and mandated the way the test is to be taken and to be scored. The student holds a pencil and bubbles in. With writing assessments, students are provided a writing “prompt” and instructed to write to it. The prompts are in charge and as a result students most likely are not writing on a topic about which they care deeply. There’s no time for response from readers, and too little time to think, reflect, and revise.
Fall in love three times a day
Actually, snow is something to fall in love with—the touch on my nose of flakes, seeing that veil, like a scrim, of snow, like a long bridal veil as wide as the window. Something else to fall in love with is trees, the tall ones in our neighborhood, branches arching over our house and street. In the fall, the leaves are gold and driving into the neighborhood is like entering a holy space. It’s that beautiful. Something else to fall in love with is people doing the right thing, asking why, and figuring out that the math is wrong, as happened yesterday in a semi-important meeting, the results of which will materially affect people’s lives. Knitting. What’s not to love about knitting, bright gold and blue and fuchsia wool and mohair keeping my head warm when it’s 27 degrees Fahrenheit. After Terri’s writing invitation, Feb. 15.
Families silence . My grandmother broke her arm, a student tells me, and I had to go to the hospital. Another: My brother was in a car accident, and I had to go home. When students are not in class we don’t hear their voices, they don’t hear ours or their classmates’. When students miss an assignment—for family reasons or otherwise—the writing response groups miss hearing another’s point of view, another’s way of seeing the world. Silence.
The church silences, or perhaps more accurately, our students’ received messages from church about authority and sin silence them.. What might students offer, but because of church teaching—and how students and their families receive the teaching—they hold back for fear their ideas might seem wrong or sinful or disrespectful of elders.
In what ways are you the one we have been waiting for?
I can think and I can write. I have a brain. And I have good genes. I have friends who say, we can’t wait for you to come back. I have friends who say, I don’t know what we’re going to do without you. I can knit. I know color. I own a tremendously fine sewing machine with 800+ ways to stitch. I can whizzy whack fabric into strips and squares and triangles. I can afford to buy fabric. I have children who love me and grandchildren who say, “Hi Grandma Gray-dah.” I have a job I value and many colleagues with whom to talk and from whom to learn. I have health insurance. And I, like all people, have God. After the end of class writing invitation I extended Monday, Feb. 19 from another text in English 111, Jim Wallis’book, God’s Politics:Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.
Two years ago I had a student I’ll call Jamie. He has influenced my courses in two ways. First, he often would come to class late calling out as he found a chair, “I had to print.” Sometimes he missed a third of the class. My syllabus didn’t speak to lateness. But now after these experiences, they do. Thanks to Jamie, students whose work is not ready when class starts receive a 0 for their work for that day. Six 0’s equal an F for the course (class meets Tuesday-Thursday).
Jamie also is responsible for my continuing with in-class writing every day. He wrote, early in the first semester he was in class, if it weren’t for in-class writing I would have dropped the course. Two summers ago, a high school teacher friend attended a writing workshop where one text was Georgia Heard’s Writing Toward Home. I had read the book, but not as a class text. I decided I should have started long ago. Because of Jamie, I began asking students to take turns leading the class in a writing invitation but with this proviso—the idea had to come from Georgia Heard.
I prided myself on the pedagogical soundness. Student-led writing invitations: focus each class; model the importance of student ideas and directions for the classroom; are non-threatening. Although the students extending the writing invitation often read aloud their writing, no one else must. I often do. Some students say, “I want to read.” A year ago, nearly everyone read aloud nearly every day. This semester, only a few sometimes did and sometimes it was only two of us; let students and teacher prove the theory that says, writing is discovery; can lead to drafts and unexpected changes in assignments that could heighten interest in this required course; are another way that students can practice their writing, grow in their ability to write well, and see for themselves that they can write; provide students practice in writing on the spot in response to a wide variety of writing invitations, all good practice for university test-taking environments.
Hearing Claudia’s voice in my head, I came to the conclusion that I, of course, am not silencing my students. Within broad parameters, students choose their own topics for essays. While we use class time to try out various ways to invigorate our writing—action verbs over to-be verbs, Donald Murray-style beginnings and endings, the details of all the senses—students decide where and how to employ these revisions in their writing. And aren’t students—not the teacher—leading a writing invitation each class day? Me silence students? Me? An A student in one of the first graduate seminars in women’s literature taught by Barbara DiBernard at the University of Nebraska? Not a chance.
Then my writing response group heard early drafts of what has become this. And a member of our nursing faculty said, that’s silencing, the in-class writing invitations. Silencing? I thought I hadn’t heard correctly. How could student-led writing invitations be silencing? She smiled. Because I had chosen the text? Because I had said, you must choose from these options (yes, a woman’s options, but not the students’ options). Ruby smiled again and nodded.
I, writer, teacher, reader, am not immune to silencing by the nature of the classroom. Mine are extroverted-discussion classrooms. Students more comfortable observing may not feel at home. My insistence on no late work may work toward student responsibility, but also may silence the student with the truly unplanned interruption to her school life. My biases about what we read—heavy on modern women writers—leaves out voices that to some students might be easier on the ear.
Office hours are set at my convenience and held in my office, not at a time (evenings) and places (the residence halls or the University Center or a local eatery) that might suit students better.
The course meets Tuesday-Thursday, because I like longer classes. Students might need more warm up days in a week, such as a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule would offer.
The syllabus says no homophobic, sexist, or racist language in class. Not tolerated. Silencing this kind of language makes for more thoughtful comments. Or does this kind of silencing say, better watch yourself, causing students not to write what they really need to write, but writing what they think their teacher (or school) wants them to say.
When I see posters advertising fraternity-sponsored parties on Wednesday nights, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., where “girls” are free, and guys are $2, I take them down. Silencing? Or is this one tiny move toward a more academic campus environment?
At the moment, what matters is that at least I am thinking about teaching in a way I had not before Voice Lessons 2007. Will I re-think the student-led writing, so there are no directions, from anyone, trusting that the topics that need to be written will find the students who need to write them? After all, it is the act of writing—the pen to paper—that matters most. Will I not use the George Heard book in summer school? So far, it stays on the list. I like the book too much—and what shows up in my notebook from the invitations—and I’m not quite ready to be done with it.
Author’s notes: Thank you to Claudia Morris for her insights about “silencing” during her teaching demonstration for Voice Lessons 2007, to Lily Li and Brad Coker for responding to earlier versions of this work, and to Ruby Lindsey Black, who, after hearing an early draft, suggested that, good as it seems, even writing invitations extended by students could be “silencing.” The writing after the writing invitations are what showed up in my notebook this past semester, but except for the last, were offered by my students, whose names here are pseudonyms.