On Learning Respect

Respecting what is not “fully articulated” comes hard, however. If students cannot understand an author or a speaker, they themselves feel disrespected, describe their experience as being “shut out,” “slighted.”

In mid-October, we welcome two visitors to class: my friend Mark Lord and his colleague Catharine Slusar share their in-process performance-and-production of Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls.

This does not go over particularly well.


I found the play we read for class today incredibly silencing and frustrating because I couldn’t understand what was happening and what I could take from it. When I read the play last night, I got angrier and angrier because I felt like I was being shut out. I hoped the experience of watching the play might be more enlightening…I felt just as confused…at the end of it.….I still don’t know what the theme of the play even is….I feel as though I’ve missed out on something really important…a learning opportunity and that makes me feel like I’ve wasted time.1


AGREE AGREE AGREE! I was so frustrated!…I don’t know what happened….I didn’t get what was happening, if the mother was dead or alive, what the pacing/moving candle represented, who the characters were, what the random stories/anecdotes were about. I felt extremely shut out…2

Slowly and fitfully, however, some of the students come to recognize the presumption underlying such frustrations: their expectation that they have the “right” to know.

In one of our silent activities, the one international student in our class asks us to “read” and “make meaning” from a Chinese text. Having evoked a series of “inaccurate” translations, from classmates who do not know the language, Erin then refuses their request to translate the text, saying that it would “sound silly in English.”


I still wanted her to translate it even if it did sound stupid in English….I did feel like I deserved to know the English….I felt slighted, as if I did have a right to access Erin in that way. It did not feel good to feel like a foreigner in a space of my own discourse…did that mean it was okay if Erin did because she is not from America and therefore, should not deny me? AH:(! That’s not a thought I am comfortable with at all.…we must first question why there is a need to know and what does that say about our identities and power?…was I unintentionally exercising power over her by requesting that I have access to her language?…was I pressuring her…to say yes and translate? By giving me that satisfaction, what would I have gained and what would she have lost? And by her saying no, what did that mean?…what good is keeping quiet…?3

The “good of keeping quiet” begins to emerge more fully during the last section of our course, when we shift focus from asking who holds power, and whether we owe one another explanation across such divisions, to whether we might learn better or differently if we engage systematically in the discipline of silencewe shift focus from asking who holds power, and whether we owe one another explanation across such divisions, to whether we might learn better or differently if we engage systematically in the discipline of silence. This is less about the right to be silent, or respecting the silence of others, than about practicing silence as a different means of understanding. The texts we read at this point are religious ones, asking how we might open ourselves to insight that comes from some place beyond language, that isn’t mediated by words.4

A number of the students are wary, however, of how this invitation might alter their sense of self. The concern now is less about who holds power over us than what we ourselves might be trying to keep at bay. Some students acknowledge Sister Joan Chittister’s explanation that

Silence frightens us because it…brings us face to face with ourselves.…tells us what we’re obsessing about….reminds us of what we have not resolved….shows to us the underside…from which there is no escape….Silence…shows us what we have yet to become, and how much we still lack to become it.5


I fear my dreams–-an internal, sometimes quiet, part of myself–-because they are random, sometimes scary and realistic. I hate that even when I don’t remember the dream, I wake up heavy with feelings, good and bad. Perhaps I could control what silence represented to me during silence activities, or the noises that filled my silence, more than I could in a dream. I have no control over what I dream about and I am certain that has a lot to do with my fear of ‘facing’ myself.6


silence can have a certain…anxiety, unease, awareness to it….sometimes I would use it as a way to escape anxiety, but other times, I was forced to confront it, know it, and permit it to be a part of my state of being.7


perhaps I am uncomfortable with the idea of free time because “it is silence that brings us face to face with ourselves,” and that is something I don’t want to see.8

Despite their fears about what falling quiet might reveal, some students also begin to acknowledge that rushing to “fill up” the silences in classrooms is failing to accept what John Wideman calls “the quiet interludes as breathing spaces, necessary reminders of…limits.”9


taking time for silence…can actually provide the crucial time and space to deal with some of the thoughts our heads are full with.10


is one of several who finds herself particularly drawn to the characterization of silence–offered by a friend of mine, a nun who visits our class at the end of the semester–as “pregnant, not empty.”11

Silence grants a pause, for reflection, for questioning what it is we think we know-–or even just to sit and hold what we hear, not explicitly interrogating ourselves or others. We can see that our evolving classroom exercise of allowing more time between speaking–what we start to celebrate as “wait time”–is also giving us practice in withholding judgment, along the lines of how Wideman describes his mother, who

most of the time…held judgment in abeyance. Events, personalities always deserved a second, slower appraisal….You gave people the benefit of the doubt…acknowledged the limitations of your individual view of things….You tried on the other person’s point of view.12

These are our central challenges. Silence offers space and time to explore a range of possibilities–-“autonomy, creativity, privacy, and bodily integrity.”13 But it can also mark impassable gaps between speaker and listener, writer and reader. Some of us encounter aspects of ourselves, in silence, which we would prefer not to acknowledge. Some of us feel shut out by texts with words we don’t understand, that draw on cultural capital we don’t share. Some of us acknowledge, and some of us may refuse to pay, the cost of laboring to understand such writing. Some of us eventually concede the impossibility of complete understanding, not only of ourselves, but of others: recognizing that if we speak only on their terms, or insist that others speak only in ways we can readily understand, we will limit our own stretch to say what we know, and to comprehend what they have to tell us.

To effectively promote silence…involves…acute listening…asking what it was that people were trying to hear, and what it was that they were trying to block out….a reflection on what otherwise remains in danger of going unheard

–George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence

…literature is important…as the place where impasses can be kept…questions…guarded and not forced into a premature validation of the available paradigms….giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken

Barbara Johnson, The Feminist Difference

  1. Hummingbird, “Frustrated,” October 23, 2012 (3:37pm), accessed February 18, 2016.
  2. Sarah, “AGREE AGREE AGREE!,” October 23, 2012 (4:23pm.), accessed February 18, 2016.
  3. couldntthinkofanoriginalname, “Not Knowing Sucks, But Is Exclusion Necessary Sometimes?” September 20, 2012 (10:09 a.m.), accessed February 18, 2016. 
  4. Sister Joan Chittister, “Seeking the Interior Life,” (November 7, 2004), accessed February 18, 2016.; Juana Inez de la Cruz, La Respuesta/The Response (1690), trans. and ed. Electra Arenal and Amanda Powell (New York: Feminist Press, 1994); George Kalamaras, Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension: Symbolic Form in the Rhetoric of Silence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Caroline Stephen, Selections from “Quaker Strongholds” (1890); rpt. Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Douglas Steeere (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 239-258.
  5. Chittister, “Seeking the Interior Life”
  6. couldntthinkofanoriginalname, “Wow…,” December 9, 2012 (1:37 p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016.
  7. ishin, “Anxiety and practiced silence,” December 9, 2012 (6:30 p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016. 
  8. HSBurke, “Hi Chandrea!,” December 9 2012 (11:44 a.m.), accessed February 18, 2016. 
  9. John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (New York: Vintage, 1995), 237.
  10. sdane, “I really liked that quote,” December 10, 2012 (12:55 a.m.), accessed February 18, 2016. 
  11. Sharaai, “Linda-Susan Beard’s Visit,” December 9, 2012 (8:59 p.m.), accessed February 18, 2016.
  12. Wideman, Brothers and Keepers, 69.
  13. Wendy Brown, “Freedom’s Silences, in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 95.