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Listening to the silences in our classrooms: A study of “quiet” students

Mary Margaret Reda, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this dissertation, I explore this question: why are students silent? My interest was sparked by the stories most teachers have heard and told—that “quiet students” are shy, resistant, hostile. While discourses focusing on the politics of silencing are critical, we also need to consider how students see their own silences. This study provides alternate visions of silence as imagined by students. The project draws on many sources to explore silence, including the dominant critical perspectives represented in teaching narratives and feminist and cultural theories, as well as my own experiences that shape my teaching and this research. In addition to my own autoethnography and the thinking of scholars in various fields, the study focuses on the perspectives of students. Drawing on written reflections and interviews with five students, I examine students' vision of the influence of teachers and pedagogies on the decisions to speak or be silent. Often, practices designed to invite students' speaking (requirements, etc.) are experienced as silencing. Students suggest they are more encouraged to speak by “smaller gestures”—the cultivation of teacher-student relationships, a teacher's presentation of “self,” and focused attention to how questions are asked and responded to. Such efforts positively alter the dynamics of power, knowledge, and authority. I examine the intersections of identity and community and their impact on a student's speaking or silence. Many cite the “openness” of the community and how speaking invites evaluation of one's response, intelligence, identity. This is troubling, but not because they fear conflict. Rather, they perceive such interactions as demanding risky self-revelation in anonymous communities; they are conscious of the lessons about voice and audience we try to teach in writing classes. Finally, I investigates the alternate constructions these students use to understand classroom silence, including the communal sense that silence is not necessarily problematic. Instead it can provide space for intellectual work through internal dialogue. This research suggests possibilities for moving students “beyond silence.” But it also leads me to conclude that we should work to foster generative silences as well as dialogue in our classes.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Composition|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Reda, Mary Margaret, "Listening to the silences in our classrooms: A study of “quiet” students" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056273.