By: Nora McIntyre, Graduate TA
First Year Composition
April 3, 2023
A pedagogy of listening in a first year composition class necessitates allowing for silence. But what does silence look like in a course taught asynchronously and online?
This past semester I taught first year college composition alongside a team of two fellow graduate teaching assistants. Our class was a hybrid online/in person model, which was a new experience for all three of us. Once we figured out the technological platforms, we were excited to use them to foster an online classroom community.
Our team used Slack as a base of communications with our online and in person students. We formed channels where students could post memes, cute pet pictures, questions, etc. We also had a main channel, and each weekly assignment included participation in this Slack channel. Students were asked to reflect on a particular week’s reading and/or writing assignments, and to respond to their fellow peers. Every few weeks, students were asked to post a “digital postcard” as a check-in.
Initially, we believed that assigning participation on Slack to all students, in person and online, would give online students an equal opportunity to participate in a classroom community. Our expectation was that students would share in our excitement, and tailor the space to meet their own wants/needs. *Cue crickets*
While at first participation on Slack was high, it quickly dropped, along with the creativity of responses. It became clear that students saw Slack participation as just one more obligation. Assigned participation in an online classroom community was not enriching. Furthermore, it went against the idea of community in and of itself. Can an online forum be considered a classroom community if its formation and use is not in the hands of students? As instructors, we knew we had to listen to what students really wanted/needed out of an online platform.
This is the first step in adopting a pedagogy of listening into our online classroom. Patrick Sullivan’s It is the Privilege of Wisdom to Listen was a helpful read to conceptualize this idea and then discuss and reflect upon as a team. Discussing amongst the team is also always good practice for listening and reflection. Listening requires being open to feedback. It was clear that assigned Slack participation was not working for students. This was confirmed when we held individual conferences, and students told us that they did not see the value in Slack participation, or found it stressful to open up to their peers in that space.
Based on student feedback, we shifted our ideas about what an online community could/should look like. We decided to stop requiring/grading Slack participation. This meant that weekly Slack participation no longer factored into the grading of each assignment. All the chats remained up, and some students continued to post, but without the reminders to post, participation gradually decreased from a buzz to low hum.
This brings me to the idea of silence. Silence is something that we as instructors can be very afraid of. We can misconstrue it as an absence of participation, or an absence of active learning. In fact, active listening, and active silence are important activities, especially in the composition classroom. Patrick Sullivan expands on this idea in one chapter of his book entitled, “It is the Privilege of Wisdom to Listen.” He writes, “‘silence (inhabited by meditation, reflection, contemplation, metacognition, and thoughtfulness) provides one lens through which to see the interlace of literacy; action (response, conversation) provides another lens, but both lenses are pointed at exactly the same object, which continuously turns on itself with no discernible beginning or ending’ (Belanoff 2001, 422)” (Sullivan 40). As Sullivan describes, active listening and active silence are equally as important as response and conversation, and there needs to be space for both in the classroom. In our asynchronous online classroom, this meant allowing for silence in our online forums.
We came to understand that not only would forced participation stifle a true classroom community, but that silence within that community was not a sign that it had died. Just because our students were not constantly sharing their reflections, that did not mean they were not reflecting at all. Furthermore, when students did post, we knew it came from a genuine desire to share with their peers. Listening and silence therein “help develop a “judicious respect not just for the power of silence and listening but also for the spoken word’”(Sullivan 39). Getting comfortable with silence and allotting space for it in an asynchronous online classroom involves rethinking what is meant by participation, and imagining different ways that participation and reflection can look. Students may be more comfortable sharing in private journal responses in conferences, or in smaller groups of their peers.
In celebrating silence in our online forums, we hoped to foster a space of reflection, empathy, and understanding. Looking forward to future iterations of this course, we hope to present the online forum as completely student-driven, allowing them to use it in ways that suit their needs.
Sullivan, P. (2014). “It is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” In A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind (pp. 37–54). University Press of Colorado. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qhkqz.6
About the Author
Nora is a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.