Don’t Waste the Silence

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I recently asked my students a simple, open-ended question about the writer’s tone.  I had made print copies of the text, and I had projected it onto the board at the front of the room.  After a few seconds of silence, I pointed towards the first few lines of Wardle’s essay, which I read aloud:

There is no such thing as writing in general. Do you doubt this claim? Test it out. Go to your desk right now and attempt to write something in general.

Then I asked again,  “What sort of voice is speaking?  Can you see the boosters that we just talked about?  What do you think?”

Silence. 

After about ten seconds, I prodded again.  “Any thoughts?  No right or wrong here.”

Still nothing. 

I scanned the room.   Eight of the nine students in this corequisite section of FYC were spread across three rows of seminar tables.    They glanced from papers to laptops—and occasionally made eye contact with me.  But they did not offer any responses.   Two students were checking their phones. 

I know about wait-time—I teach the concept in pedagogy and tutoring courses.   But as the seconds ticked by, the silence felt increasingly suffocating, as if the space for discussion were actually contracting, not expanding.  

As the pace of the class slowed to a complete stop and the energy plummeted, my frustration rose.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao via UnsplashPhoto by Nathan Dumlao via UnsplashIn fact, I was already irritated by the fact that only two of the students had participated in an online peer review the prior week, when I canceled a class session because of a conference.  I considered just ending the class with some snark: 

  • “Since you all clearly don’t want to be here or learn anything, you can just go home.” 
  • “I guess I can’t compete with whatever is on your phones.” 
  • “This is a simple question, people.  Get off your phones and at least pretend to pay attention.”
  • “If you want to get out of here on time, I suggest you make some effort to contribute.”

But I held my tongue.  My son once told me he thought most students were conditioned not to trust instructors, not to respond, not to feel safe speaking in the classroom. 

So, I did not chastise.  All told, we had been through several minutes of silence, so I just made a concluding comment and transitioned to the next point of focus: “I see you guys are giving this some thought—sometimes it takes a while to put those thoughts into words.  That question of tone is something you will want to consider as you get started on our next paper.  Let’s take a look at those instructions.”

That session was an incredible disappointment to me—the pace, energy, and lack of participation felt like so much wasted time.  After class, I emailed my usual reminder about what students needed to do (in this case, choose the argument text they wanted to analyze), but I had no confidence that we would accomplish much in the next class.  

Over the next 48 hours, I received emails from all eight of those students:  they were sending me links to the articles they had chosen, making sure that they would be good choices for the assignment.  And during the next class, all eight of them worked on annotating the language and argument components in their chosen texts.  As I walked around the room to talk to them individually, they identified the claims, audience, reasons, evidence—and even tone—in their chosen pieces.   Students who had made no obvious connection to the material two days before left the class with working thesis statements and outlines.

I am so grateful for the perspective of wise students—much younger than I am—who remind me not to waste the silence.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.