Truly "Seeing" Students

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I recently had a chance to read columnist David Brooks’s new book How to Know a Person. Brooks says it has taken him years to learn to listen with genuine curiosity to others, especially those he doesn’t agree with. He recalls his attempts to persuade through traditional argument, showing the limitations of that approach in vivid detail and his arduous search for an effective alternative. Leaning in, listening, and then listening again, giving full attention to the person you are talking to (rather than thinking about what you will say next) turns out to be the key strategy to truly “seeing” other people.

Basic to Brooks’s approach is a conversational model of discourse, rather than the lecture mode practiced in much of the academy, or the debate/disputation mode of much public discourse today. In conversations, participants are in exploration mode, thinking together: the goal is often the conversation itself, rather than vanquishing an opponent. And it’s in such conversations that Brooks finds ways to “know” someone else.

Research for Brooks’s book led him to identify two levels to any conversation: the first layer is the subject—what you are literally talking about. The second layer, which he dubs the underconversation, is the “flow of emotion” going between the people talking. This second layer is really important: is it making the speakers feel safe, or less so? Listened to and respected, or not? Paying attention to the underconversation led Brooks to ask different questions: not “what do you think about this topic?” but “what led you to think this way about this topic?” Most important, such conversations offered him the space to keep opening doors by saying “Tell me more. What am I missing? Tell me more.”

As I read, I kept thinking about my own practices in the classroom and in the writing center. Brooks’s advice about how to really see another person (and to make sure that person feels seen) rings very true to me. It’s why in the writing program at Stanford, we made student conferences central to our pedagogy, making sure we had time for conversations with our students, one-on-one, and making sure we focused our attention, laser-like, on our students and their writing and trying to track the “underconversation” going on in each instance. And it’s why, in my work in the writing center, I focused on asking questions, almost always leading to “Tell me more.” These are such simple-sounding teaching practices, but in my experience they are often hard to implement: time pressure, distractions, and the discipline it takes to really focus our attention all work against creating the kind of conversations Brooks describes. Reading his book is a good reminder, however, of how important it is that we keep on trying. When we give students our full attention, when we find the time and space to genuinely see them—and their work—we are truly teaching. 


Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.