What Kind of Listening Are Students Doing?

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Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters. Think about it.”  —Anonymous

Browsing the Internet recently, I came across a site called Oatmail, where a young woman posted this sentence: “Listening is a practice in humility. It closes your mouth while opening your mind.” For most of my career, I wanted to focus on writing and speaking rather than on listening: I wanted my students to find their voices and to get their messages out to others; I wanted them to be heard. Not until I read Krista Ratcliffe’s work did I think hard about the crucial reciprocal relationship between speaking and listening and understand that listening is as important—perhaps more important—than any other of the communicative arts. I saw that the binary between the production of discourse (speaking, writing) and the consumption of discourse (listening) was false, to say the very least, and that it depended on an impoverished concept of listening rather than the kind of listening the Oatmail writer spoke of, the kind that is a “lesson in humility” and that “emerges out of wonder.” As you no doubt know, Ratcliffe calls this kind of listening “rhetorical listening”—that is, opening ourselves to the thoughts of others and making the effort not only to hear their words but to take those words in and fully understand them. To truly LISTEN to them.

This is the kind of listening some refer to as “deep,” but there are other kinds of listening as well. Based on works like The Coaching Manual by Julie Starr and others by business consultants like Andy Hagerman or Natalie Harvey, I have come up with the following list and descriptions of kinds of listening:

  • Cosmetic listening: I am trying to look like I’m listening but I’m really attending to something else.
  • Download listening: I am listening very selectively, just listening to confirm what I already know or think.
  • Turn-taking: I am ostensibly listening but more likely thinking about what I will say next in the conversation or discussion.
  • Active listening: I am purposefully giving you my attention and am focusing on what you are saying. I am present in the moment and will not be distracted—and I will try to say back to you what I am hearing in order to see if I am really understanding you.
  • Deep/empathetic/rhetorical listening: I am listening actively and without judgment or preconceived ideas. I am listening to your words and also to what lies beyond those words. I am trying to put myself in your shoes and to feel what you are experiencing. I am listening to learn and I will affirm what you have said.

I expect that these kinds of listening are familiar to you, though you may not have thought about them in these terms, and I’m fairly sure students have not done so either. What this brief list suggests to me is that listening is very complex—complex enough to spend some time on in class. In fact, I like to ask students to do an inventory of their own listening—to monitor their listening for at least one day to see what kinds of listening they are doing and to write up what they learn about how and why they usually listen: What tends to get their attention? What and who do they like to listen to—and what or who do they NOT like to listen to—and why? Where do they do most of their listening? How would they describe themselves as listeners?

Especially when we are all doing so much listening online these days, it seems important to try to better understand our ways of listening and to learn to adjust those ways according to our purposes and situations. I tried monitoring my listening a few days ago—and I was surprised by what I learned.

More on listening next week. In the meantime, I would love to hear how you are approaching listening with your own students.

Image Credit: "Headphones" by Valentin.Ottone, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

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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.