by Dr. Rebecca Weaver (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’m a talker. I’ve always relied on my strong and pliant voice to engage the world and to assist me for the twenty years I’ve been teaching. I teach composition at a community college and my multi-faceted voice does a lot for me.
But this Spring semester, for two whole weeks, I couldn’t speak. I could whisper but was explicitly warned not to. This was, as all teachers can imagine, difficult. I had to communicate differently and fight the professional doubt that crept in every day I woke without a voice. I relied on adaptive tools such as screenreaders and apps to “talk” in class or make announcements, I moved the schedule around and hoped my students would adapt. They did. On the whole, my students are generous and perceptive, and we had some funny moments as we tried to do the work of the class together.
It changed my teaching and forced me to be present in different ways. I became a better listener and now hear more things, such as silences between spoken words and phrases. I’m more aware of the palette of those quiet moments and of body language. I noticed that people interacting with me echoed what I was doing. When I could only gesture, they gestured more. When I finally regained my voice and could only speak very quietly, they spoke quietly, too, making speaking situations feel more intimate as we both leaned in to hear.
This became particularly clear in my individual conferences with students. In previous semesters, I’ve relied on my voice to do the heavy lifting in these conversations. I’ve relied on its ability to change pitch, tone, volume, and enunciation, on its years of training and experience. But this time, I just couldn’t depend on it. After I began to speak again, I took care to not strain my voice. In these meetings, I concentrated on listening more and talking quietly and calmly. I waited before saying something. I was afraid that at any moment, my voice would go away again, so I chose words carefully and efficiently, and this made me more blunt with students.
Usually, with students who’ve been struggling all semester, I go over their grade breakdowns and discuss previous communications about their work, asking slightly probing questions about their take on the class and their strategies for improvement. But that week, I felt I just didn’t have the luxury of being loquacious. I told those who needed to hear it, pretty much right after they sat down, that they needed to make major changes in their lives as students if they wanted to pass. Some of them were shocked, some not as shocked by the statement as by the fact that I spoke it.
With students who began the semester well but were suddenly struggling, it was clear something was going on. I asked, directly, for the first time: are you getting enough to eat? I’ve asked this before but in a much more oblique way, customarily involving the word “obstacles.” Perhaps it was my quiet voice, perhaps it was seeing me as vulnerable in ways they hadn’t in front of the classroom, but in this quiet and more direct conversation, I noticed relief when I asked. If a student hesitated, I followed up: “would you like food now?” and offered a selection from the stash I keep in my office drawer. I showed some students the new campus food pantry.
Regular access to food is a problem that many current college students experience. The lessons and advocacy provided by the #realcollege and #cultureofcaring movements have demonstrated that the majority of college students in the U.S. have some kind of obstacle to focusing on class work, to, as my colleague Dr. Jill Lee-Barber puts it, “be available for learning.”. Only some of them will say so, however, and we need to listen better. First-generation and non-traditional students (who make up over half of the U.S. college population) aren’t socialized to demand their needs be met by school. Even in student-centered institutions such as my college, drawing from some of the poorest counties in Georgia, we can do better to hear them.
Lately there’s been a lot of online discussion about the roles we (professors, schools) play in helping students meet their basic needs. As “Dean Dad” and others have pointed out, some professors resist such work, claiming that it’s “not our job” or that it’s “mission creep.” Asking questions about students’ lives outside of school can blur boundaries. Yet we know that students do better in school, that they are more available for learning, if they are not hungry or homeless. When I hear the “not our job” canard, I’m reminded of the story from theologist Henri Nouwen about a professor who remarked to him: “You know . . . my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”
My “work,” my teaching, was interrupted by voicelessness and it made me work differently. I stopped talking, I waited, and I listened better. My work, my listening, became more about teaching the students I have and really hearing them as they spoke. It doesn’t mean setting up a food pantry myself or driving a shuttle for students with transportation issues. It means advocating and speaking in the right ways on behalf of my students. It means hearing what they sometimes struggle to tell us.