Silence in the Classroom


It was only by coincidence that my class’s week on  ecological nonfiction essays coincided with the first presidential debate, back in September. That week, I decided to overwork my students by asking them to watch the debate and research issues not discussed in it to present informally to the class. This was in addition to numerous readings by environmental writers, including Terry Tempest Williams, Donna Haraway, Edward Abbey, and Alison Hawthorne Deming. My students watched the debate, but we did not discuss it extensively. Instead, at the end of a long week about nuclear testing, the meat industry, and communication between species, my classes presented numerous, often unspoken issues.

Many of them chose to research declining bee populations. Some researched eroding coastlines, others the Dakota Access Pipeline. Alongside these topics, the debate somehow felt too disheartening to discuss. I did not assign the second debate; I have avoided discussing the content of the presidential election, because much of it is ugly and dehumanizing.

I think I can take a lot, intellectually speaking. Maybe it’s numbness or being a grad student, or the erosion of my soul to coffee and rum. It’s not that ugly and dehumanizing rhetoric is unimportant; it’s that, lately, I’m having a hard time stomaching it, as well as the important environmental and geopolitical issues that are too frequently sidestepped in order to create more time in the media for quotes, scandals, emails, videos, or tweets. Such issues are important, but hideous, and I don’t know if I can impose them on my students if I myself am frustrated by their imposition on me.

Me! I’m not a cynic, but I read about atrocities with considerable ease. I can sit through a Werner Herzog documentary and feel only minimal anxiety about the impending digital apocalypse. I can stomach a lot. What I find frustrating is that the capacity to discuss serious issues remains very much a choice, but not for long. Even now, classroom discussions about climate change take place in the present tense and not the future tense; women’s suffrage could soon become a past-tense moment; digital public shaming over five-year old tweets could become a common, inescapable practice. I don’t want to be silent about important political issues in the classroom, but I now recognize the comfort of silence.

It’s easy. It’s pleasant. It’s satisfying to turn off the noise, the rhetoric, the verbal and psychic and physical violence. Silence may be irresponsible, but now I understand its appeal. We are only halfway done with the semester, and there is still much left to discuss. Silence is appealing, but dangerous.


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