The Rest is Silence

Writing Centers / Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

silence2I find my work as the T.A. Assistant Director immensely satisfying in no small part due to how much I love listening to myself talk. With great power comes the need to constantly explain things to other people, to run or participate in meetings, and to offer my wisdom to all those who seek it (and to those who don’t, as well).

Therefore, as someone in love with the sound of his own voice, I am well aware of the irony involved in a training meeting I led last week, entitled “Less of Me, More of You: Productive Silence as Student Development.”

Our discussion consisted of me and five of our tutors, all concerned with questions of student engagement, student participation, and the ever-present fear of that Writing Center bogeyman: being directive. As most tutors would agree, it’s the easiest thing in the world to say that we can improve by being “less directive” with our students, imagining that perfect conference in which we, the non-guiding tutors, simply facilitate our students’ internal brilliance and, through a series of well-posed yet open-ended questions, embolden the student to seize the initiative and rewrite or revise while we sit back, basking in the reflected glow of writing in progress.

With that too-easy ideal in mind, we tried to talk about how issues of direction and silence can productively come together in a conference. The OGE (ongoing education) session was focused around three basic questions:

How do I want silence to work? What are different situations that call for different responses?

What are some practical reminders I can take into a session?

What are a few new things I can try?

The OGE discussion moved across both theoretical and practical concerns, and while we talked a lot about what we wanted for our students, we also turned again and again to our own concerns and desires as tutors. Looking back over my notes, here are a few of the themes I saw popping up throughout the conversation, broken handily into distinct categories for your reading pleasure.

Student and Environment

I began by asking the tutors to talk about issues they had encountered that week, which helped ground our discussion in questions of specifics. How, for instance, can silence be productive when the conference takes place in a dining hall, where you have to practically shout just to be heard? What do you do when the student doesn’t want to talk, either because he’s shy or because he doesn’t think your questions are worthwhile? Silence is contingent on each specific conference, and simply trying to be “less directive” can sometimes be just as much a disservice.


One tutor put it very succinctly, saying that our students expect us to perform, and we expect that of ourselves. Silence seems antithetical to our purposes at times precisely because of what the students expect of us: whether they expect us to ask them questions or expect us to tell them the answers, they (and often we) share an understanding that our role is to teach them something. If we’re just sitting there silently, waiting for them to discover things on their own, we’re not meeting our end of the bargain they make by sitting down at the table.

This leads into what I thought was one of our more provocative questions: How are we deploying silence? What cues are we giving our students to use that silence? Do we actually demand a response, either in words or in writing (or, hopefully, in both)? Silence can be productive, but only if we’ve clearly communicated to the student that we’re being silent for a reason. We need to help them understand that our silence is a way for them to process ideas, and that they can only do so by filling the silence we create—which, in turn, is something we need to work on reading in our students, figuring out how they best accomplish that processing. Some students need to write; others need to talk. Our job is to recognize that both are ways to fill silence productively.


A lot of the conversation kept returning to a fundamental issue—our own fears. Fears that we condescend by being quiet, or by letting students talk and then smugly telling them “You should write that down,” as if we were just waiting for them to come to the answer that we already knew. (Or fears that they’ll see us as such, even if that isn’t our intent.) Fears that students will read our silence as shock, as if their work is so bad that we can’t think of things to say about it. (Or that it’s so good that we don’t need to say anything about it.) Fears that our silence masks potential criticism, a hesitancy to say that some papers still need a lot of work. Fear of silence itself creating a cycle of silence, where the student is waiting for you to talk, and you’re waiting for the student to talk, and then no one talks at all and each gets more nervous about why the other isn’t talking.

But one key issue I noticed was an assumption that silence hurts a paper. Our suggestions kept echoing that we are directive on a theoretical level and silent on a concrete level, teaching the student technique that she then uses for her specific paper. In other words, we talk to help improve the writer, then let her handle the writing. No tutor overtly said this, but I was hearing (or possibly mis-hearing) the notion that silence is a strategy for long-term goals, and that if the paper itself suffers, so be it. Which led me to the question that wrapped up our discussion: does silence itself hurt a paper? Not a writer, but a specific text, where we sacrifice that text for the greater writerly good? We didn’t have time to fully explore this question, but I would invite readers and commenters to think about if we see silence as productive for individual writing as well as individual writers.

Some Steps

As noted, one of my goals for the OGE was to come up with practical ideas. (And my tutors, don’t forget that you still owe me some responses!) Here are a few that came out of the conversation:

-Remind yourself that silence isn’t terrifying. As I wrote, we talked a lot about fears, so be willing to accept those fears.

-Silence is productive only if the student understands it. Make sure you’ve clearly conveyed your expectations, and ask yourself what you’re doing to encourage student response. Not just talking less, but offering cues.

-Get the student to do/write something early on, setting a productive tone for later. If she knows up front that she’s supposed to be producing something and helping fill that silence, she’ll fall into that habit.

-It’s easy for us to take notes for the student. Instead, make the student take notes, and read them back. Or both take notes, then compare.

-Ask yourself, is my silence helping this paper? Not just the writer, but his text?

-Don’t equate silence with acceptance. Silence doesn’t just mean a lack of criticism.

-Consider the questions you’re asking to provoke responses. Are you being specific, asking for clear responses? Or, if you’re being purposefully open-ended, does the student understand that? (One tutor offered the great phrases “actively directive” and “actively receptive” to help illustrate this issue. Even if we’re purposefully vague, are we actively receptive to their responses?)

And I think, on that note, I’ll shut up now. Hopefully I’ve provided enough specific cues and questions to provoke some responses of my own. If not, don’t worry—I’m not afraid of a little silence.

One Reply to “The Rest is Silence”

  1. Brian, I really like your point about silence as being involved with/implicated in the “long term” goals of a session. But I also want to point to what I learned about how to get silence more oriented towards those short-term goals, too.

    Silence, like speech, depends entirely on context–on the way the tutor frames that silence for the student. In other words, there seems to be a difference between simply sitting there, thinking to ourselves “Ah yes, now I will let the student think! And I’ll just wait here while she does that…,” and contextualizing that silence for the student — actually saying “Alright, well why don’t you take a minute and think about this idea, and other ways you could discuss it in this section of the paper. I’ll make some other notes while you brainstorm…”

    In my rather ham-fisted second example, the student knows that the silence has a purpose. It’s contextualized. And, imagining myself as that student, that makes all the difference — I’m thinking about my paper rather than trying to guess what my tutor is thinking, trying to read my tutor’s facial expression etc. So although we as tutors need to remember “more of you, less of me” is important, we also have a duty to convey that to the students (oh, more of ME less of YOU!”) from these contextualization strategies.

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