Duct Tape.

October 6, 2010 § 8 Comments

Inspired by a friend and colleague, I duct-taped my mouth yesterday in the University Writing course I teach. I’d like to reflect a bit on how the exercise went and how it affected me as an instructor while it’s still fresh on my mind.

For this particular class day I had assigned a reading (Phaedra Pezzullo’s “Resisting “national breast cancer awareness month”: the rhetoric of counterpublics and their cultural performances” e-mail me for a pdf) and wanted students to discuss new terms, grapple with the author’s subject, and respond to the piece as an example of academic writing. I wrote a few guiding questions on the board and hoped they would help sustain a conversation (I was pretty worried that this idea would fail, that students would be shy when unable to defer to the conversational maintenance I provide [I completely overestimated myself]).

I explained that following a conversation with his class about the masculine nature of academic discussion, and consequent lack of genuine listening, a colleague had duct-taped his mouth so as to truly listen to his students and to disrupt himself as an authority figure. I added my own thoughts on the subject in relation to our class’ unique dynamic and asked a student to tear off a piece of the duct-tape for my “silencing”. I slapped on the tape, and they went for it. Here’s what happened:

One student took the reins of the class, driving certain topics and posing questions to the class. I think he did this in part because the idea of silence was discomforting to him. While most students opted to raise their hands to participate, three students clearly dictated the discussion’s flow and would insert themselves in moments of lull. I initially appreciated their involvement, but clearly their dominance was quieting more voices than normal. After twenty minutes or so I handed the “leader” the duct-tape, he was quick to duct-tape his own mouth shut, and the two others started offering more questions, and fewer answers.

-Their conversations led to many of the questions I had hoped, and witnessing their struggle for answers was both enlightening and hard for me. I wanted to help them, especially when a particular passage was challenging for them, or when they tried to define terms and were SO close to breakthrough. But not being able to insert myself allowed their momentum to develop in ways that elucidated so much more about their interpretations and expectations – both of which have already had me reformulate my approach to this article, one I’ve used for three semesters prior.

-Some students pressured the quiet corners of the classroom to speak up – this resulted in contributions from two students who hardly ever participate. It was difficult for me to watch the uneasiness between the two sides, to not tamp the forcefulness of the dominant voices.

-Most of the students enjoyed this exercise. Some were excited by the sheer novelty of having an instructor duct-tape her mouth, but that quickly took a backseat to the excitement and energy they threw into being able to talk without my boundaries.

-I was forced to be more reflexive about my assumptions and dependence on my authority than I had anticipated. I consistently fought the urge to write something on the board, a page number that would help them clarify a term, for example, or to point my finger toward a student whose hand had been in the air for quite some time, or just to generally guide their thoughts. But in every instance, I found that quieting that urge, and then listening as intently as possible, was so much more rewarding and surprising than I’d anticipated. I was affected by my silencing more than they were, I think. Although a few would still direct their comments toward me, my inability to answer (I tried to avoid nodding and reacting) compelled them to redirect their focus to a nearby peer.

-I’d love to try this again, perhaps offering the duct-tape more readily to the students themselves.

I’m including some of the notes I typed during the class, they’re by no means an exhaustive transcript. I stopped typing after the student’s initial comment so that I could listen more intently, but I think the notes are still interesting to read and reflect some of what happened. To read those notes, click here.

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