A Season for Silence

Another year, another collection of posts and comments. Another time to say thank you for your faithful readership and express grateful appreciation to Faculty Focus’ extraordinary editor, Mary Bart.

Teaching Professor Blog Our lives are busy, full, and boisterous. We get a sense of that when the semester ends. Oh, there’s plenty going on at home, especially this time of year, but at work it’s quiet. Classes are done, and there are only a few students left scurrying around campus. Yes, there’s grading, but that now gets done without many interruptions. For a while we relish the quiet. The sidewalks aren’t crowded. Coffee can be had in the student center without a wait. We have the library to ourselves. But then the silence turns to emptiness. What is a campus without students?

Do we need silence and quiet times every now and then? I think so. The noise of busy academic lives makes it hard to examine any questions beyond what’s next on the to-do list. I find a quiet space in the woods where I walk with a faithful beagle. On a still, frosty morning, as the cold starts to seep into my shoes, I find my way to the more significant questions. How am I doing? Am I doing work I consider important? Am I giving enough? Am I getting enough? What moments do I savor? Which moments should I forget?

The endless political noise of the recent presidential election was deafening—a discordant cacophony that made many of us want to cover our ears. Those of us with a college education have been pitted against those without one. We’ve always stood in separate places, but the gulf between us seems wider. We holler back and forth about walls, bridges, climate change, and the lives that matter. Shouldn’t we be reaching out? But how? And with what?

The value of education used to be taken for granted. When we first moved to Marsh Creek—a place populated by those uneducated, white, rural folks—I was encouraged by all the talk of “going up to the University.” Then I discovered that people were going there for jobs. Penn State is the best employer in the county. It takes years to get a job at the University; and when somebody does, everybody in the valley here knows about it. In this quiet period between the end of one political era and the beginning of another, questions arise about the role of education in a democracy. What is the responsibility of those of us who have it to those who don’t? Collectively? Individually?

I think we ought to declare December the month for listening… and I mean truly listening. Typically, when someone speaks—especially when they’re making an argument with which we disagree—we listen at the beginning, often just long enough to get the gist of their point; then our listening derails as we redirect our mental energies toward framing the response, the counter-argument, the better answer. Yes, we need to have a dialogue; but I think we’d learn more if we focused on the message before we start to formulate our response. Isn’t that what we’ve learned when we take the time to listen carefully to our students? Isn’t that what we encourage our students to do?

So, this season I’m wishing you quiet times, silent listening, and a hopeful confrontation with all that education is and can be on our campuses, in our communities, and across our diverse culture.