September 5, 2008
By Colleen MacPherson
Silence and learning appear, at first blush, to be a contradiction in terms—a silent classroom, for examples, appears to have little if any connection to traditional ideas about teaching. But one group of esteemed Canadian academics believe silence is important enough to warrant publication of an entire book on the subject, a book described as both groundbreaking and risk-taking.
“Stop speaking and moving long enough to make ourselves uncomfortable, to notice new connections, to incorporate new insights, however slight or subtle, into our next blocks of speaking. Give voice to wise voicelessness the way playwright Harold Pinter employs his famous pauses in his dialogue, as soundless chambers where fears, dreams, and desires ricochet.”
That passage is taken from “Silent-speaking Words,” Ron Marken’s contribution to the anthology Silences in Teaching and Learning, newly released by Canada’s 3M National Teaching Fellows. A professor emeritus of English, Marken was among the first to receive a coveted 3M fellowship and was part of the group that decided the unique topic of silence in teaching was worth exploring.
“At the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education meeting in 2005, there was a session on silence,” said Marken in a recent interview with On Campus News. “That session addressed all kinds of negatives but it got us talking about the role of silence, its consequences and the significance of silence in the academy.”
The decision to prepare an anthology came with provisos—the call for submissions had to be broad in order to include teachers, students, administrators, parents; the language and style of the writing had to be accessible; and it had to be provocative. Silences meets all those criteria.
Marken said a panel of 3M fellows, himself included, served as the editorial committee for the book, and writer Betsy Warland was hired as an external editor. Together, the group pored through and ruthlessly edited over 200 submissions, with Warland guiding “a bunch of academics who couldn’t get their heads out of academia.”
What emerged is a collection of short pieces, in both official languages, that include prose, poetry and very personal recountings of silences by authors whose experiences with silences are invariably positive, restorative or evocative. It is a book that is easy to dip into at any page and does exactly what Marken hoped it would do—“encourages readers to remember what role silence has played in their teaching or their learning.”
Silences in Teaching and Learning is being sold and distributed by the University of Western Ontario. Marken will discuss the book at an event Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers.