Silence in education and ed research: taking off the crusader’s cape

I’m reading a book entitled “Perspectives on Silence,” an oldie-but-goodie text on the various constructions, interpretations, and meanings of silence from various disciplinary perspectives. I’m very interested in this topic as it relates to my work on how research involving asymmetries of power influence the construction of knowledge, particularly in interviewing and survey-based data collection. Explorations of this topic by Miller (2010) and others update the conversation as it relates to adult immigrants, especially those who are not first-language speakers of English. Questions include, “How does a researcher’s position of power, in terms of cultural capital and linguistic capital, social class, race/ethnicity and senses of belonging, and symbolic status as a highly educated person, influence the way information is shared?” and “How does silence express more than a speaker’s pause to gather her thoughts?”

I spoke with some of my graduate students last night — all of whom are teachers in New York public schools — asking them about how they see silence in educational contexts. The response I got from several students, all raised and schooled in China, added dimension to the insights from the text. They stated that in their country’s schools, speaking in class, especially in order to challenge a teacher’s authority on a particular topic, was considered to be a sign of disrespect. Further, such a communicative move could open the speaker up to embarrassment and shaming. My students volunteered that even in group settings without an explicit authority figure, it was often the case that silence was a tacit offer of approval to a speaker, even though the listener might ask questions or contradict the speaker in private later. Such interesting ideas, and of course it begs questions relating to cultural difference, as well as how my students, as teachers, evaluated things like fluency or considered questions of personality, which in reality are very much culturally defined (case in point: many ESL teachers will say that Japanese and Korean students are “shy,” which is a self-contradicting comment…if they are all shy, then none of them are shy.)

These thoughts bring me back to my upcoming research, in which I work with adult immigrants who are “low-status” in terms of educational background, social class, language ability, race/ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, and/or many other reasons, and how my participants could be silent in their interviews or their talk in focus groups. Perhaps I could even silence them in the ways I collect information, through question design and even the ways our socially-based power relationship plays out in a micro environment like a conversation in English. Such questions relate to the concept of interactional dynamics and speak to epistemological inconsistencies in research. Papers by Dodson and Schmalzbauer (2005) and Miller (2011) explore these topics and will shape my work as I move forward toward into the dissertation phase of my PhD. The real preoccupation is the political commitment to what lies beneath the work: to understanding that even the greatest of social crusaders can write over the stories of her participants through unequal power dynamics and assumptions about research participants who are poor, speak and think differently, and have different abilities and literacies than she does.