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Autoethnography of Silence
Brian R Wood
I was still the most silent in class


Photo: Carine Thomas

I have always been attached to silence as a form of being. Silence takes a hold of me in many situations that requires conversation or verbal communication. It has become a part of me, a part of my identity. It is so prevalent in me that there is not a person associated with me that would not put the word "quiet" in front of my name. Even though my silence has been with me ever since I became a social being, I still feel that it has been an ongoing controversy to me and others. This polemic feeling is only one in perhaps many translations of silence. I constantly ask myself why my silence causes discomfort in me and more importantly in others; why this negative view of silence?
I contend that silence, in many respects, not only means this negative definition, but also has a more complex role. Perhaps agency plays a large role as a choice not to communicate. In the preceding paragraph, I mentioned that silence takes a hold of me in many situations. I want to rephrase that and say I take a hold of silence. I rely on silence for my agency or choice not to communicate.

I am going relocate silence into the realm of agency by telling a story in an autoethnographic format; using my own experiences of observing and being observed. The following is an actual event in the field. The ‘field’ is two classroom settings at two different times within my rather long academic career. During these two specific times, the classroom was forced to deal outwardly and intensely with silence and its reaction to the act of which I was an active member. In doing an autoethnography, I mean to give a real context in the form of my experience to which can be attached a more full understanding or confusion of the complexity of silence.

The Story (In the Field)
The first setting takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a Master’s program for Intercultural Relations. There was one class in particular that became the stage for this foray into the thoughts and reactions to silence. The class was a very diverse make up of nationalities from around the world. America, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Hungary, Colombia, Brazil were all represented. The professor had the stereotypical appearance of the white wild hair and the equally coloured and wild beard with also the soft spoken voice. The class was conducted in an informal, discussion style manner.

After the second or third week of class, the professor started to become aware of a few people (myself included) that were not talking in class. He would often ask for space (more silence) for the silent to get a chance to speak. He had the assumption of being silent as being silenced. In making space for those without a chance to speak to actually speak, he inadvertently silenced the speakers. After performing this space opening ritual for a couple of weeks, the entire class became uncomfortable with his focus on silence. This was making me uncomfortable as well because he was putting the dominant translation onto my silence; a translation that silence is not talking. The students who usually talked were also suffering for that fact that they felt they could not participate anymore and I somehow felt guilty for them being silenced. I even went up to a fellow classmate, who spoke in class often and who I noticed was one of the silenced, and told her that her talking in class was not silencing me at all and to please go ahead and verbally participate in class.

An interesting dynamic also came out of my silent identity in this class. As mentioned above, it was a diverse class (though about 90-95% of all my classes were female) and I realized I was relying on a stereotype to comfort myself. I noticed there were Japanese and Koreans in the class and I felt that I finally would not be singled out for being the silent one. I was proven wrong when this very event did not come true; I was still the most silent in class. I myself was also breaking a stereotype, the stereotype that Americans commonly spoke often in classes. I believe I was expected to talk because of the fact that I was an American and when I did not speak and the East Asians did, I think that confused the professor also.

When my stereotypes, as expected, did not help me and the pressure to speak was intensifying, I became even more silent. I was refusing to submit to the fact that my silence was a bad thing and something to be fixed by giving it space. By giving my silence space, the whole class had long periods of silence that definitely made the entire class uncomfortable even for me. I was resisting the pressure to speak and holding onto my identity as a silent student.

The second classroom setting just recently took place. It is not is Cambridge but in Melbourne, Australia. It is now about five years later and the same incident is repeating itself and thus the reason for this essay. The stage is the same – a classroom. Again the controversy of silence came up in the middle of the semester. The silence of some students, of course including myself, was disrupting the class. The professor, not the stereotype, was frustrated with the lack of participation in the class (understandable since I also have been a teacher and felt frustrated with a silent class – part of my ambivalence to my own silence). We spent one hour of the next class discussing ways to rectify the silent problem. It was a time to allow space for people not speaking to speak – deja-vu. As was expected the talk around the room was about the silencing of the silent. This hour was the negative translation working its power again. I was the one being studied, the object of a type of ethnography. It was self-reflexive ethnography on the speakers’ part because some of them were talking about their influence of speaking as a major factor of the silent students’ silence.

At this point in the hour I realized this and started to consciously do my own autoethnography of myself and of the other ethnographers in the class. When the hour finished, I was the only student who did not speak a word which I meant to do (ironically I had to do a presentation that day after the silent debate). I was not silenced but I chose to be silent to make a quiet point. I knew people were waiting for me to speak, I saw eager eyes glancing at me every so often. I was making some people nervous by being silent on the topic of being silent which quite amused me.

The class eventually agreed to separate into smaller groups, one at the original time in the morning and another one in the afternoon. I did actually partake in voting because I honestly thought I would be forced to talk in a smaller class. I did actually talk in the smaller classes but on a very limited basis.
By doing this ethnography, I hope to come to terms with my silence as a more constructive identity within me. I also hope that for other silent people reading this it will give you a better sense of what silence can be; as a more complicated act than just something negative to deal with throughout life. After the incidents in the above story I became proud to be silent. I am proud that silence causes discomfort in people around me; it is my agency disrupting their notions of silence and me.

© Brian R. Wood – Nov 2002
email:woodkoiwa@hotmail.com

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