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Listening to the Silences

Editors note: The following post is the second part of a two part entry by Dr. Ellie Fulmer.

Part II: Practitioner Inquiry into Racial Comedy: What might our classroom silences teach us?

By Dr. Ellie Fitts Fulmer

In collaboration with colleagues and students, I have been interested for the past several years in exploring the potentials and pitfalls of utilizing racial comedy as a teaching tool in antiracist education.

I use practitioner inquiry methods to do this research (see my prior post on practitioner inquiry here). This tool comes with risks, as well as benefits, which I have explored together with co-authors (see a co-authored article here, and conference proceedings here, and here). Media with racial comedy is a tool I see merits in, and thus, I’m keenly interested in exploring further.

I define racial comedy as a genre of comedy that explicitly addresses racial issues, tensions, and experiences, and it is not necessarily limited to comedians of color.

Use of racial comedy media in my teaching first arose when students began sending me and my collaborator media clips that related to our course content (Fulmer & Makepeace, 2015). In response to this initiative, we built structures in our classes to view, decode, deconstruct, and learn from racial comedy media. Along with another colleague, I am presently working to articulate a robust theory for racial comedy in college and university coursework as a practice for cultivating racial literacy, and, in particular, to understand what is happening when classroom silence – instead of laughter – is the result (Fulmer & Gayle, under review).

The focus of the present blog, though, is to explore the silences in our classrooms more generally, and to offer these as a space where instructors may learn about our teaching. What happens in your classroom when you’ve presented something that you predicted would be the kickstart to a fruitful discussion, and you’re instead met with the sound of crickets chirping? I feel my own anxiousness blossom when I’ve had this happen. Do you feel this, too? Why is this? What can the silences tell us about our teaching, and what can we learn about our students from silences? Let’s reframe them.

In visual art, negative space is the term for referring to the area around, between, and outside of the main image, and it can create some of the most compelling elements of a piece. These spaces are not “negative” in the behavioral sense; rather, they are key features for experiencing the image.

Perhaps this representation can help us rethink silences in our classroom. What if we thought of silences not as worrisome aspects, but, rather, as negative space that contributed productively to the course? Dr. Kathy Schultz, a mentor of mine from graduate school who is now the Dean of the University of Colorado’s School of Education, has written extensively about reinterpreting classroom silences (see for example her book Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices, Schultz, 2009). Kathy tells us, importantly, that silences are not always indicative of students’ lack of knowledge.

In fact, a classroom silence may be students’ way of taking time to pause and reflect. Or, they might be grappling with social-emotional aspects of the material itself, or with the group dynamics of the classroom itself.

Silences can lead us to new discoveries about our teaching. By asking questions of ourselves with a focus on classroom silences, we may find that our students lead us to rethink core assumptions we’ve made. For instance, in my research on teaching with racial comedy, examining the silences led me to understand that the use of this tool is best undertaken when it is initialized by the students themselves. For the past six years I have used multimedia clips containing racial comedy in my teaching, and, as a White person, I found that the clips I most often select have to do with naming, explaining, or understanding Whiteness. Sometimes this tool was successful in sparking discussion; other times I have been met with silence.

An undergraduate student research team (now Ithaca College alumni) explored this with me as part of a data analysis workshop at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography in Education research forum last spring.

They found that when students initiate the connections between course content and racial comedic media, and bring the media to class themselves, students also carry with them underlying assumptions that can be constructively challenged and explored.

However, in contrast, when the professor is the source of the comedic clip being shared, this seems to breech an unspoken system about how media is shared. The results in my own teaching in these instances — when I was the one sharing the media – are often silence. Authority seems to work against productive discussion in these cases.

Clearly, more research is needed. Dr. Alesha Gayle and I have identified additional reasons for silences around racial comedy, including what we have termed the “spotlighting effect” of inadvertently putting students of color on the spot when someone of their race is depicted on screen (Gayle & Fulmer, in process).

What is going on in the silences, in your classrooms? Practitioner inquiry affords us an opportunity to have our assumptions challenged and to continue our learning as teacher/scholars. What do you notice, when you start to listen to the silent voices?


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