Application of a Theoretical Framework of Silence to Real and Virtual Classrooms

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

I have not yet fully analyzed all the data collected in my study, although I can safely report that Terry's experiment in integrating uses of CMC into the course was successful, if grades can be considered an adequate marker of success. Only one student received below a "B" grade for the course, and that student received a "C." All the students in Terry's class eventually found their ways into the online "classroom" and demonstrated an ability to adequately participate. At the end of the semester the instructor felt that the integration of CMC into the class had gone well. Yet still, there were instances in which students did not participate in ways that I expected, and there were other instances of silence which I had not expected to encounter.

One way to devise a framework of analysis for silence is to look to the major schools of thought for basic distinctions between types of silences, and I found three. As mentioned, Tillie Olsen's literary-based framework makes a distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" silences. Natural silences are periods of silence distinguished by their gestational and re-generative powers, silences which are pregnant with thought and meaning-making. Natural silences seemed to be marked by a sense of agency, unlike "unnatural" or man-made silences, which result in the silencing, marginalizing, ignoring or trivializing of voices of certain segments of the population within a given discourse community. Unnatural silences are antithetical to creating an environment for equitable dialogue. As well, Olsen defines voices silenced because of lack of access to the means for literate development -- a "room of one's own," time and money to support reading and writing endeavors -- as being unnatural.

George Kalamaras also uses two basic distinctions for beginning his rhetoric-based study of silence--"conceptual" and "nonconceptual"--which refer to two tacit "modes of understanding" or epistemologies. His point in using these terms is to distance himself from predominating Western theories which posit silent, non-verbal thought as "irrational"; mutism and passiveness are constructed as the binaries of dominance and aggression. His argument is that silence itself is a form of rhetoric. "Conceptual" knowledge within Kalamaras' framework of silence refers to "perceptions formed through [the] process of thought"; "nonceptual" knowledge refers to perceptions "not bound by the categorizing capacity of intellect or thought" (8). In other words, there is a type of intuitive or tacit knowledge which cannot necessarily be articulated through naming.

Similarly, sociolinguists make attempts to provide basic binary divisions for grouping silences by type within specific cultural contexts. Saville-Troike defines these in terms of speech acts: 1) the "prosodic dimensions of silence," which would include expected rythmic pauses in oral and written discourse, and which carry "meaning but not propositional content"; and, 2) silences which act as communicative acts and which, when interpreted in context, carry "illocutionary force" (146). (See, for example, Elbow's "Silence: A Collage," 1994.)

While these theories and taxonomies seem to provide useful references points for beginning an analysis of silence(s), without specific objects of inquiry to analyze they become "only" theories, after all. What I found, as I began to analyze the data from this study, is that the identification and importance, or value, of various types of silences depend upon one's point of view, or situated subject position. Therefore, silences that I encountered in the course of this study fall into three such categories: 1) the silences I heard as researcher; 2) silences that students encountered and reported; and, 3) silences, as interpreted by the instructor.

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