Radical Listening

by Tram Nguyen, Assistant Professor
English Department


Our students’ bravery in the face of precarity has compelled me to make empathy and community the cornerstones of my pedagogy. This entails critical self-reflection. In recent years I have made a radical shift in my own listening ethic by embracing careful attendance to students and the multi-various ways they express themselves. The sleepy or lethargic student is not quite the same as the student seduced by mobile devices. The shy student is not equivalent to the passive student. The student who robustly participates in group discussions but who becomes recalcitrant during writing exercises is expressing fear of and alienation from the written word. And the bored student is perhaps an overachiever who needs different mountains to climb. Students want to be heard and understood beyond the academic answers that they find disconnected from their daily lives.


Listening mindfully involves being present in classes. To be present is to be open and available to the exchanges that happen between each participant of that space. It is not always possible, but I know students see that an attempt is made and are delighted when their ideas and various self-expressions are affirmed. In one discussion about the function of art, a student quietly commented that paintings can express what cannot be said. This stayed with me, and a week later I really understood it as I was listening to Miles Davis’s Ascenseur pour l’echaufauds and her words fully registered: music without words or in another language reverberates within us in a manner theorized by Christopher Bollas as the “unthought known.” When I relayed my realization to the class, I saw the student beam, and believe it made other students know that their ideas would be valued. This is what it means to be present for me, and the rewards are abundant.


My lofty goal of instilling a love of learning in my students is sometimes impossible. Being a life-long learner is a selfish pursuit that those with time can more easily achieve. Learning takes time. Dr. Roosevelt Montas, at the Liberal Arts Symposium in May 2018, and at various Columbia Core at Hostos talks, emphasizes the idea that the etymology of school traces back to the Greek work scholé, which means leisure. And our students don’t often have the luxury of leisure time. I have tried to build time into my curricula to give students time to think, like the “five-minute paper,” pioneered by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, where students are given the last five minutes of classes to recall and synthesize materials accumulatively. Engaging students is a necessary aspect of teaching, not because we are performers, but because some students from disenfranchised educational backgrounds feel threatened by college. Psychologists Joshua Aaronson and Claude Steele have identified this as the “stereotype threat,” where internalized negative stereotypes hinder a person’s ability to perform academically, especially on high stakes tests. And thus my dream of encouraging students to be life-long learners is grounded in the belief that they have a will to know and to discover, and it is my responsibility to nurture and to carve out space for that in the classroom.


When I first started teaching almost two decades ago, fear didn’t allow me to create a space where students could surprise me. It took me a long time to learn to be open to missteps and wrong turns in the classroom. It has been my mission to teach content that matters to students socially, personally, and politically, but having an immigrant mentality meant that I proceeded to do so relentlessly, even mercilessly, calling to my mind Shostakovich’s words to describe tyranny under Stalin: “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’” Perhaps I have not been quite as bad as Stalin, but I have learned from my colleagues at Hostos who model practices of care and compassion while maintaining academic rigor. I have discovered that being open to surprises and derailments, and learning how to incorporate them into the process of intellectual exploration is important because my students are incredibly compassionate and open with me. They make me a better teacher as well as a better person.


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