Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand

Steven Volk, February 1, 2015

Unless you have spent the past few months living in a cave on an island off Maine (as, indeed, one of my students did some years ago as a winter term project), you will know that we in academia, and particularly those of us who teach at selective liberal arts institutions, are in a challenging moment regarding how we talk about difficult issues in the classroom and in the broader college community. At issue is the question of “civility.” The quotes are not ironic but rather indicate that whether there ever was a consensus on what that meant, it no longer operates. Nicholas Dirks, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, addressed the topic in an email to students and faculty on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement. And got a lot of pushback.


The heroic Charlotte la Cordé upon her trial…1793

You have probably read Jonathan Chait’s recent article in New York Magazine and followed up with any number of critiques, including those of Gene Demby, Amanda Taub, Alex Pareene, Michelle Goldberg, Lindsay Beyerstein, Jessica Valenti, and well as those who wrote in support. The questions raised by Dirks and Chait as well as their critics are generating a lot of discussion because they are fundamental ones about how we talk, who gets to talk, and what we say to each other when we talk. They are generating discussion because they demand that we think deeply about issues that are hard and messy, questions of power and privilege, the First Amendment, Charlie Hebdo.

We live in a world in which these discussions (and their very real effects) are happening on a daily basis; it is a world inhabited by our students as well as ourselves – they don’t just enter the “real world” when they graduate. But the primary arena in which we, as teachers, engage these topics is the classroom. And so this “Article of the Week” is about listening and what it means to create a classroom in which listening is an important part of learning.

One of the central challenges we face in the classroom is how we create an environment in which all of our students (and we) can learn: both from us and from each other. Each of us has different comfort levels that determine how, where, and when we incorporate our students not just as learners, but as co-creators of learning in our classes, and I’ll leave discussion of that topic for another time. Similarly, we will all respond differently to the question of how much tension, discord, or “messiness” we can live with in our classes. That will often depend on experience as well as positionality: tenured/untenured, visiting/permanent, male/female/trans, faculty of color/white/biracial, and so on. But we are all interested in constructing our classes in ways that best support significant learning.


I don’t want to listen to this. NomiZ25

Some years ago, L. Lee Knefelkamp, now emerita professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote a short article for Liberal Education titled “Listening to Understand” (Spring 2006, pp. 34-35). I went to it again when thinking about how to prepare my classes this semester for the work that lies ahead. Not prepare them in terms of getting the readings selected, thinking about the assignments, or finishing the syllabus. Prepare them for discussing difficult issues that are likely to arise both because of course content and because of the concerns that are on the minds of many students. Preparing them in terms of creating the social contract that would remind them, should discussions get heated, lines crossed, or eyes rolled, about why we are here and how we should interact to promote learning. Rule setting is important preparation, and the only rules for rule setting are that you, the instructor, have to be comfortable with them (you have to understand the degree of discomfort you are willing to work with), your students have to be clear about the rules and take ownership over them, and (at different times for different courses), you will need to revisit them more than once.

Knefelkamp’s rules are about listening. She was trained as a counseling psychologist and taught courses, among other subjects, in counseling theory and practice, intercultural communication, college student development (with emphasis on intellectual, interpersonal, moral, and spiritual development), and theories of identity formation (especially with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality). “On the first day of class,” she wrote in this article, “students are asked to read and reflect upon ‘Listening to Understand,’ which I include as an addendum to all my syllabi. They are then asked to discuss their responses in small groups. We then have a large group discussion, and at the end both the students and I sign a form stating our intentions to abide by the expectations set forth” in that document.”

Here are her points.


Dan bull / Tim Dobson / CC BY-SA

In addition to the texts in this class, each participant is, in effect, a co-text. Your background and life experiences make up an important part of the class. Your instructor holds the perspective that all classes are essentially intercultural encounters—among individuals in the class, between the readers and any given author, among the authors and the students and the professor. We are all learning how to most effectively learn from one another. Such a classroom requires particular capacities and commitments on our part. It also requires a mutual effort in helping each other both understand the course material and the differing interpretative positions we may bring to a more complex understanding of the material. While each of us seeks to advance our own knowledge, we are also a community in which we are each responsible to help the other members of the community learn effectively. In addition to seeking to understand the context and concepts of the course, we:

  • seek to acquire intellectual skills and capacities that will enable us to work effectively with the complexities of the course material;
  • seek understanding of multiple modes of inquiry and approaches to knowledge and the ability to judge adequate and appropriate approaches from those that are not adequate or appropriate;
  • seek to develop increased self-knowledge and knowledge of others;
  • seek to understand how the material we are studying relates to our own previous learning, backgrounds, and experiences, and how we can use and apply our new knowledge effectively;
  • seek to develop the ability to critique material in a mature manner using our own previous learning and experiences as part of the critique when appropriate;
  • seek to develop the communication skills that facilitate our learning and our ability to listen, read, reflect, and study to understand.

In order to accomplish our goals, we need to develop the capacity of listening for understanding.

(Of course, listening for understanding can also be applied to how we read and observe as well as listen and communicate.)

Listening for understanding involves

  • listening for the meaning/standpoint/positionality of both others and the self;
  • listening for the affect that results from the standpoint(s);
  • staying in communication even when one is confused or fearful or unsure;
  • searching for the appropriate response;
  • acknowledging that understanding does not imply agreement;
  • taking responsibility for one’s own perspectives, stances, and actions;
  • seeking to expand one’s complexity, personal integration, and skills so that one can respond in appropriate ways to a wide variety of complex situations.

We will be working with these concepts as we conduct an assessment of student learning preferences and needs during the first weeks of the course.

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