Pedagogical wisdom, from Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (fair warning: 2-3 F-bombs in this brief scene):
Mia’s encounter with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is instructive for considering options for classroom discussion.
Consider: The relationship between the two is very new; they don’t know each other well. For Vincent the encounter is a high-pressure moment (Vincent’s boss has instructed him to keep his wife Mia entertained), but in the stress of not knowing how to respond appropriately he opts to play it cool and keep his mouth shut. How often have we encountered students like that?
But Mia wants Vincent to engage the encounter actively. So she is supportive of Vincent’s brief request for a taste of what she has to offer, recognizes the discomfort of silences explicitly… and then provides Vincent with a prompt, followed by a low-pressure opportunity to quietly contemplate a response without the pressure of her evaluating presence. Mini-spoiler alert: after Mia’s “powder-her-nose” break (yes, that powder), Vincent is comfortable enough to ask a provocative question that is followed by Mia’s response, a more engaged conversation, and a relationship furthered by additional mutual understanding.
Rocky Dailey of South Dakota State University provides similar, safer-for-work advice in a recent column in Faculty Focus. I’ve tried to be more intentional about making “uncomfortable silences” a bit safer in my classroom this term… not always successfully, but I think the efforts are starting to bear fruit in broader class participation and better answers. So check this out!
APRIL 21, 2014
By: Rocky Dailey, EdD in Teaching and Learning
As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.
When I became an instructor, I was now on the other side of the equation. I was asking questions for several reasons; to gauge students’ understanding of course concepts, to determine if they had completed reading assignments, and mainly to start an engaging discussion. But once again, those silences followed many of the questions I posed. It was a concern for me because I felt I had failed as an educator. Either my expectations were too high or my assignments were not designed well enough to cover course concepts and goals.
The scenario is all too familiar to most educators. The instructor asks a question to the class, the class either looks down or passes quick glances around the room to see if anyone looks like they are about to answer, and if no one is giving any indication of preparing a response the atmosphere becomes tense. Eventually, either some brave soul will wade into the discussion in the hopes of breaking the awkward silence, or the instructor will answer the question and continue on.
But why is that silence so uncomfortable?