‘We sit in silent judgement’: the ‘visceral rhetoric’ of classrooms

On Friday, it was the first seminar of the year for my Politics of Nature module – a couple of hours of pure joy each week in autumn term in the midst of a job with less teaching and more admin than there once was in my life.

I take very seriously the advice that we could all stand to take out a bit of content from our teaching. Less is more when it comes to deep engagement. I therefore allow my first seminar of the year to breathe a little, taking the opportunity to get to know the students, answer their questions in full and set the tone for the work that lies ahead. I have discovered that it really does pay dividends to do this. When I was a new teacher – piling in all my knowledge and all my enthusiasms on students so that it felt like a tidal wave – I used to suffer as much as the next person from the silent classes, where getting anyone to say anything was like pulling teeth. My classes these days – with hard-won experience – are much livelier and chattier, and students quite often tell me that they find them a place where they feel they belong and can talk openly.

There are lots of things I do that cumulatively help me achieve this – and no guarantees, of course, that one year things won’t go wrong. But that first session of the year that sets the tone is really an important one. I’m therefore going to tell you what activities I do and also some thoughts on my embodied pratice. The activities are easy enough to adopt, but I think it is the combination that makes it work.

As regular readers know, I start out by making a public commitment to learning everyone’s name. They have already filled in a questionnaire where they may have given me a pronunication guide, and I have already looked up their online UCL record, so I have seen a photo and I know their year and programme. We go round and introduce ourselves, perhaps with a bit of detail about why we’re in the class. The questionnaire (I may write more about this in a future post) will already also have helped me to get to know them a little, so if relevant, I can refer to that in passing in conversation. For example, ‘Oh yes, you’re the student doing your dissertation on farming? Great to have your expertise in the class!’

Next, I make sure that everyone understands what a ‘norm’ is (as there are many Politics students in the class, someone can usually give a really pithy definition by this point in their degree). And then, I ask them to find out the name of the person or people sitting near them and have a chat about what the norms have been in University seminars up till now and how useful those classroom norms have been for learning. A lot of animated conversation and laughter usually ensures. Then we go back into plenary and we discuss those norms, how they feel and whether we want to carry on with them or do something new.

I want to stress now what this activity isn’t. It is not an exercise in crowd-sourcing or agreeing ‘ground rules’. This may be an activity that works for you – in which case, as they say, carry on. But whenever I have tried this, it always ends up with a pious recitation of very nice rules, all of which go unobserved for the rest of term. My activity is something different. It is a conversation in which we really try to reflect on how it feels to be in a classroom, what is going on in everyone’s head, what our fears, frustrations and insecurities are, and how hard those things are to change.

Lots of things reliably come up in that conversation. One student this time said, ‘As everyone on my degree programme knows, in seminars, we sit in silent judgement.’ The whole room burst out laughing – clearly this hit a nerve. Students talk about not wanting to speak unless they are certain of the answer. About fearing the judgement of others if they get something wrong, even though they know that they are putting the brakes on their own opportunity to learn. About the constant worry of ‘cancellation’ even as they also fear that hate speech will not be addressed because of ‘freedom of speech’. About imposter syndrome and feeling stupid. About resentment towards the person who ‘sounds clever even if he [yes, they say, it’s usually a he] hasn’t done the reading’. There is so much going on under the surface of our classrooms.

The one thing I don’t try to do in these conversations is solve all this. And this is where the embodied practice comes in. I was listening today to a great podcast with Stephanie Larson who has written a book about ‘visceral rhetoric’ (which I am now so excited to read!). Her research is not on classroom dynamics, but she does use one classroom example to explain what ‘visceral rhetoric’ is. She explains that whilst a long tradition in the study of rhetoric assumes a deep commitment to argument and rationality, it is often embodiment and emotion that in the end enable listeners to come to judgement: ‘the body of your professor will tell you something before that person even speaks. You could imagine yourself in a large lecture: that person who walks on stage, stands behind a podium (if they can stand) is going to […] shape audiences’ perceptions of credibility, of how good of a professor this person is going to be.’ Whether we are lecturing or not (and I avoid it as much as I possibly can, which I may also write about another day), students are looking to our ‘visceral rhetoric’ to set the emotional tone of the classroom experience, to decide if they trust us, to enable their own effective practice of visceral rhetoric to emerge.

So, what I do is try to be relaxed, open and calm as they tell their stories about classroom norms. I really listen. I don’t fill every pause, but let the silence sit as the feelings and the courage to speak bubble up slowly. I try to display warmth and understanding. I sympathise. I smile and laugh with them. That laughter is incredibly important, actually – the public, joyful, communal, and embodied acknowledgement that we do some ridiculous, self-defeating things because we’re scared or judgemental or both. I don’t come up with rules or even many suggestions, though I do ask questions like, ‘And is that a helpful norm?’ or ‘How would it feel if we didn’t do that?’ or ‘Will we try to do something else in this classroom?’ I do my best to show that I understand it’s complicated. We can’t sort this all out rationally with a set of rules. We have to work at it slowly and patiently, as a set of embodied practices.

Usually – as this year – we end with a mutual commitment to do our best. To say no to hate speech but yes to getting things wrong. No to shunning but yes to challenge. No to holding forth pointlessly and yes to questions. No to fear and yes to learning. There will be times it won’t work, when it will be hard, when someone will go away from my classroom feeling miserable or wishing they had said something or nor said something, or deeply angry with me for correcting them. There will be plenty of times when I kick myself for insensitvity and occasions when I front up and apologise. The point is not to get it perfect, but to notice when we don’t and to keep going. I’ll let you know how it pans out this year. Meanwhile, feel free to give any of this a try yourself and let us know what happens.