Contemplative Listening, Contemplative Literacy

by Christian Smith



Works Cited


I live and teach in a state that flew the confederate flag on the statehouse lawn until July of 2015. It was removed only after nine were shot dead in a racially charged hate crime and still, only then, after mounting pressure and one woman, Bree Newsome, scaled the 30’ flagpole to take the flag down herself. I used to think that there was something about the Deep South that made every moment in the classroom imbibed with a sense of urgency that was somehow unique; I no longer feel this way. The presidential election last year demonstrated that a candidate could encourage racist discourse and court white supremacists and still be voted in by millions outside of the south. So, now that we have an administration that continues to normalize racist and xenophobic discourse many of us—writing teachers, literacy scholars—are wondering what we can do and how we might be uniquely positioned to respond.

At this point, I think the appropriate response is to highlight all the work that has been done on listening in our related fields. Encourage classrooms insistent on the practice of listening to multiple voices for the common places of identification we can build on. Listening not to further validate white supremacist discourse, but to note the ways that our students are often emotionally identified with the cultural logics of racism in ways they wouldn’t advocate if questioned explicitly. As Krista Ratcliffe’s work on rhetorical listening makes clear, these logics are reactions that play out through emotional identifications and triggered responses. I think of the student who offers the knee-jerk response “all lives matter!” when discussing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, without realizing how such a response works to undermine legitimate concerns and is, above all, an unwillingness to listen to those concerns. Rhetorical listening and an attunement to the relationships between ideology and language, on the other hand, can look for spaces of mutual identification. As James Baldwin mentioned in an interview with Life magazine in 1963:

Most Americans lead lives they deny, and they find it almost impossible to be coherent on any level. You have to listen very hard to a college president or an elevator operator to find out what it is he’s really saying. They are both trapped between the language imposed on them, which is not theirs, and what they really want to say, which they don’t trust. (qtd. in Howard 89)