Faculty View | Careful Listening
by Sarah Huffines, associate professor of English
A colleague and I were recently discussing different approaches to class readings, and as I stared at my messy, crowded bookshelves, I tried to clarify my own approach: I like to immerse myself, identify completely with the characters, and then be as surprised or delighted or dismayed as the author wants me to be. It may seem obvious, but as a teacher I am always tempted to start a reading or a class discussion with an agenda or a set of predetermined questions. I’ve learned, though, I can almost always get more out of a book if I set those aside at first, am quiet, and listen to what the book wants from me instead of trying to cram a book through the filter of my needs.
Of course, listening isn’t always easy. It can be hard to ask the right questions of a text. It can feel embarrassing to admit that I don’t understand something or awkward to risk more difficult issues arising. However, sometimes I need to set aside my own agenda or anxieties and really listen.
And sometimes I need to take my own advice.
Because while the immersive task of listening to a book is a discipline I’m acquainted with, I have been reminded so often lately of my weakness in listening to real people. The thing is, I enjoy talking with students, but I don’t feel like I am very good at actively listening to them. My weakness is in asking follow-up questions—questions that arise from careful listening and guide me toward a deep understanding, even at the risk of embarrassment or awkwardness. Such questions have the potential to not just open up a fruitful conversation but to also affirm the God-given worth of the person standing before me. It’s not that I wouldn’t acknowledge the value of the person in front of me (obviously!); it’s just that, without thought or intention, I have chosen to think first of myself instead of others, and conversations remain shallow and performative, rather than meaningful, interesting, joyful, or any of the many other things a conversation can be.
The call to listen is simple, but it can be so easy to mess up. I am writing this as a reminder to myself for those times when someone comes into my messy, crowded office to talk, as well as a reminder to you, whether those conversations happen in offices or around kitchen tables. Let us be willing to let go of an agenda, to be open to embarrassment or awkwardness, and to actively listen for the heart of the matter.