Stop Asking IF Your Students Have Questions!

I asked one of the worst questions of my students last week after I explained an assignment to them: “Does anyone have questions?” How do I know it was a bad question? Because no one answered it. I gave my usual ten seconds of silence before speaking again, and when I did speak, this is what I said: “What can I clarify?” Instead of silence, this time I was greeted with SIX requests for clarification.

While the two questions may appear to be very similar, the dramatic difference in reception indicates that they are actually not that similar at all. Here are some of the differences:

  1. “Does anyone have questions?” is a closed question with only two acceptable answers: yes or no. In contrast, “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, inviting a range of responses.
  2. Because the only acceptable answers to “Does anyone have questions?” are binary, and as with all binary options, one option is privileged over the other, there is actually only one “good” answer to the question. Every student knows “no” is the correct answer. To answer yes either challenges the brilliance of the authority figure posing the question because, using the example of the assignment I had just described to the class, it implies that the assignment wasn’t written clearly, or exposes the student to being perceived as lazy, stupid, not paying attention, or some other negative descriptor. Because “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, there are no obviously privileged answers.
  3. Because the privileged answer to “Does anyone have questions?” is “no,” it silences questions while appearing to invite them. It normalizes not asking questions. “What can I clarify?” is open, so it normalized asking questions.  
  4. Because “Does anyone have questions?” silences people with questions and implies that no questions should be asked, it positions the asker as more powerful. On the other hand, because “What can I clarify?” assumes that clarification is needed, it positions the asker and the answerers as working together to make meaning.

Another terrible question that I find myself asking from time to time is “Does that make sense?” While asking that conversationally with a peer can be somewhat effective, asking it of students in a scenario similar to the one I describe above is likely to meet with the same silence as “Does anyone have questions?”

Faculty know students have questions. I hear faculty wondering sometimes why students don’t ask more questions. Perhaps it has something to do with our own questions.

Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

The Value of Grief & Trauma Communities

Grief is isolating and the way we (don’t) deal with it in our culture—glossing over it, minimizing it, focusing on “the bright side” and “the blessings” and pushing the negative feelings aside—makes grief even more isolating because it can make us think we are the only ones who feel the way we do.

Being in multiple widow support groups has shown me that there are lots of people who can relate to the pain and sadness I feel. I have learned that I am not the only person to wonder about how long to wear my wedding band, how to deal with unwanted questions or advice, and how to cope with holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.  The particular nuances of my marriage, caregiving experience, and widowing are unique but not nearly as different from the experiences of others as I had expected. For me, connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss has made me realize that although I am alone in being widowed from my amazing husband, I am not at all alone in being widowed from an amazing husband. Understanding that I am actually surrounded by people who are also grieving, even if they are grieving very differently from me, helps me feel normal about my process and also makes it more possible for me to extend compassion to myself and others. The support groups have given me a chance to see a wide range of responses to grief and a wide range of ways to offer support.

I wrote last month about resources for grieving that I’ve found, and now, 11 weeks out from my loss, I want to emphasize how learning about grief through blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, and support groups has helped me feel at peace with my grief. I don’t mean I’ve felt less sadness or cried less or experienced any less of negative emotions than before I learned about grief. What I mean is I have felt normal about my grieving. I have not judged myself when I have started crying in person, been triggered by something completely random, been unable to dump out the now-11-weeks-old glass of juice in the fridge that was my husband’s last glass of juice, or done any of the many, many illogical things I have done since becoming a widow. While my grief experience has been challenging, I have not had the extra challenge on top of it of feeling like I’m “doing it wrong” or I “shouldn’t be feeling/acting this way.” Nope—I’ve known because of what I’ve learned about grief by joining formal and informal communities of people grieving that I am doing it exactly right and there are an infinite number of ways of doing it right.

I’ve been speaking specifically of grief, but I think what I’ve said about grief can also be applied to trauma. Like grief, trauma is isolating. Just as people seem to feel free to judge the grieving others do, people seem to feel justified in judging how others process their trauma. As a sexual assault survivor, I have often felt the judgment of others about my process of working through the trauma I experienced. My participation in sexual assault survivor support groups helped normalize the pace at which I was processing my trauma and many of the confusing emotions I felt.  

Grief and trauma are isolating; when you think you are the only one feeling what you’re feeling and that nobody else can relate, you may further isolate yourself. Finding a grief or trauma community, even if you participate minimally or only as a lurker, can be powerful. It can make you feel less self-conscious. It can help you stand up to those who judge the way you are grieving as wrong or going on too long. It can help you stop comparing yourself and your grieving to others and their grieving.

As an introvert, I understand that the idea of being in a support group could be really uncomfortable. There are many grief and trauma communities that you can passively participate in, such as online support groups and Facebook groups. I joined six different widow support groups on Facebook and only participate actively in two of them, but I find value in reading the posts in the other four groups even if I don’t post or comment. I think for some folks, listening to podcasts and reading memoirs by people who have experienced similar losses or traumas could be as effective as participating in a support group. The point is to connect, whether passively or actively, with others experiencing something similar.