One of the challenges of teaching is struggling to find time--the time you need to lesson plan and prepare for your classes, to cover material you've included on your course syllabi, to support students, create and grade assignments, and so on and on.
Teachers are pressed for time. This is hardly a new revelation. And yet, because the minutes we have in the classroom with our students are precious, I am writing here to argue for making time--for listening dyads (as the title of this post suggests), but also for what motivates them, a commitment to building an inclusive community in your classrooms that ensures everyone's voices are heard.
In the Futures Initiative we discuss the importance of practices like this through the concept of structuring equality. It is an idea that recognizes the value hierarchies and conditions of social inequity that underwrite higher education and the broader material worlds in which we live. To enact meaningful transformation therefore requires more than good intentions; it entails actively building structures for equality and inclusion in our classrooms, the sites where we--as teachers--have the most immediate impact.
The listening dyad was a pedagogical practice I encountered as an undergraduate in Professor Roger Sedarat's "Postcolonial Literature" course at Queens College, CUNY. In every class session, he asked us to pair up and take turns acting as both speaker and listener in response to a specific prompt. Sometimes the questions he posed were related to our readings, but he often invited us to take part in creating prompts for the dyads as well. This meant that over the course of the semester we had a chance to share our favorite foods, embarrassing moments, vacation plans, and hobbies. As digressive as these topics might seem, they had the effect of creating a sense of community among us and it is a class I still remember today because we were able to get to know each other as people rather than just classmates.
In addition, while the prompts changed for every class session, the rules for the listening dyads remained the same:
- Everyone speaks and everyone listens for a specified duration of time. (In our class it was 2 minutes each and if our numbers were uneven Professor Sedarat would also participate).
- Listeners cannot interrupt speakers at any moment during the dyad, even if it seems like they have run out of things to say. Nonverbal responses such as smiling, nodding, and raising your eyebrows are permissible).
- Whatever is discussed in the dyad remains confidential to ensure openness and build trust.
- During the group reflection after the dyad (usually 5 minutes), people can share what they discussed or invite their partners to share. There is no pressure to opt-in or -out of the group reflection.
It took practice, but gradually our class developed a rhythm- we got over the initial awkwardness of this exercise, learned more about each other, and began tackling the dyad prompts with greater enthusiasm and creativity.
And yet, although I enjoyed participating in listening dyads during the course, it wasn't until years later when I became a teacher myself that I really learned to appreciate their impact in the classroom and the kind of community an exercise like this fosters.
Reflecting on them now, I understand how listening dyads work to address the ways in which certain voices have historically dominated discussions while others remain marginalized or silenced. They create opportunities not only for everyone to share their perspectives, but also to learn how to hear each other.
Further, I have found that listening dyads allow students to gradually overcome their fear of silence as that which signals the purported absence of thought. Struggling to answer a prompt, trying to find the right words to express your ideas aloud, shows how the pauses or silences in between are moments of deep and profound contemplation.
Finally, listening dyads function as effective rehearsal spaces- they enable students to practice voicing their thoughts with one other person, which then makes participating in larger group discussions just a little bit less daunting.
In short, make time for listening dyads and other similar exercises in your classrooms. They will take up precious minutes but the subtle shifts they facilitate in how students encounter each other, the course content, and you as a teacher will be well worth it.
At the Futures Initiative we have been integrating listening dyads into our regular business meetings and public events to break up the routine structure and format these conversations often take. For example, as part of the roundtable discussion I organized on "Pedagogies of Dissent for Asian American Studies," I used a listening dyad to encourage audience members to reflect on the panelists' talks to give everyone a chance to voice their thoughts and share a question or topic they wanted to introduce for conversation. This helped foster dialogue when we regrouped for a broader discussion. You can read the full recap of the event here.
Have you used listening dyads in your teaching and/or other work? If so, I would love to hear your general reflections as well as the successes and/or challenges you encountered. Share your thoughts below!