Textures of Silence: Thoughts on Teaching Composition in a Year of “Free Speech”

Mackenzie Gregg


“From politics, it was an easy step to silence”
Northanger Abbey

1. I teach college writing at the University of California, Riverside, a campus on occupied Cahuilla and Serrano land. Our classrooms are comprised of majority first-generation students of color. The city’s educational legacy is that of the colonial boarding school: the Sherman Indian School operated in Riverside for the better part of the twentieth century as a site of forced assimilation and others forms of violence enacted against Native youth. This is our legacy as a writing program, a program of “standard academic English” learning that is designed to interpellate students into the implicitly white speech patterns, belief systems, and civic duties of liberal citizenship.

2. I first taught composition to freshmen in 2013. The year prior, George Zimmerman had fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, claiming that he thought the bag of Skittles in his pocket was a weapon. One year later, Darren Wilson would murder 18-year old Mike Brown, an act the police later justified with the claim that Brown had stolen cigarillos from a corner store. The first sample essay we were asked to assign in my composition class featured a white woman’s story about the time she stole a candy bar as an adolescent. In the essay, the store manager calls the police, who show up and act as if they are going to arrest and charge her with theft. The arrest turns out to be a charade, designed to teach her a paternalistic yet friendly lesson. My students read this sample essay and churned out 25 essays in the same voice, all versions of the same story: transgression, punishment, learning to follow the law.

3. Writing teachers are asked to do the impossible: to encourage our students to expand outward into their own writerly voice, while at the same time, insisting that this voice narrow its grammar into that of a single form of English, that it speak variations on a single ideological position. This quarter, while teaching a basic writing class, I have asked my students to reflect on this very paradox. Who has historically made sense of things? And whose speech has been heard only as nonsense? What counts as rational speech, and what counts as noise? Which modes of expression are you being asked to give up in order to be in this room?

4. Censorship can take the form of language instruction. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Gloria Anzaldua recalls some of the ways she was programmed to be silent: a memory of being hit on the knuckles as a child for speaking Spanish in class fades into her college years, when Chicano students were made to take extra speech classes “to get rid of our accents.” She follows these recollections with the point that “attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment.” [1]

5. Charlottesville was preventable. Before the march, campus activists reported the forthcoming rally to administration, who later blamed the same activists for not coming forward with information. Months ahead of Milo Yiannopolos’ scheduled talk at UC Berkeley in the spring of 2017, students went through all official channels to try to get the event cancelled, only resorting to direct action in order to disrupt the event when Berkeley refused to cancel it. The liberal question to those who participate in direct action: why didn’t you say something?

6. The University of Virginia mishandled the situation from the beginning. That mishandling led to the murder of Heather Heyer and the beating of DeAndre Harris, who is now on trial for defending himself. When UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan was informed that neo-Nazis would be marching on her campus, she speculated that they were likely just coming to admire “Mr. Jefferson’s architecture and the lawn.” Sullivan’s speculation about the appeal of “Mr. Jefferson’s architecture” to a Nazi horde, some of whom were well-known UVA alumni, reminds us: the material structures and the aesthetic trappings of the University are vestiges of anti-indigenous and anti-black history of the founding of the nation.

7. After Charlottesville, UC Riverside’s Chancellor came out with a statement. “Though colleges and universities have a duty to protect the freedoms of speech and assembly,” he writes, “these incidents remind us that we must remain vigilant in denouncing acts of hatred.” Administrators speak out against violence when it results in bodily harm and death, but they can’t situate that violence in relation to the structural and epistemic violence that enables it; they continue to state their “duty to protect” free speech, even when the administrative protection of free speech is precisely what allowed Charlottesville to happen in the first place. Rather than preventing an act of hatred, the University will “remain vigilant in denouncing” it after it happens, and insist they never saw it coming.

8. This academic year has been named “Free Speech Year” at UC Berkeley, a year in which far-right speakers will be paid hefty speaker’s fees to spread their rhetoric on campus. The UC administration’s endorsement of far-right speech has empowered a higher visibility for white supremacy on campus. At UCSD on October 2nd, the far-right hate group, Identity Europa, hung two anti-immigrant banners from Price Hall. Flyers reading “Its Okay to be White” have been turned up in recent weeks at UC Davis and Irvine, among many campuses across the country. Free speech is the means by which liberal politics endorses fascism.

9. Free speech ideology imagines all speech acts as equally felicitous, as being equally possible for people in all social positions, believing, also, that everyone’s speech will be heard equally. Free speech ideology assumes that silence is a platform and not a program. We may all be guaranteed free speech as a right, but who is actually capable of activating it without consequence? In “Confronting Class in the Classroom,” bell hooks observes that “even though students enter the ‘democratic’ classroom believing they have the right to ‘free speech,’ most students are not comfortable exercising this right to ‘free speech.’” [2] Students extol the classroom as a space that offers them the very rights that they do not actually exercise. Speech is governed by a system that is far more complex and more insidious than the law.

10. This quarter at UC Riverside, Matthew Vitale, Deputy Southern Vice Chair of the CA College Republicans, wore a Make American Great Again hat to an anti-harassment training event. Although the event was labeled a “safe space,” its facilitators allowed this student to continue wearing the hat throughout the day, despite the fact that it made many others feel unsafe. After Vitale refused a number of verbal requests to remove his hat, another student removed it from his head themself. Vitale posted a video of the “hat-snatching” incident online, in which he asserts his right to wear the hat on the grounds of free speech and of property. After the video went viral on the far-right web, Vitale received invitations to speak on a number of conservative media platforms. The student who removed the hat, after facing a substantial wave of harassment from the far-right, is now being threatened with legal charges. “We know the hat is offensive, but why didn’t you say something?” liberal students and faculty ask. “We know its offensive, but we can’t condone theft,” they shake their heads, as they look out across miles of stolen land.

11. If you are a marginalized person, speaking up can kill you. Not speaking up can also kill you, just more slowly. Silence is a self-protective measure, but it is also a health risk. Audre Lorde spoke about this shortly after her cancer diagnosis, in a talk called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She spoke about how when we hold in our words for too long, they rise up and punch (us)in the mouth from the inside.” The essential difference for Lorde is not between silence and speaking in general: it is between speaking the internalized language of the oppressor (the “tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own”), and the risky but necessary language of the self. [3]

12. In the post-Charlottesville moment, making room for our students’ speech is as necessary as it is frightening. It is crucial that each person share their thoughts and experiences, because this is how we learn to listen to and invest in each other, to affirm our differences. This is also a space of risk. If we place too much emphasis on civility in our classrooms, we unwittingly reinforce class and racial norms, letting calmly stated racist sentiments go unchecked while censoring the anger of students of color: just as it is commonplace to misconstrue anger as violence, it is easy to misconstrue violence as civil discourse, so long as it speaks in the voice of the academy. We may be able to mitigate hate speech and MAGA hats through our codes of classroom conduct, but we cannot preclude all forms of racist speech, and when it happens, we have to respond. Our silence is our complicity. If we declare the classroom a safe space, we have to know what that means to us and how we plan to protect that space.

13. This term, my students’ journals reflected a desire for safety; they wrote about their childhood homes as lost or left-behind spaces of comfort, about all the ways they pretended to be okay when they didn’t feel safe. I wondered if my own feelings of fear and thoughts about safety in the classroom had transferred to my students, or if we were all simply breathing the same air of these uncertain times.

14. My students and I just finished Northanger Abbey, a novel whose domestic dramas accrue atop a deep undercurrent of anxiety. We discussed the pedagogical dynamics within the novel, exploring the valences of Jane Austen’s aggression toward Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey’s naïve and unremarkable heroine, as she teaches her—and us—how to be better readers. Reflecting on her homespun history education, Catherine assures Henry Tilney that “to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonimous words.” [4] Instruction can also be pleasurable, and Catherine is a more-than-willing student of Oxford-educated Henry’s subsequent lectures on the picturesque. Whether experienced as torment or as pleasure, teaching in Northanger Abbey depends on the narrative construction of Catherine’s capacious and many-layered ignorance, a construction that students articulated and disassembled along the lines of gender, age, class, and education.

15. Pregnant, poignant, devastated, stunned, bored, awkward—all silences in the classroom could mean the same thing: a failure to speak. But we know that they do not mean the same thing. Some textures are easier to feel out than others: we know the difference between the silence that falls over the classroom after a revelation, and the silence when a joke falls flat. Silence can mean mutual understanding or an absence of understanding. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference. This is why in my first quarters of teaching I was determined to make my students laugh: all laughter, whether nervous or surprised or riotous, was an antidote to silence’s unreadability, a marker of something that could have meant anything but that felt like understanding. I’ve since learned that its important that we intentionally create silence in our academic spaces, because silence is the space in which historically unheard voices waver on the cusp of emerging.

16. Teaching might be, as Adrienne Rich writes of poetry in “Cartographies of Silence,” an aspiration to the condition of silence. In Rich’s speculative tense—peppered with “if’s” and no “then’s”—poetry might be about something beyond a meaning encased in words. Rich imagines a poetry that creates a condition “as silence falls at the end/of a night through which two people/have talked till dawn.” She imagines it “strip(ping) bare.” Silence and poetry each, in their own way, get at something underneath words—not meaning, but perhaps a space underneath and before the logics that ground our notions of meaning and meaninglessness, language and noise: in Frantz Fanon’s words, teaching, and poetry, might aspire to bring us to “a level where the categories of sense and non-sense are not yet invoked.” [5]

17. As Eve Sedgwick taught us in Epistemology of the Closet, ignorance is not simply a lack of knowledge. It is not, she writes, a “maw of darkness from which the heroics of human cognition can occasionally wrestle facts.” [6] It is not neutral: ignorance is as multifarious and has as diverse a range of effects as knowledge does. Just as ignorance is not simply a lack of knowledge, silence is not simply a lack of speech. Adrienne Rich writes, “Silence can be a plan/Rigorously executed/The blueprint to a life/It is a presence/It has a history a form/Do not confuse it/With any kind of absence.” Silence is something textured, with many possible causes and with many possible effects. Silence is a program, the effect of a system of threats, coercions, punishments, and dismissals that accrue on certain bodies and have the effect of discouraging speech throughout an entire life. We speak about breaking silences: silences are things, they have been sustained, and they have threatened to break us. Silence has been taught; therefore, teaching must become a process of un-teaching, a practice of unsilencing.


[1] Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Fifty Great Essays (Boston: Pearson, 2011), pp. 30-41.

[2] bell hooks, “Confronting Class in the Classroom.” Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 177-190.

[3] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Spinster’s Ink, 1980), pp. 18-23.

[4] Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 105.

[5] Adrienne Rich, “Cartographies of Silence.” In The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (New York: Norton, 1978).

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p. 8.

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