Thursday, January 07, 2016

Hearing Yourself

Musicians sometimes say that the hardest part of playing is listening.  To be really good, particularly in a group context, you have to be able both to play well and to listen well.  You have to hear how you sound, how the others sound, and how things fit together.  Some terrific players never make it to the top level because they’re so busy with their own sound that they don’t listen.

I’ve seen the same thing as a debate judge.  In team debates, in which each team has two or three members and the sides take turns responding to each other, everyone after the first speaker has a double burden: make the points she wanted to make, and also respond to what the other team did.  The latter seems to be much harder than the former.  Adults struggle with the same thing: I was struck at what happened in the last Democratic presidential debate after Bernie Sanders apologized to Hillary Clinton for a staffer snooping at an email list.  Clinton was clearly caught off-guard by someone taking the usually untrodden high road, but she managed to improvise her way to a reasonably graceful acceptance of the apology.  Martin O’Malley then erupted with a high-energy, clearly prepared attack on the “bickering” we had allegedly just seen.

But we didn’t.  One apologized, the other accepted.  That’s not bickering.  He was so eager to score his point that he didn’t bother listening to what they actually said.  Clinton may have been off-balance, but at least she recognized what had happened.  

Really good listening is at the heart of critical thinking.  And it’s rarer than it should be.  

Pop music lyrics often reflect an inability to hear while singing.  My personal favorite is still Van Halen’s “only time will tell if we stand the test of time,” which goes beyond garden-variety stupidity to earn extra credit for packing two cliches into a single phrase.  Honorable mention to Paul McCartney for the rare double-preposition: “in this world in which we live in…”  (John Moe’s “Pop Song Correspondences” are master classes in the art of listening closely to lyrics.)

Recently I’ve seen a couple of quotes that really made me wonder whether the speakers could even hear themselves as they spoke.  The first, which is from an English professor at a community college, fairly jumped off the screen when I read it.  It’s by Joe LeBlanc, an English professor at Northern Essex Community College, in Massachusetts.  He was quoted in his capacity as president of the statewide faculty union, which is currently on “work-to-rule” over a contract dispute.  I take no position on the dispute, since I’m in another state now, but Prof. LeBlanc’s statement made my jaw drop.  According to the Worcester Telegram, he responded to the state’s proposal as follows:

“[w]e’re not about to jump through hoops to improve our course completion rates.”

Wow.  Just, wow.  

Public sympathy for faculty comes mostly from a sense that they’re helping students.  For the president of a statewide faculty union to dismiss student success out of hand is astonishing.  I honestly wondered if he could hear himself when he spoke.  If I had read that in a caricature, I would have thought it overdone.

In case that seems too cartoonish a reading, LeBlanc added:

“We plan to increasingly tighten the screws with work-to-rule.”

So student success can be dismissed blithely, but “tightening the screws” on colleges merits sustained focus.  That’s an alarming pair of statements to make in public.

The second, blessedly removed from higher ed, came from governor Paul LePage, of Maine.  In discussing the very real heroin crisis, LePage said:

“These are guys with the names D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty...these types of guys...they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home...Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave…”

It’s the sort of thing you might expect to hear from Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving, but not from a governor in his second term.  As a cultural studies text, it’s impressive; you can spend hours peeling the layers.  But as a statement from a chief executive of a state, well, it doesn’t inspire confidence.  

So, as a former teacher of writing, I plead my case.  Listen to yourself when you speak.  It matters.