To Listen, and Not To Speak

This week is Spring Break at APU. I know some of you went to heathen and ungodly places for your education, where Spring Break was nothing more than a week-long episode of “Girls Gone Wild”. At APU, our students spend the week either in prayer and fasting for the peace of the world, in Mexico helping homeless children knit foot warmers for stray dogs, or practicing viola for their Senior Recitals.

A handful of students stick around on campus, usually working to finish up projects or prepare for recitals. It’s another one of those weeks between, those egalitarian times when I’m not “The Professor”, and I can have conversations with students that aren’t transactional. Everyone has a little more time, and breathes a bit easier.

In talking with students, I’m trying to practice the habit of just listening. To listen, and not to speak, until they are done speaking. To allow them room to develop their ideas while I provide simply an attentive silence. To demonstrate restraint when I want to advise, correct, cajole, or critique.

I’ve found myself in a few conversations recently where a student is working through some problem that is miles outside of my experience or knowledge. I think sometimes they believe that I have some secret fountain of wisdom that I can draw on to pour into their lives and situations. The only secret fountain I have access to is the faculty bathroom, and the only wisdom to be found there is on the sign warning you not to poop, because their is no ventilation fan. And, while that is some very valuable wisdom, I just don’t find it widely applicable.

“I got a call to play a 4 month tour, but I’ll have to miss finals and probably come back for another semester to finish school. Should I do it?”

Does the tour bus have poop-ventilating technology?

“My boyfriend is really pressuring me to get cranked on meth with him, and go killing hobos. I really prefer smack. What should I do?”

Well, don’t use the faculty bathroom to get your junk on, because there’s no fan to cover the noise.

So, as you can see, the options for application are rather narrow.

It’s intoxicating to feel like you have this secret well of wisdom to draw on, but I don’t, and so I’m left with two other things of value that I can give them. First, I can share with them my own doubts and fears, when applicable. I get to draw them further in to adulthood, and show them that striving for success in music, and in life, is not a process of silencing doubt and fear, but of overcoming it, of progressing in spite of it. That’s a valuable perspective that I get to share with them.

But, I think the more valuable thing I can give them is a few minutes of attentive silence. Not silence while I wait for them to finish so I can jump in with my own thoughts, not silence while I formulate counterarguments, or plan my day, or fidget anxiously. Simple, attentive, silence. The kind of attentive silence you give to someone when they are communicating important ideas. And, of course, to treat someone’s ideas as important is to treat that person as important.

I know this is a simple idea, and most of you have probably nodded off, or headed off to more interesting blogs. But for me, it is a very difficult thing to remember, and to do. I live in an academic world that has such clearly drawn lines of respect and authority, and the impulse to raise up a student (in their eyes) to “my level” by respecting their ideas, it doesn’t come easily. It takes a measure of humility that I’m still struggling to grow into.

So, in conclusion, shame on you all for clicking on the “Girls Gone Wild” link, and don’t poop in the faculty bathroom.

25 thoughts on “To Listen, and Not To Speak

  1. June

    As I am currently walking through the valley of financial aid with my 18-year-old, hopefully college-bound, niece, the first thing that came to my mind in regard to the 4 month tour vs. another semester of college was “So, will you make enough cash on the tour to pay for another semester or are you just planning on sticking it to your dear old parents for another fifteen grand?”

  2. June

    Mike, I suspected as much…just saying that was my first thought. First thoughts are not always accurate…or nice.

  3. corey

    I clicked the GGW link, but only after I moused over and saw that it was a jpeg that you’d personally uploaded. I knew i was in store for something good…

  4. Sharolyn

    Some of it boils down to, “Am I a risk-taker?”

    Mike, you’ve toured. Don’t you have a crystal ball of whether or not their potential tour will be a success? ;) I do this with mentor-figures often, and think, “Well, if you don’t know, then we’re all screwed!” I’m sure listening is a great prescription for this angst.

  5. michael lee Post author

    Sharolyn – yes, if you play viola, cello, or have already produced grammy nominated singer-songwriter projects by the time you apply.

    The School of Music now offers merit scholarships, and they’re used very aggressively to recruit talented players. Together with ensemble scholarships and university scholarships, they can add up to a full ride.

  6. Chad

    My vocal chops earned me a whopping $1500 a year scholarship! Whoo hoo!

    I’m off to my High School Musical 3 session. That’s my full ride, kids.

  7. Stick

    See, now if you hoity toity private schoolers would just go to a well respected state school music program Chad’s $1500 a year would pay for most of the year’s tuition. I think my entire college education cost something like 8 or 10K, compared to my sister (who went to a private school in the same town as WMU) was like 18K A YEAR! (Yes, I realize we’re in the 30 and 40K a year range now… YIKES! My kids will be going to DeVry.

  8. Daniel Semsen

    Where is this faculty bathroom?
    Oh nevermind…I’ll find it. Then I’ll poop in it riiiiiiiight before you need to go.


    oh. And I also clicked on the GGW link, but only after I saw Corey’s comment…and I LOVE the comment that comes up when hovering over the link…very nice.

  9. Faith Kathleen

    I have nothing terribly intelligent to say, but I enjoyed this post and I am glad you are a professor here, Mike. I have a lot of respect for you as does everyone I know in the School of Music…and for good reason.

    On another note, why in the world did they schedule your Senior Sem class for 7:50 in the morning next semester??? That is just mean. I will be bringing a coffee pitcher to class with me every Monday and Wednesday.

  10. michael lee Post author

    Well, they know you kids hate thinking critically about complex philosophical issues, so that assume you’ll want to get it out of the way first thing in the morning.

  11. Sharolyn

    Faith Kathleen said: “I will be bringing a coffee pitcher to class with me every Monday and Wednesday.”

    Mike, I think this girl deserves an A.

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