¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The importance of listening as a mode of communicating with others has long been downplayed in Western culture; as Lisbeth Lipari notes, listening plays a somewhat sad second fiddle to speaking for most of us. In fact we too often treat listening as “a means of preparing one’s next move” in our verbal engagements, a technique that serves “the aim of conquest and control” (15). More often than not, we listen to others’ arguments in order to master them, or, even better, to figure out the best means of defusing them, of demonstrating the superiority of our own.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 That Hochschild’s methodology involved hours of listening to the stories being told to her without judgment was crucial to her ability to connect with and understand the culture she was studying. That listening, moreover, had to be active; not only did she need to take in the experiences being shared with her, but she also needed to ask the right questions in order to elicit further thinking about those experiences, and she needed to frame the deeper narrative underpinning those stories in a way that her interlocutors could hear and agree with. Through this active practice, she was able to demonstrate to the people whose lives she studied that they had really been heard.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Hochschild is, of course, a sociologist; people and their cultures form her area of study, which makes the need for this mode of interpersonal engagement obvious. But connection with others that is grounded in listening may lie at the heart of what’s required of all of us in order to ensure the future of all of our fields, including the humanities, the liberal arts more broadly, and in fact the university as we have known it. Anthony Appiah, in his 2017 presidential address at the Modern Language Association annual convention, points out the importance of conversation in the work that scholars and teachers do, and in particular the need to think seriously about “how to talk across boundaries—how to make ourselves heard by those who don’t know why they should listen.” And yet, if we what we seek to engage in is a genuine conversation, we have to ensure that we are listening as well, even if we don’t know why we should, either. If we do, we might find that what we hear is not that those others don’t know why they should listen, but rather that they, like us, have reasons for having decided they should not. The first step toward getting past those reasons is hearing them out.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In order to do that, we need to understand more fully what it is to listen, even—or perhaps especially—to those with whom we will never agree. Lipari notes that while “listen” and “hear” appear to us to be synonyms, they in fact describe very “different ways of being in the world. Etymologically, ‘listening’ comes from a root that emphasizes attention and giving to others, while ‘hearing’ comes from a root that emphasizes perception and receiving from others” (99). Listening, then, is not just an act of taking-in, but a practice of generously giving one’s focus to another. Jean-Luc Nancy similarly draws a distinction between the “simple” (or perhaps passive) state of the senses in hearing, and the “tense, attentive, or anxious state” of the senses in listening. Hearing, in this sense, is something that happens to the ear; listening, by contrast, is a cognitive act in which one must participate. So while it no doubt feels like we’re hearing one another all the time, the question of whether we’re really listening remains open.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Nancy, in fact, describes the philosopher—and perhaps, by extension, the scholar in general—as “someone who always hears (and who hears everything), but who cannot listen, or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize” (1). The desire that all of us bear to leap from what we hear to our sense of what we hear, rather than lingering in the at times quite uncomfortable stillness required for listening, has the effect of foreclosing engagement rather than opening it up. So when we say to someone, by way of response to a complaint or a point with which we disagree, “I hear you,” we may not intend to dismiss them, but we are certainly declaring the transaction complete: “I am done hearing you, as I fully understand your point.” By contrast, “I am listening” is a statement that may be too steeped in therapeutic platitudes for us ever really to voice it; as Nancy says, it “belongs to a register of philanthropic oversensitivity, where condescension resounds alongside good intentions” (4). And yet, reminding ourselves that we are listening (rather than piously informing others of that state) forms an invitation to remain open, to adopt a position of receptivity that may lead to an unexpected connection. To listen is to be ready for that which one has not yet heard—and, in fact, for that which one might not yet be willing or able to hear.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This is not easy. Like all such practices, it requires practice, as well as a commitment not to let our lapses convince us to stop trying. As Krista Tippett has noted,
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 Listening is an everyday social art, but it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew. Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to day. I like the language Rachel Naomi Remen uses with young doctors to describe what they should practice: ‘generous listening.’ Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions. (40)
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This, as you might guess, is where I have been leading us: listening is at the heart of the generosity I hope to inspire in the relationship between the university and the broader publics with which it interacts and on which it relies; generous listening is the necessary ground for generous thinking.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 It’s important, again, to be clear about the limitations of such generosity, and in particular about the different levels of responsibility that we bear for it. Tippett’s reference to “a kind of vulnerability” means something fairly specific: an intellectual vulnerability more than an emotional one, and certainly not a physical one. No one should be forced to listen to those who would brutalize them. But those of us, disproportionately represented within the contemporary university, who operate with the protections of various kinds of privilege and power at our disposal—racial, gendered, economic, educational—must make ourselves willing to set our comfort aside and try to listen to what those with different experiences of and positions in the world might want to tell us. Listening is, in this sense, a profoundly important form of interacting with the world by paying attention to it. It does not imply agreement, merely a willingness to consider. And like the work of building a shared vocabulary that I’ve tried to engage in across this chapter, listening is of course only the first step in creating the space for a greater mutual engagement and understanding.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But genuine listening is sufficiently difficult, and thus sufficiently unusual, that we often do not know what to make of it when we come across it. It can look like passivity, compromise, appeasement. We might see this in Ezra Klein’s exploration, published during the 2016 campaign, of what he referred to as “the Gap” in understanding Hillary Clinton, the difference between the ways she was popularly represented and the ways she was described by those who knew her best. He asked them—both allies and opponents—”What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail?” And the repeated answer: “Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.” Listening, it becomes clear, is such a radically unexpected mode of political behavior, so outside the norm, that it looks to many—even to a reporter who wants to find it praiseworthy—like a flaw. Klein acknowledges the deeply ingrained gender dynamics at work in such misinterpretations, and the reasons why our political processes today are often unkind to listeners:
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This was Hillary’s own refrain in her address to the AME General Conference, delivered in the wake of yet another African American man being killed in a police shooting, pointing to the importance of paying attention to the families and the communities calling for criminal justice reform: “They’re trying to tell us. And we need to listen.”
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 It’s all too apparent, of course, in looking back at the matchup between listening and talking that took place in the 2016 presidential election—the matchup between generous thinking and its dark opposite—which side won the conversation. But it’s also clear from the massive marches and protests that ensued that a huge percentage of the American public has not given up on a more generous mode of engagement, and has not given up on its desire to be heard.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 As a community, we have an obligation to work toward that more generous, more ethical mode of engagement, and that work must begin with listening. Bill Readings argued in The University in Ruins that listening is the primary obligation of the ethical community to which higher education must aspire: “The other speaks, and we owe the other respect. To be hailed as an addressee is to be commanded to listen, and the ethical nature of this relation cannot be justified. We have to listen, without knowing why, before we know what it is that we are to listen to” (162). Whatever it may be that they’re trying to tell us, we need to seek ways to listen. In so doing, our work as teachers, as scholars, and as members of the university community can help create the possibility for renewed relationships with the public—relationships that we desperately need today if we are going to be able to keep doing our work tomorrow.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In the chapters that follow, I’ll explore different aspects of that work and how we might be more generous within it, inviting those usually outside our circles into our conversations and listening to their interests and concerns. This mode of generous thinking might begin with the very foundation of our work—reading—if we begin by understanding our engagements with the texts we read and with the other readers we encounter along the way as part of an ongoing, shared conversation, a conversation that has the potential to shape our collective experiences of the world.