Silent Discussions: From Silicon Valley to the Classroom for More Productive, Equitable, and Accessible Conversations


When our institution shifted from in-person to online instruction due to Covid, I was confident that I could pull it off. After all, I had devoted my doctoral work to instructional design and online writing pedagogies. I posted my students’ final assignments and made a few instructional videos, and my students finished out their semester with few problems in our course—though certainly they had other problems in their lives.

When I was asked to teach a synchronous online course that summer using Zoom as our platform, I was similarly confident. Of course I could do that—I had been using Zoom as a one-on-one conferencing tool for years. But no amount of instructional design expertise or online teaching and conferencing experience could have prepared me to teach to a Brady Bunch gallery of students in their homes. By the end of that course, I came down with a horrible case of Shingles. Even today, when I log into Zoom, a phantom shingles pain flares ever so slightly as a reminder of how stressful that experience was.

But as bad as it was teaching to a gallery, or possibly worse, to a void, those discussions on Zoom had to be just as bad for my students. After all, being on camera in that way can contribute to Zoom fatigue. Defined as burnout from virtual conferencing platforms, Zoom fatigue results from when the brain reads information without typical non-verbal cues or must continuously split attention between screens (Armstrong, 2020). And Zoom fatigue can also include the way the prolonged, focused eye contact common in virtual meetings can feel especially threatening to marginalized students (Moyer, 2016). But even scarier, because of participants’ prolonged use of and proximity to a front-facing camera, there’s also the risk of Zoom dysmorphia, which is the intense anxiety and even shame caused by distorted or “funhouse” images of ourselves (Savelle-Rocklin, 2021). Imagine trying to learn and engage in a course while all this is happening. (Plus: should we really be driving our students to cosmetic surgery just so we can hold face-to-face discussions in these online, synchronous spaces?)

After that experience, I was desperate to mitigate the fatigue I had experienced. I came across an article about the tech industry, namely, how verbal discussions are not as productive as text-based ones, and how “silent meetings” could improve group productivity. But as I continued to research, I learned that even in the physical classroom, encouraging in a little more silence could improve nearly everything that’s wrong with our current conceptions of discussion.

I know what you’re thinking. A silent classroom? But hear me out. In traditional “loud” discussions, often a few students dominate the discussion, and students who are introverted, anxious, or neurodivergent don’t get to share. Additionally, not everyone gets to engage because there’s only one audio channel being used or the conversation moves too quicky. Side conversations, which may be valuable and culturally meaningful, feel taboo, and it’s easy for students to conform to the loudest students’ ideas. In short, current conceptions of the classroom discussion are not equitable for all students.

Silent discussions not only lower Zoom fatigue and lessen Zoom dysmorphia, but they also offer opportunities for more students to discuss, share ideas, circle back to conversations, and have those important side conversations, regardless of course modality.

So how does a silent discussion work? Silent discussions involve asking students to prepare ahead of time, by brainstorming ideas on a topic or reading and creating a document for discussion. In the tech industry, this document would be called a “table read,” which stems from the concept of a physical document shared around a table. In my first-year composition courses, I create small groups and paste each group member’s one-page “table read” into a Google Doc. Then, I give each group member access to that document, with commenting privileges. Instructors could also offer the whole class the same document that included a selection of the submitted table reads that were the most interesting, or students could volunteer their table read each meeting.

During a silent discussion, the group reviews their combined table read in silence (mostly). Again, Google Docs is a good tool for engagement, as students can annotate and reply to specific ideas in the table read, and they can respond to one another, in the margins. After everyone has added comments to the table read and thus engaged in the silent discussion, a “loud” discussion follows. At this point, the instructor can synthesize some of the discussion threads they noticed, and the group can use traditional discussion methods more effectively, now that everyone has already weighed in on the issues and has the context needed to exchange ideas.

Using Google Docs as the “technology on which – and the technological systems through which –information is stored” as Takayoshi and Selfe (2007) described, allows students to create table reads that are multimodal in nature: they can use bullets, white space, and embed links, images, surveys, and videos, as a way to engage with their peers. But these conversations are also recorded in the doc in a way that loud discussions are not, which allows students the opportunity to go back to join the conversation later (for students who must miss class), or to offer that perfect response that took a little more time to develop, or even to account for their own course participation—something quite relevant, as many faculty are shifting to ungrading models that require students to grade themselves. And Google Docs can work with screen readers to offer accessible commenting and collaborating.

Now that I’m teaching face-to-face again. I still use silent meetings in the classroom, so what began as a desperate attempt to mediate those Zoom discussions (and avoid shingles) has become a staple in my courses. Silence, while seemingly counterintuitive in writing contexts (see Boquet, 2002), can benefit our writing students’ discussions. Holding space for silence in our writing classrooms makes discussion more productive, accessible, and equitable for our students.




About Author

Laura Decker

Laura Decker is an Assistant Professor of English Composition at Nevada State College, where she teaches First Year Composition and Writing Studies courses at Nevada State College. When she is not teaching, she enjoys being outside with her family in the beautiful wild spaces Nevada has to offer.

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