Speak Friend and Enter

Posted on January 30, 2016

I wonder how many of us wish we could travel through time and have a conversation with our younger selves. We could tell them all the things we had to learn the hard way and hopefully avoid those follies that weren’t character building in the slightest (and were, in fact, simply embarrassing).

I don’t. I was an insufferable know-it-all for most of my childhood, and I would have likely argued against my own older self–if I even listened. I was the kid who raised his hand for every question. I would correct the teacher if they simplified a point for the other students. There were entire parent-teacher conferences that centered around my need to occasionally let other people be wrong (or at least have opinions I viewed as wrong).

Luckily, I changed. The urge to be right, to show off, to somehow win at conversation never really went away. It still lurks inside of me today, and occasionally leaks out before I can cut it off. But part of growing up is learning that we don’t always have to do things just because we want to. I was also fortunate to get to know a more diverse group of people, especially as I went to college. Yes, they were mostly white like me, and for the most part middle class like me, but they brought me new ideas from a wide range of ideologies and perspectives.

And I still remember one article I read in some random feminist zine. It was an article by Dan Spalding called “Shut the Fuck Up: or, How to Act Better in Meetings.” It’s over a decade old at this point and is still one of my favorites, and a big influence on the way I act in group discussions. (Sadly Spalding’s original on his website seems to be gone, but you can still find it on Wayback Machine). It is addressed to men in meetings, but I honestly think that a copy provided to every college freshman could improve university courses immensely. (I also think universities should invest more effort into teaching students how to be better students, but that’s a post for another day.)

The point is, I learned to occasionally shut my mouth, and try to listen to the things others had to say. It was one of the best changes I have ever made in my life. For every time the conversation moved on without my helpful comment, I have heard a dozen helpful comments from others, from different backgrounds, and often better than I could say. My urge to show I was the smartest, the rightest in the room was the product of a greedy ego. Not only that, but it was selfish–there is only so much time and attention available, and every second I hoarded was a chance stolen from someone else. But by listening more my life was improved exponentially more compared to the occasional ego boost. Plus the conversations I was in were that much better for everyone else involved, too.

My urge to talk never went away, but I learned to channel it in more productive forms. For instance, I love teaching. Public speaking in general is great (I was a pub quizmaster for years, which is kind of like teaching but everything is a pop quiz and I get to swear), but helping someone understand something for the first time is my greatest joy. Breaking a complex idea down and building it up again in someone else’s head satisfies that part of me that enjoys puzzles and being smart, but does it in a positive context. I don’t have to steal the attention from someone else, I can use my own time. And if I can use my time in ways that help others get the thrill of being right without being directly lectured at by me, even better. (I am a huge fan of things like Socratic methods of discussion, but again that is a post for another day).

As I’ve left the academy, though, I’ve discovered a new reality: people don’t necessarily want to listen to me any more. I still have the same insights and knowledge I had when I was teaching university courses but I don’t have the authority that comes with an organizational affiliation. The world isn’t my course and people at large aren’t my students. I have things to share but I need to find new reasons to convince others it is worth their effort to listen.

For now, I am on the outside as an educator, looking in at a world that doesn’t know me. That does hurt the part of me that loves teaching. I feel the same heartache I feel when any important part of my life is missing. But I’ve at least had my chance, and that helps keep me positive that I’ll have my chance again in the future. I have no doubt that the many ways I am privileged will help me as I find new outlets to teach, or at least they won’t hurt.

This is why I’m so excited about attending (and volunteering for!) AlterConf in Washington, DC tomorrow. I know all too well the pain of having something to say and nobody to listen. What I don’t have is the experience of having to feel that as a marginalized person. Or because I’m a marginalized person. So, as much as the urge to talk is on my mind lately, I can’t wait to just listen tomorrow. I am glad I learned the lesson long ago of the joys that can come from shutting up occasionally and listening to what others have to say.

I am not proud of it, but I must admit there is a part of me that is jealous of the speakers tomorrow. But that is the same part that led me to be insufferable as a child. I might have things to say, but so do the people I will see tomorrow. They have things to say in a world that doesn’t usually want to give them the chance to say it. In a world that usually won’t listen i52cinj. I will never be able to share their standpoint–but I do know how it feels to want to be heard. Tomorrow they will have my attention, and the silence of someone who has learned that the only way to learn something new is to accept that other people know things but you need to listen to find out.


This is one of my favorite posts from my old blog. Hopefully it ages well over time.