MONDAY, DECEMBER 07
OKLAHOMA CITY —An Oklahoma City University English professor has proven she can teach without talking.
Elaine Smokewood needed to find a way to teach literature courses after a neurological disease took away her ability to speak last year. Not ready to give up a career of teaching the written word, Smokewood worked with the OCU technology department to teach without using the spoken word.
She learned about Web-based teaching methods and voice synthesizers. She also enhanced her ability to type accurately and quickly. Yet there was another skill that she worked on during the fall 2008 semester that served her well — listening.
“I learned in my semester of active listening that I had in the past often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing,” Smokewood stated in a story about her first semester of teaching through silence. “I learned that active listening can be a nurturing, catalyzing force within a classroom.”
Smokewood posts lectures on a course Web site so that students can prepare for class. During class sessions the students discuss the materials as Smokewood observes through a webcam system. She had to become accustomed to teaching from a remote location as opposed to “performing” in front of a classroom.
“When I could no longer speak, that performing self disintegrated. She was gone in a flash, utterly and completely. To lose that performing self was extremely disorienting. It was, in fact, frightening,” she stated.
Those fears disappeared as Smokewood changed her views of teaching.
“I learned that, in the absence of my performing self, I am more honest with my students, more willing to let down some of my own defenses. I learned that, in the absence of performance, the possibility of relationship is born,” she added.
Students say they’re impressed by how much they learn in Smokewood’s classes, not only about literature but also communication.
“Dr. Smokewood has really helped me realize the value of communication in all of its forms and how much you are able to learn from people by taking the time to listen,” said student Joanna Chenoweth. “She is someone who truly loves literature and she helps pass that enthusiasm onto others. Her method of teaching is extremely unique and extremely educational. ”
Smokewood has been teaching at OCU since 1996. After the first course using her new method, she said she was surprised to see how well the students engaged with the subject matter and stayed attentive in class.
“I have learned that I am deeply grateful to my students for listening actively and eagerly to my voice, for nurturing the silent voice of a woman who cannot speak. Most importantly, I have learned that gratitude is a healing, transforming force. It is perhaps the most powerful learning tool of all—for students and teacher alike,” she concluded.