Soft-spoken teaching

In last week’s New Yorker, Steven Martin has an essay that purports to describe his early years in comedy.  (The fulltext isn’t online, though there’s an abstract.)  When he recalls his early years in standup, he discusses how he’d deal with hecklers:

I developed a few defensive lines to use against the unruly: “Oh, I remember when I had my first beer.”  And if that didn’t cool them off I would use a psychological trick.  I would lower my voice and continue with my act, talking almost inaudibly.  The audience couldn’t hear the show, and they would shut the heckler up on their own.

This was interesting to me because two weeks ago, after watching me present, a colleague mentioned admiring my presentation style, which is based on being soft-spoken.  I speak quietly, especially at the start, asking listeners to supply some of their own interest and energy to following along.  If they have to focus on hearing, then there’s a good chance they’ll transfer some of that focus to the material.

Two weeks ago, I was also re-compiling my tenure file*, and had the occasion to notice that many students apparently do not recognize this as a legitimate rhetorical choice.  I have several evaluations asking me to speak up; a significant number of these attribute my soft speaking voice to nervousness, which isn’t right.  Almost all of these students were in general education courses, which seems related–many people in a gen ed literature course are taking it because it fulfills one or more requirements which they see as unrelated to their life.  They’re just not going to be willing to invest attention as quickly as someone who’s a major, or who likes a particular topic, or whatever.  I probably need to think about this a bit more.

*”Re-compiling” because last year I was promoted to associate professor, but not tenured due to “inadequate achievement in years in rank.”

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