I came into this class with a pretty clear goal in mind; I wanted to become a better listener, and continue contributing to class conversations and growth while taking up less overall space in class discussions and collaborative assignments. This goal was a direct result of things I noticed and observed about myself across my time at Geneseo. I started to become far more aware of what I would say is one of my biggest flaws both as a student and as a person: I always have something to say. I used to see this as an indisputably positive trait, but I started to see the negative aspects of it over the past few years. As I stated in my goal-setting essay at the beginning of this semester; “The same enthusiasm and willingness to speak up that drove me to actively engage in every class discussion could also lead to me dominating conversations and bulldozing over my less extroverted or confident classmates. The same eagerness to share my learning that led to me raising my hand could (and has) lead me to interrupt the insights of others. Often I find myself so fascinated by the things that I notice that I’m more interested in sharing them than I am about hearing what others have noticed.” With this in mind, along with a rough knowledge of the basic structure of this class based on previous experience in Beth’s courses and confirmed by the syllabus, I came into this class determined to make more space for others in class conversations.
At the beginning of the class, my idea as to how to go about this was simple; talk less, listen more. This didn’t quite go as planned, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m not what I consider to be a very eloquent person, and as a result, my method of contributing to class has always been not only to talk, but to keep talking until I’m confident that the point I meant to make came out somewhere in the stream of semi-coherent rambling I just uttered. Secondly, I’ve found that I am uncomfortable with silence, particularly in an academic setting. This means that often, when a professor asks a question to the class and is met with no immediate response, I feel compelled to say something to end the silence, regardless of what that something is, just to ease the growing discomfort I feel as the quiet takes hold. These idiosyncrasies of mine did not mesh well with my plan, and I often found myself still struggling with taking up too much space despite my best efforts, with the fun new bonus of being far more aware that I was doing this and feeling guilty for not being able to rein myself in more. I do want to acknowledge, however, that even on my bad days, when I took up the most space in class discussions in this class, it still was not as bad as I’ve been in previous courses, due, I think, to a combination of my own efforts to be more aware of this and rein myself in a bit (even if not enough) and Beth’s efforts to be aware of this goal, remind me of it when need be, and find ways of keeping me from taking over class conversations when I was doing too much.
So, it’s around mid-October, we’re well into the semester, I’m still struggling with my goal, and my current method of trying to achieve it is very clearly not enough. Where do I go from here? Well, without really meaning to, I started thinking about my goal-setting essay. One part of it in particular, about the most common reason I heard from some of my friends and classmates as to why they don’t say as much in class; “it’s not like I need to, there’s plenty of others that will speak in class anyways”. When I’d originally written this, I had looked at it as a challenge. If I tried to reduce my voice in the classroom, surely the absence of it would force others to speak up. That, as it turned out, was the wrong way of thinking. Instead of thinking of this situation as me trying to challenge this common notion held by my friends and classmates, I needed to start using their way of thinking to help me achieve my goal. I realized it would be far easier for me to take up less space if there were other people I knew would speak up in class discussions instead. I started to try to use small group discussions as a way of seeking out insights from classmates, raising up classmates who shared those insights, and inviting them (or lightly pressuring them, take your pick) to speak more on them. To my delight, I noticed that more and more people started speaking during whole class discussions and Beth’s questions were met with silence less and less. Whether this had anything to do with me or was just a result of the natural process of people getting more comfortable with each other and the material as the course went on, I’m not sure, but even though my gut says it was likely the latter, I’d like to think that I helped a little bit.
In the spirit of noticing, it’s time to change direction a bit. I’ve noticed that, for someone trying to argue that he’s gotten better at seeking out and listening to the insights of others, I’ve crafted an essay that has so far been largely about me. But a large part of the reason I was able to achieve any success at my goal this semester overall was because of my classmates, whose insights shaped not only this course as a whole but also my understanding of both my goal, the texts, and the collaboration process. Through our collaborative projects this semester, I was reminded of just how many deep insights and interpretations my classmates can come up with, and how many pieces of context and interpretations I would never have come up with in a million years without their contributions. Circling back to my goal, this further reminded me just how much my classmates have to say, even when they aren’t sharing it with the whole class. I was brought right back to the mix of wonder and frustration I felt when first having conversations about class material with my softer-spoken friends in freshman and sophomore year, wanting to shake them and asking in amazement why they didn’t talk more about this stuff in class? Luckily, I have since found nicer and more effective ways of suggesting to classmates that they share their ideas, but I always appreciate the reminder of just how many ideas my peers have to share.
As far as how this relates to the texts, I’d say that a lot of the characters we’ve read about this semester achieve their development mostly through noticing, or being forced to notice a flaw in themselves, and taking the steps necessary to try to correct that flaw. Not all of these characters were successful. But in most cases, how successful each character is determined by how self-aware they are in their flaws.
Cee may be the prime example of this. Cee starts her journey in Toni Morrison’s Home as an innocent but helpless girl with not a clue in the world how to survive without the help and protection of others. For the first portion of her life, that help and protection came from her brother Frank. When he enlists in the Korean War and leaves, Cee latches on to the first new source of protection and security she can find, in the form of Prince, who she falls in love with, gets engaged to, moves out of town with, and is then promptly abandoned by. After this, she receives support, protection, and guidance from her friend and neighbor Thelma, before finding a job under Dr. Beauregard Scott, who, along with her coworker Sarah, make Cee feel secure again. It’s only after Dr. Beauregard takes advantage of her trust and performs dangerous and destructive experiments on her, causing her to nearly die and rendering her permanently infertile, that she finally realizes how big a flaw her lack of independence is. Once she realizes it however, she never loses sight of it. She immediately takes action to become more independent, aided by Miss Ethel Fordham and the other women of Lotus. By the time Frank next sees her, we are told that “Cee was different”(Morrison 121) and that “this Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world…Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel’s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes… They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones”(127-128). Through these lines, readers are given the sense that Cee is a far more independent woman, and is shown to the readers to be doing the same sort of chores she had watched the woman of Lotus do during her recovery. By the end of the novel, in a perfect inversion of the first scene in the novel, the two properly bury the body of the man they watched so hastily and improperly buried in their childhood, and when the deed is done, it is Cee who leads Frank home this time around, displaying her newfound mental and emotional strength and independence.
Another example of this is Keira in Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler. From the very start of the book, we are told that Keira is sick with cancer. She is perceived by almost everyone in the book, even her kidnappers, as frail and fragile, and is constantly treated differently as a result. This, however, is exactly what offers her a unique perspective from her family when they’re introduced to the Clay’s Ark colony and its inhabitants. Out of her family, she is the only one to see the sphinx-like children of the Clay’s Ark colony as more than simply inhuman. When she first meets one of the children, a girl named Zera, she greets her almost entirely with approval, remarking that “she’s beautiful”, and later thinking to herself that the child “was perfect. A perfect, lean, little four-legged thing with shaggy uncombed hair and a beautiful little face”. When asked if she’d be open to having one someday, Keira replies “I think I could handle it” (Butler pages 119-120). This clearly impresses Eli, the leader of the colony, who later tells her “I liked the way you got along with Jacob and Zera”(Butler 128). This is the start of her bond with Eli, but it’s not the only thing that makes her stand out to him or to readers in contrast with the rest of her family. Keira is also the only one in her family to seem to have any compassion for the people in this community and the situation they find themselves in. It is that compassion, both for the children and adults of the Clay’s Ark colony, that allows her to build a deep bond with Elijah, the leader of the Clay’s Ark colony. Later, when Keira and her family escape, only to be kidnapped again by a group of travelling thieves, rapists, and killers, called a “car family”, she has faith that Elijah and the Clay’s Ark colony will rescue them. She acts on that faith, apologizing to Eli through the window in the room the ‘car family’ kept her in and asking him for help(page 167-168). He clearly hears her, and does indeed help, storming the ‘car family’’’s hideout to either try and help Keira and her family escape or have his people rescue Keira and her family themselves. Sadly in the end, she is the only one of her family who survives the ordeal, because one of the Clay’s Ark children that she showed compassion to comes to rescue her and lead her back to Eli’s people. It’s worth noting that it is not only her compassion to the Clay’s Ark children being rewarded here, but also her willingness to work with the Clay’s Ark colony as a whole, as Blake makes it out of the car family hideout only to attempt to flee from the Clay’s Ark colony again, and it’s implied Rane might not have gone back with the Clay’s Ark colony even if she had made it out. Keira is explicitly the only one of her family to survive because she realizes that not trusting the people of the Clay’s Ark colony is a mistake, and fleeing from them would only make things worse. The novel also portrays their decision to attempt escape the first time and especially Blake’s decision to attempt escape again as flawed, reckless choices. In the end, these choices not only lead to Rane’s and Blake’s deaths but also the infection getting out into the world, resulting in the Clay’s Ark disease spreading to the entire human race. In contrast, Keira’s decision to trust Eli and the people of the Clay’s Ark colony is framed as both rational and the most morally good option available, as it is, for all its flaws, the least destructive option Keira and her family has.
In Fortune’s Bones we see examples of what happens when people don’t take a second to notice their own flaws and attempt to get better. Fortune’s Bones gives us the ignorant Dr. Porter, who is too wrapped up in the excitement of examining the corpse of one of the men he enslaved to think about the fact that Fortune is a human being and what Porter’s doing to his corpse is wrong. We see the twisted fate of Fortune’s remains as it is passed down from descendant to descendant in the Porter family line before finally being abandoned in the boarded up wall of a house only to be rediscovered and put in a museum to be gawked at by even more ignorant white people too caught up in the novelty of the experience to remember that these bones came from a real person and deserve the same respect that we grant so freely to most other human remains but that has been denied to poor Fortune for centuries. We even see how Porter’s descendants, in their desire to continue using the remains for their own selfish purposes, rename the Fortune’s skull “Larry” so as to make it easier to forget the real identity of the human being that they so flagrantly disrespect in death. In a brief moment of self-awareness (that likely came more from author Marilyn Nelson herself rather than the character whose point-of-view she’s writing from at this point), we see one of Porter’s descendants admit to the reason behind the renaming, stating “I called him Larry. It was easier/To face him with an imaginary name./For Fortune was an image of myself:”(Nelson page 21). This admission that Porter’s descendants renamed Fortune in order to avoid having to face the horror of what they did and continued to do to Fortune even in death shows just how awful human beings can be when we’re not willing to notice our own flaws, acknowledge them, and attempt to better ourselves.
In a way, I think the theme of noticing that ran throughout this course and its texts helped me to keep my goal for this class in mind as we kept moving through the semester, and I’m very grateful for that. I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with where I’m at in terms of my goal. I still take up more space in a classroom than I might like, and I still find myself speaking a bit more than I should in class discussions. I notice and acknowledge this, and appreciate that I still have a ways to go in working towards making room for everyone in academic spaces. However, with all that in mind, I’m still confident in saying that I have accomplished my goal, which was, as a reminder for both myself and whoever may read this to become a better listener, and take up less space in class discussions, not to become the best or even a good listener, and not to take up the right amount of space in class discussions. I feel that I can confidently say that even though I’m still not necessarily where I want to be in terms of listening and making space for others, I have definitely made significant progress. And for now, that’s enough for me.