Silence as counter-narrative in higher, open, distance and e-learning

ResistanceAt the start of 2014 it is important to claim a space in the blogosphere by making predictions for 2014 or analysing the trends in 2013. Writing a blog on being silent or ‘pausing’ is therefore most probably strange (or maybe not) as a first blog of 2014 … Gere (2001) suggests that we should see “silence in continuity with speech”, and refers to the work of Susan Sontag (1989) who suggested a dialectical relationship between speech and silence where silence becomes a form of speech (p. 207).

In a previous blog, (and my last for 2013), I reflected on my own experience of having aphasia as blogger, being overwhelmed on the one hand by the changing higher education landscape and on the other hand, by my professional identity that was (and possibly still is) in limbo and held ransom by a range of factors. Dominant in the blogosphere was and is the rise, fall and resurrection of massive open online courses (MOOCs) – the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC. There is also intensification in the discourses on tenure, adjunct faculty and the increasing numbers of contract staff. The rise of for-profit higher education and the funding constraints of public higher education institutions and students, and the further “datafication” (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013) of students’ learning and potential – all of these created (and still create) a lot of noise and signals. Institutional and personal responses to these changes were a mixture of keeping-up-with-the-Jones-let-us-join-the-MOOCment, crying wolf, anger, revolt, and amongst faculty, often despair and aphasia.

Late in 2013 I discovered an article by Nicoli Humphry – “Disrupting deficit: the power of ‘the pause’ in resisting the dominance of deficit knowledges in education.” Her article made me revisit my thoughts on ‘becoming tongue-tied’ in 2013.

Humphry (2013) reflects on how teachers working with displaced young people use the ‘pause’ or ‘falling silent’ as strategy to disrupt the hegemony of deficit knowledges. In referring to the work of Foucault, Humphry (2013) points out that silence functions as a mechanism in power relations and signifies not only the “absence of sound” but also  “the absence of ‘theories’ and ‘imaginings’ within a discourse, particularly those ‘theories’ and ‘imaginings’ that could oppose ‘privileged, dominant discourses’” (Simpson & Lewis, 2005, quoted by Humphry, 2013, p. 6). Foucault (1980, in Gere, 2001) claims that “silence and secrecy are a shelter for power, anchoring its prohibitions; but also loosen its hold and provide for relatively obscure areas of tolerance” (p. 208). Later authors like Kristeva and others expand this notion and state that “silence provides protection from as well as shelter for power” (Gere, 2001, p. 208).

Humphry’s (2013) interviews with these teachers revealed that “Silence is therefore not just a space of static domination, but a space that shifts and changes with the power accessed within it” (2013, p. 1). When asked questions phrased in terminology that sanctioned the discourses of deficit knowledge, teachers would fall silent and pause – providing themselves a space to “challenge the truth of a deficit discourse and as a signal of something to come” (2013, p. 2). In these silences, “active and complex work was done” (2013, p. 2).

In the context of deficit discourses where “people ‘have’ a deficit” (p. 3)[think about the way we talk about students and faculty]; the deficit discourse allocates blame and responsibility to those with deficits, and “deflects blame from others” – those holding dominant positions.  Mostly those blamed for having some kind of deficit, fall silent and their silence/subjugation to being classified as deficient becomes a powerful tool in the continuing hegemony of the deficit discourse (Humphrey, 2013).

In her research, Humphrey (2013) however discovered “the pause” or falling momentarily silent as an active space of resistance, where the person falling silent uses his or her silence to reformulate and contest the deficit discourse. In pausing the teacher was looking for different ways to answer the question and to provide alternatives ways of describing these displaced students. Silence therefore moved “beyond just existing as a passive, impotent state” (p. 9) to a “strategic defense against the powerful” (Gal, 1989, quoted by Humphrey, 2013, p. 9). In the words following the silence or ‘the pause’, teachers challenged “deficit understandings via a re-speaking of these young people” (p. 9; emphasis added).

Humphry (2013) continues to provide a typology of silence as resistance and proposes that silence can be used to challenge deficit language used by others, as a deliberate and outright rejection of deficit, as negated deficit and even using deficit to subvert deficit practices (see Humphry, 2013, for more detail). She closes her article by proposing that silence or a pause before responding signified “the presence of an uncontested understanding. Second, it acted as a signifier that some type of work is being done. Third, it worked as a precursor to a language that challenged, resisted, and replaced deficit” (p. 14). Deliberately falling silent therefore became a strategy for “the disruption of dominant and damaging knowledges within both education and wider society” (p. 14).

There are many reasons why faculty (and students) fall silent – whether temporarily or alas, permanently. In the current rapid changing higher education context, many may simply just be overwhelmed. As the unbundling of traditional higher and distance education continues, many faculty (and students) may have become unbundled themselves, losing their identities as their skills’ sets became obsolete. Faculty are increasingly classified as having a number of deficits that should be addressed through hit-and-run training consultants or compulsory re-education programmes. Many faculty’s silence may also signify resignation with being part of the managerialist game as neutered and silenced. Can the subaltern speak? (Spivak, 1988). In these instances silence become signals of disengagement and abdication.

Silence can however also be a creative and active space of resistance, of reformulating responses and contesting dominant understandings (Humphry, 2013). (Also see Gere, 2001).

We need to question and contest the often unquestioned deficit understandings of faculty and students.  Humphry (2013) refers to the work of Vaughan (2004) who “encourages us to question, to trouble, and to problematise the everyday, familiar world around us and ‘to identify those discourses, be they prevailing, marginalized or otherwise, that circulate within a particular discursive context and to deconstruct the constitutive and regulatory effects of these’” (p. 5).

Since my last blog in 2013 I was scared that my aphasia would be permanent, that I would never regain my ability to speak/write. After reading Humphry’s (2013) article, I realised that silence can also be a very active, creative and critical space where I can allow myself to rephrase, to contest and reformulate alternative ways of seeing trends in my institution and in a small way, higher education in general. At the start of 2014 I am not sure that I have fully recovered my ability to speak. In many ways I have become distrustful and jaded. My silence and falling silent is most probably multidimensional and not only the result of being jaded, or signifying my disengagement or being disillusioned. I also want to embrace silence as space shelter from but also for power (Gere, 2001).


Gere, A.G. (2001). Revealing silence: Rethinking personal writing. College Composition and Communication, 53(2), 203-223.

Humphry, N. (2013). Disrupting deficit: the power of ‘the pause’ in resisting the dominance of deficit knowledges in education.  International Journal of Inclusive Education. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2013.789087.

Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data. A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think. London, UK: John Murray Publishers.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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3 Responses to Silence as counter-narrative in higher, open, distance and e-learning

  1. Goodwin-Davey, Alice says:

    This message (and attachments) is subject to restrictions and a disclaimer. Please refer to for full details.

    Dear Paul

    Yeay! You’re blogging again!

    I really like this one, especially the final paragraph where you say …
    “I realised that silence can also be a very active, creative and critical space where I can allow myself to rephrase, to contest and reformulate alternative ways of seeing trends in my institution and in a small way, higher education in general”

    And I’m glad you can share with us, your faithful followers, again!

  2. Hentie Wilson says:

    Thanks for this very insightful blog where you show your academic reasoning so well. I found a voice again through your voice, I became again through you. Truly Ubuntu in action (and I distrusted it for so long). Just have to state that the timing of the silence has to be right or exclusion follows as perceptions of irrelevance floods the silence part.

  3. Calvin John Mcphee says:

    Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing it. I would also recommend visiting this link for other related articles about distance learning:

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