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Math Students Learn to “Think and Listen”

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and his first days in office, has been overwhelming. I have been struggling to figure out how I should respond.

This past weekend, when I learned of the immigration ban, I was galvanized into action: I made signs and attended a rally in support of immigration. As a first-generation USer whose parents both came to the United States from Europe—my mother as a sixteen-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany—the issue really hit home [had a personal effect on me]. My family would not be in this country, perhaps would not be alive, but for the generosity of U.S. citizens who befriended them and sponsored them to enter the country. My family was fortunate; many other Jews were denied access. Now it is my turn to repay the debt and support the cause of other immigrants and refugees.

Beyond my individual participation in protest, I also wanted to bring the immigration issue into my work as a mathematics professor. I have been intrigued by the question, how much formal RC theory does one need before one can make productive use of the discharge and re-evaluation process? The foundation of our theory is quite basic: people think more clearly when they get the chance to be listened to with attention. I was curious to see what impact sharing this insight with my students would have.

At the start of class, I explained that we were going to learn and practice a new technique: the “think and listen.” I said that in this technique students are paired together and take turns talking and being listened to. The first student gets to talk about whatever is on their mind, while the second student listens; then the roles are reversed. The listener does not have to say much; this is not a discussion. Their role is to provide pleased attention. The attention will assist the speaker in clarifying their thinking.

I explained that I was doing this exercise in response to the political upheaval in the United States. I spoke briefly of my background as a first-generation USer, the child of immigrants, and of my mother’s experience as a refugee from Nazi Germany. In spite of the discharge I had done ahead of time to prepare for leading the exercise, I could feel my voice quiver. It was the first time in my more than twenty-five years of teaching at the college that I had spoken to one of my classes about being a child of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted my students, a significant number of whom were international students who might be worried about the political situation, to know that I was acknowledging the situation and was available to them as a resource and support.

I told them that I knew they were trying to figure out for themselves how to respond to the situation but that it can be challenging to think clearly when one is stressed or anxious or afraid. As an example, I mentioned how some students, because of anxiety about their math abilities, are not able to think clearly on exams and so do not perform up to their potential. I explained that one can use the “think and listen” technique in many situations, including for studying and academics.

I said that when it was their turn to be listened to, they could talk about whatever they wanted. If they did not want to talk about the political situation, that would be fine. They might want to talk about some pleasant experience they’d had recently. I said that paying attention to pleasant memories can also help reduce stress and contribute to clearer thinking.

I was aware that the students might have opposing political views. To create a safe space for all political leanings, I framed the exercise as an effort to clarify one’s thinking, not as an effort to support any particular political viewpoint.

I had them pair up with the student next to them and said that each person would get ninety seconds to talk. Then they would switch roles. I explained that of course one could have longer turns, but as this was an introduction to the technique, we would do it for just a short time. (Having done other “think and listen” exercises, I’d found that longer time periods, for example, three minutes, could seem very long to people who were doing it for the first time and they could run out of things to say [not have any more to say]. Also, I preferred to have their turn end while they were still enthusiastically talking.)

There was a buzz in the classroom as the students talked. When the alarm on my watch went off and I had them switch roles, there was no hesitation; the second student immediately began talking.

I then asked for feedback. How did it go? What did it feel like? After an awkward silence, one student raised her hand. She said that she had done a similar exercise in another course and had found it very difficult to listen to the other person without speaking about the thoughts that were running through her head—that she’d had to fight the urge to interrupt. (This is a common experience for someone first learning to be the listener and one that I wanted the class to be aware of. I was pleased that a student had spoken about it so I did not have to raise the issue myself.) She said that in this second experience, it had been easier to pay attention to the speaker. I commented that this kind of listening becomes easier with practice, that I had been engaging in it for thirty years in a project called Co-Counseling, and that I had found it very useful. I also said there were refinements to the basic technique that I would be happy to talk about with any students who were interested.

I finished by explaining that in doing the “think and listen,” one can experience powerful feelings and that we want to close them up when the exercise is over. I gave them the present-time activity of looking their partner in the eye and saying in a loud, cheerful voice, “I really like mathematics.” Most of the students laughed as they said it. I then switched gears and started the math lesson. From start to finish, the “think and listen” exercise took about fifteen minutes.

A student came to my office later that day and said she had been interested to learn about my background as a first-generation USer. She went on to tell me about her situation as an international student and her family’s worries that if she were to leave the United States to visit them, she might find herself unable to return to complete her education.

From a second student, I received the following appreciative e-mail:

“Dear Professor,

Thank you so much for giving us the time at the beginning of class to talk and listen to people. Many professors haven’t acknowledged the current political scenario, so as an international student it means a lot to me that you acknowledge the things that are happening outside of our college. I empathize with you about the immigration situation. I hope things get better.”

I look forward to hearing how other RCers have used the opportunity provided by the present political upheaval to share insights of Co-Counseling in the wide world.

An anonymous RC colleague

(Present Time 187, April 2017)


Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00