Listening as Generous Thinking

(Crossposted from the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.)

Generous Thinking began for me with the nagging sense that something is off-kilter in much of scholarly life. It’s having profound effects not just on the ways that we as individual scholars are able to live out the values that we bring to our work but also on the ways that we work together, in groups, as departments, as institutions. And perhaps most importantly, it is affecting the ways that we connect and communicate with — or fail to connect and communicate with — the world off-campus. A talk I heard by David Scobey some years ago gave me the title for this book; Scobey argued that critical thinking in the humanities was completely out of balance with generous thinking, which oriented toward a form of public engagement designed to reconnect the university with the world. I was thrilled to hear someone name the thing that I’d been circling around, and yet I had two points of concern: first, was critical thinking necessarily on the opposite end of the intellectual see-saw from generous thinking? And second, if we are to engage generously with the world, do we need to begin closer to home?

The kind of generosity that I found myself hoping to foster has as its goal reconnecting the university to the communities that the institution is intended to serve. But this generosity is grounded in practices of connection that might strengthen the university itself as a community. The most fundamental of these practices is listening.

But — listening? How could something so basic be the ground for solving such a complex set of problems?

The first thing to note is that listening is indeed a most basic form of human engagement, but one that nearly all of us are pretty bad at. We may let one another speak; we may even hear one another when we do; but much of that time is spent waiting for our next turn to talk, preparing our own thoughts and ideas. Genuinely listening to what someone else has to say requires letting go, at least for a moment, of our own assumptions and perspectives. Listening requires attuning ourselves to what is being said to us, opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the engagement — that our own assumptions and perspectives might be wrong.

It’s not a coincidence that the ability to listen varies inversely with privilege: people who are marginalized are not just commanded to listen, but often must use listening as a tool of survival. The need to learn to listen, to displace the self in order to understand the perspectives of others, is for that reason most pressing for those of us who are most privileged. Listening is the first step in the creation of solidarity, of recognizing that our collective interests must take precedence over our individual interests.

Listening isn’t a panacea. It can’t solve the problems that the university faces today, not unless it’s accompanied by real transformative action. But listening is more than just personal, or interpersonal. It’s the ground for a critical practice that begins by thinking with rather than against our colleagues. It’s the ground for our ability to draw students and other potentially interested members of the public into the work that we do, rather than closing them out. It’s the ground for creating institutions that genuinely live out the values they claim to espouse. Listening is a basis for generous thinking, and as such is the first step toward real transformative change.

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