Settling into the Silence

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Students explore the power of quiet in a new communication course taught by professors Kathy Merlock Jackson and Terry Lindvall

By Stephanie Smaglo | November 19, 2012

SilenceIt’s a brisk night in November and Virginia Beach Boulevard is in full-on hustle-bustle mode. Tucked away amidst the blare of fast food restaurants, car dealerships and honking horns lies Quintin’s Tea Emporium, a peaceful escape from the commotion and the meeting place for tonight’s senior seminar course, “Silence in Media and Culture.”

Students are welcomed into the shop by owner and tea aficionado Lauren Ronald. The warm space is a pleasant retreat from the clamor of the outside world, smelling of Oolong orange blossom, cinnamon and other Zen-provoking aromas. No less than 100 mason jar-esque containers line the far right wall, each filled with a different blend of tea. Kettles, mugs, books and various gift items are neatly arranged about the room, gathered around two tables topped with sinful looking homemade breads and cookies baked by communication professor Kathy Merlock Jackson.

The tables have been set for an evening of contemplation about a quiet channel of communication that we hear so little of in today’s world: silence.

“Silence in Media and Culture” is co-taught by Merlock Jackson and fellow communication professor Terry Lindvall. The idea for the course was inspired by a 2009 student-conducted survey designed to investigate the role of silence in the lives of Virginia Wesleyan students. Not surprisingly, the research revealed that silence had little to no place in many students’ lives. This motivated Lindvall and Merlock Jackson to learn more. In putting together the outline for the course, the professors sought to answer a very complex question: Can one experience deep thought, reflection, creativity and spirituality in a culture devoid of silence?

“In our highly technological world, people find it difficult to experience silence,” says Merlock Jackson. “It's much easier to connect than to disconnect. However, if we lose silence, we may be undermining our capacity for thought, reflection, creativity, deep reading, and spirituality, and this has ramifications. I hope, simply, that students know that they need not constantly be caught up in the cacophony of modern times. If they think silence is important, they can take steps to include and appreciate it in their lives.”

To further understand the nature and functions of silence in culture and the media, the class studied music, film, theater, environment, politics, and literature, including author Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Senior Candice Gindle found the book to be very eye-opening and particularly enjoyed the class time spent discussing introversion and extroversion.

“We found out that everyone except for two people in the class considers themselves introverts,” Gindle explains over a mug of green tea. “I thought it was interesting that so many people see themselves that way, especially because the media, and society in general, pushes for you to be extroverted. That’s something Cain talks about a lot in her book, ‘Why aren’t you as loud, or why aren’t you participating as much as everyone else?’ That was probably my favorite part of the book, and my favorite part of the class too.”

In addition to reading about silence, students acquired some hands-on experience. They spent time practicing the art of meditation and even learned some miming techniques from a local mime who visited the class this fall. The class has also heard from a handful of guest speakers, including Sara Blachman, daughter of retired Virginia Wesleyan English professor Eve Blachman.

Sara Blachman has stopped into Quintin’s Tea Emporium tonight to share the silence she experienced while attending Westtown School, a Pennsylvania college preparatory school run by Quakers. As a student, Blachman attended the school’s weekly “Meeting for Worship,” a gathering similar to a church service. The meetings open with a question or statement, followed by up to an hour and a half of silence that allows for consideration of that day’s query, a practice referred to as “Settling into the Silence.”

“There are definitely some meetings where you are sitting in a room with 50 other people for an hour and no one says anything,” recalls Blachman. “This silence was really beneficial to me because never before had I ever thought about the possibility of sitting alone, but with other people. It’s just really powerful and you end up with a room that’s full of positive, healthy energy that you then get to feed off of while you’re meditating or ‘settling into the silence.’”

Dr. Lindvall hopes that his students will recognize the benefits of silence and walk away with a desire to make more room for quiet in their lives.

“We wanted our students to explore how contemporary culture blasts its way into their lives and what they have lost with the assault of new technology and constant noise,” says Lindvall. “We are too talkative. With us it is talk, talk, talk, yet all the time silence is the great and useful thing. When one becomes silent, one is more apt to learn.”

The tea party comes to an end and the students barge back outside onto the cold, barking strip of the Boulevard. They may be headed back to their noisy world of headphones, TV and social media, but thanks to Merlock Jackson and Lindvall, tonight they enjoyed a hot cup of reflective silence.