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Composition Forum 48, Spring 2022

Gestural Listening In and Beyond the Classroom

Laura Feibush

Abstract: Although enlivened by its recent recontextualization as a feminist rhetorical practice, listening in rhetoric scholarship is often equated with silence and its metaphorical and material dimensions rendered indistinct, even as instructors require better tools to interpret students’ classroom behaviors. This article fills a gap in the ability to interpret moment-to-moment listening behaviors by developing the term “gestural listening,” referring to listening’s embodied manifestations. Analyzing instances of gestural listening and applying interpretive frameworks drawn from rhetoric, gesture studies, and pedagogy, this article shows how gestural listening exerts pressure upon communicative situations inside and outside of the classroom, and how expectations for gestural listening must acknowledge how it is inflected by aspects of identity such as race, gender, neurodiversity, and ability. Ultimately, this essay argues that gestural listening should be understood as a palpable rhetorical force that shapes discursive conditions.


Few instructors are strangers to moments of silence in the classroom. In discussion-based classrooms, many instructors eager to facilitate rich conversations will be familiar with these moments: when an opening gambit fails to spark response, or when a question initiates not dialogue but an ever-lengthening pause. At times when verbal feedback has not been forthcoming in the classroom, I have looked to my students’ nonverbal communication for clues. Sometimes, students’ nonverbal expressions feel open, sympathetic, and engaged: students nod, respond, or make eye contact. When this is the case, I find myself speaking more animatedly, drawing more and better connections between ideas, or generating better examples to illustrate concepts. When the nature of my students’ gestural presence is resistant, on the other hand, and I confront a “tough room,” I find myself coming up short. Students’ embodied listening behaviors become a kind of force, or pressure, acting on the situation. In turn, when my students do speak, my own listening behaviors can serve to affirm or discourage.

In short, the way we listen matters, especially the way we enact our listening in pedagogical spaces. In this essay, I examine the way students and instructors physically manifest the act of listening, using their posture, their eyes, their hands, and even their choices about where to sit. I call this “gestural listening,” by which I refer to all the spatial and physical ways listening can be enacted. Inspired by the small choreographies of the classroom, my examination of gestural listening fills a gap in our field’s ability to interpret moment-to-moment listening behaviors. To do this, I analyze instances of gestural listening in classrooms and beyond, applying theoretical frameworks drawn from rhetoric, gesture studies, and pedagogy to articulate listening’s role as a powerful force acting on communicative situations in and beyond the classroom. Ultimately, this essay argues that listening should be understood as a rhetorical force that shapes discursive conditions, and which provides an analytical tool for understanding listening behaviors across dimensions of race, gender, and neurodiversity.

Recent years have seen a burgeoning of interest in theorizing listening within rhetoric and composition and its adjacent fields. Beyond Wayne Booth’s formulation of “listening-rhetoric” as the most constructive form of rhetorical engagement, scholars in English and cultural studies have analyzed listening with regards to dimensions of ability and race (Brueggemann, Walters; Henriquez, Stoever), from historical and philosophical angles (Corbin, Thompson, Sterne; Gross) as well as with foci on media and environment (Bull, LaBelle). Listening has been studied by many for its pedagogical possibilities (Ahern and Mehlenbacher, Campbell, Comstock and Hocks, Detweiler, Stone), but its leading champions on this front are Krista Ratcliffe and Cheryl Glenn, whose work brings about valuable insights like Ratcliffe’s assertion in Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness that listening can be a generative “trope for interpretive invention” (17). Here, Ratcliffe makes the important assertion that listening should be understood not merely as receptive, but as potentially generative.

Ratcliffe’s work also exemplifies, however, a body of literature that often folds listening into silence, and focuses on listening’s metaphorical dimensions at the expense of its material ones. Listening is not the same as silence, and taking care to not lump silence and listening together allows us to understand listening as sometimes occurring within the guise of silence, or as being badly needed in arenas that have been kept forcibly silent. Further, not all listening manifests as silence: choral singers listen even as they continue singing in order to maintain or correct their intonation, for instance. At times, Ratcliffe in particular seems to disregard the material dimensions of listening and language. After quoting a passage from Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, Ratcliffe writes: “Listening rhetorically to the textual strategies, I hear contradictory sounds and rhythms in the first sentence: the mellifluous vowels in ‘tenderness and love and compassion’ juxtaposed with the harsh consonants of ‘bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their place.’ I also discern voices of competing cultural logics: the status quo versus social activism” (39). Ratcliffe slips, in this analysis, between two kinds of listening: first, listening for prosody, or the actual sounds of the words, like “tenderness, love, and compassion,” but then moving from there into the more metaphorical form of listening, or the “trope” of listening, that is, being “open” to the cultural logics reflected in the text.

Many teacher-scholars after Ratcliffe and Glenn better articulate the intertwined metaphorical and material dimensions of listening. Scholars working at the juncture of rhetoric and sound now often work with understandings of sound and listening that are more overtly physical. Conceptualized this way, sounds are substantial, vibrating waves that penetrate, resonate, and interact materially with other bodies. Notably, Steph Ceraso’s 2018 book Sounding Composition develops the idea of “multimodal listening,” which posits that listening is a multisensory act, implicating not just the ears, but the whole body. Other writers working in cultural studies more broadly also fruitfully explore facets of listening’s physicality in addition to its metaphorical dimensions: Charles Hirschkind in the learned practices of Islamic sermon audition, and Carol Harrison in the embodied development of listeners in early Christian settings, among others.

The focus these writers bring to sonic materiality, and to formulating listening in new ways, opens up the possibility for me to conceptualize listening itself as a rhetorical force, and as a physically manifested set of actions as opposed to an invisible, interior, process inaccessible to observation. In the next section, I outline what I see as their trajectory through rhetorical history, to which gestural listening forms a natural outgrowth. Throughout, I aim to give readers new ways of interpreting the listening of others, while becoming more mindful of their own.

Locating Gestural Listening

To contextualize my formulation of gestural listening as a rhetorical force, I want to trace one historical vein of listening in rhetoric scholarship, one that finds a gestural regime within a rhetorical history of listeners.

I begin with a strain of scholarship that emphasizes the rhetorical pressures brought about by the presence of a gathered audience, an audience that can ongoingly make choices about how to “audience” through their gestures, dress, group movements, and verbal responsiveness. Debra Hawhee’s work on the cultural links between ancient athletics and rhetoric clarifies that while athlios is the term favored for athletic contests focused squarely on victory, agon—the term that would go on to become a controlling metaphor for rhetorical contest—refers more specifically to the gathering, or assembly, that forms not just to view victorious outcomes, but to witness the grapple, the struggle of the contest itself (15). Further, especially in the conferring of arete, or virtuousness, through contestive encounter, “the relational quality of struggle makes opponents, spectators, and judges part of a network of agonistic production” (19). In her excavation of the habits of early Christian listeners, Carol Harrison, too, underscores the importance of a gathered network of production. Right listening for early Christians has to do with the stamp of faith on the heart, listening through a speaker’s phrasings—eloquent or not—to extract truth. In her reading of Plutarch’s On Listening to Lectures, part of his Moralia, a pagan text that also influenced early Christian rhetorical practice, Harrison highlights Plutarch’s description of the gestural, participatory listening that should accompany right listening. Reading Plutarch, Harrison writes:

Just as bodily gesture and facial expressions were regarded as an intrinsic part of the way in which a speaker communicated their message, so Plutarch urges that the hearer should also ensure that they encourage the speaker by making their friendly disposition evident to them in, for example, “a gentleness of glance, a serenity of countenance, and a disposition kindly and free from annoyance.” (129)

Harrison interprets this to mean that for Plutarch, “right listening or right reception, is thus the beginning of right speaking or right delivery,” an orientation that invests the gestural responses of audience members with remarkable importance (131). On audience interaction, Harrison writes that due to norms in their juried legal system, theater, and other sites of civic life, early Christian audiences were “used to being treated not so much as an audience as a conversation partner; someone who could influence the speaker by their expressions, gestures, applause, laughter, and groans, or, indeed, their silence” (144). Harrison and Hawhee bring forward a pattern in rhetorical practice and scholarship that understands embodied listening behaviors as an estimable rhetorical force, ultimately even affecting what gets said.

Similarly seeking the roots of listening behaviors in religious practice, Charles Hirschkind traces the phenomenon of listening to recorded sermons in contemporary Egypt to Muslim liturgical traditions in which the most important rhetorical act rests within the listener, rather than in the preacher (khatib). On “sam,’” or correct hearing, Hirschkind writes that “what the divine message requires within this tradition is not so much a rhetor as a listener, one who can correctly hear what is already stated in its most perfect, inimitable, and untranslatable form” (35). Further, the type of faithful listening that Hirschkind identifies—listening that correctly responds to the already-perfect words of the Qur’an—recruits not just the ears, but a range of sensorimotor responses: in the “listener’s lips as they subtly trace the salutation to the Prophet following the khatib’s mention of his name, in the barely audible phrases of supplication uttered when a certain dire event of the eschaton has been described...or in adjustments of posture” (124). Hirschkind and Harrison have in common their observation that listening, and listeners, do not show up ready to receive and be moved by what they hear. Rather, both are cultivated through life-long practices that shape audition. Further, cultivated listening can recruit the entire body in particular ways, some more correct than others according to tradition. These forms of listening, which I would call gestural listening, produce their own forms of embodied and cognitive responsiveness, blurring the line between expression and reception.

In Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Closed Fist, Edward Corbett further carves out a precedent for an embodied, responsive rhetoric of assembled listeners when he maps the metaphor of “closed fist” rhetoric onto contemporary forms of rhetorical expression. Closed fist rhetoric of the 1960’s, what Corbett calls “muscular rhetoric,” or “body rhetoric,” are non-verbal forms of persuasion characterized by “massed physical presence,” and often accompanied by other non-verbal forms of expression like flags, pins, armbands, or “bizarre costumes” (291). Rhetoric of the closed fist tends to be non-verbal, coercive rather than traditionally persuasive, and often practiced by those without ready access to other types of formal participation in the public sphere. Corbett’s formulation of closed fist rhetoric resonates with the rhetorical power of gestural listening, which similarly rests within the power of “massed presence” and is often leveraged by those without recourse to other forms of recognition.

But if gestural rhetoric of listeners exists, how important really is it? Building on work by Hawhee and Corbett, Cory Holding’s Rhetoric of the Open Fist brings forward John Bulwer’s treatises on rhetorical gesture, Chironomia and Chirologia, to challenge existing narratives coming historically from Quintilian, and more immediately from Bulwer’s London contemporaries, of gesture as ornamental, distracting, or coercive, arguing instead that gesture during speech should be understood as a form of invention located within the body. By suggesting that “reasoned engagement is also entirely bodily,” Holding’s work refracts insights from 20th-century gesture studies, dominated by researchers David McNeill, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Adam Kendon (415). While a full review of this literature is outside the scope of this article, its main takeaways are clear: gestures are not just illustrative in a mime-like way for a hearer’s benefit, but rather fuel and contribute to the unfolding of thought and language for the speaker, as well. As McNeill puts it: “Gestures...are themselves thinking in one of its many forms—not only expressions of thought, but thought, i.e., cognitive being, itself” (99). Holding, rereading Bulwer through the lens of 20th-century gesture studies, clarifies the generative role that gestures play in thought, leading directly to inquiries like my own, which asks how we can better observe and interpret the gestures of listeners, given gesture’s generative capacities for thought and rhetorical impact.

Taken together, these writers give context and precedent within rhetorical history for my assertion that listening behaviors can be understood as a rhetorical force. In the next section, I analyze instances of listening behaviors common to classrooms. To do so, I turn not only to my own observations of student listening behaviors, but to a scholar whose work has been often overlooked: Mary Reda’s Between Speaking and Silence. What Reda offers, and what other scholars who I will analyze in this article offer, are descriptions of listening dynamics in classrooms. Written descriptions of listening behaviors, in addition to classroom observations, provide opportunities to analyze the actions of expressive listening, the often-quiet, simultaneous flip side of speech.

Gestural Listening in the Classroom

In this section, I present two observations—one from my own classroom, one from a classroom I observed—that also serve as examples of common listening behaviors. My descriptions of student listening behaviors here may be familiar to many instructors, and I hope readers will recall similar instances from their own experiences. I analyze these instances of listening behaviors through the lens of Mary Reda’s Between Speaking and Silence.

Katherine is fully present once in the room: funny, good-natured, charismatic. Amidst rows of sometimes-reticent faces, she makes eye contact with me boldly, moving forward in her seat when conversation especially interests her. At times, she seems about ready to leap up from her chair. Actively responding to questions with her face and her posture, it’s as though her voice is in the room even before she speaks. In her behaviors, Katherine demonstrates a form of gestural listening that is remarkably visible, physically manifested in observable ways. As the instructor, her responses serve almost like a weathervane—this example is resonating, while that one requires more explanation; this activity is boring, it’s time to move on to one that’s more engaging. Katherine’s visible and readily legible, recognizable behaviors telegraph information to me as the instructor. That is, her listening behavior is not simply receptive—rather, it is also expressive.

Katherine illustrates an understanding of listening as something that does not simply receive, but which can actually reach out and even change the discursive conditions of the classroom. In fact, Katherine’s gestural listening is so visible that it throws into relief the marked stillness of some of her classmates, who adopt a different style of gestural listening. Their performance of listening reflects a different, but nevertheless highly developed sense of what it means to be a student, and to perform the type of listening expected of students. The way other students less overtly expressive than Katherine perform gestural listening also exerts a type of pressure, however, that can bring about real consequences in their interactions with the instructor.

Many teacher-scholars may ask at this point how gestural listening differs from the widely known notion of “active listening.” While gestural listening may play a role in active listening, and active listening may inflect someone’s gestural listening, they are conceptually different. The idea of active listening, while often aimed at cultivating empathy and building consensus (Rogers and Farson), is also commonly aimed at increasing workplace productivity, or, more instrumentally, at helping a listener present themselves in a way that strikes others positively (Weger et al.). My formulation of gestural listening here, however, is not inherently geared towards understanding, empathy, or consensus. In fact, in its flow between expression and reception, gestural listening may at times be resistant or self-protective, as I will show below. I do not aim to teach readers a standardized repertoire of “good” listening behaviors, but rather to see gestural listening behaviors as they are, and learn to interpret them through an awareness of power, identity, and embodied rhetoric. In fact, it is vitally important to suspend, at times, our preconceived sense of what constitutes “good” gestural listening, especially on the part of our students.

Many student listening behaviors, like the one I describe next, may appear less overt than Katherine’s. They nevertheless influence classroom situations, shaping class discussion and interactions. In a classroom I observe, the instructor poses a question. The classroom remains quiet, and students seem to hold themselves still, some looking into the middle of the circled tables. After a pause, the instructor calls on a student by name to answer, although no hands are raised. There is a snap to attention from many students in the class, quick swivels, eyes raised and directed towards the called-upon student. The “snap to attention” that I describe here is a respectful one, through which students show attention to their speaking classmate. However, it’s also a ripple that registers something else, too: the low-level anxiety that can spread suddenly in a group of students, among whom one has been cold-called. This pedagogical move says: “Look alive—anyone could be next!” When the instructor in this class, confronted by quietness in response to her question, calls out a student by name, she reminds the class that although she may generally be a friendly and sympathetic figure, she nevertheless has the authority to prompt her students to speak if their quietness stretches on for too long. The students then respond by using their listening performance to convey attention, almost in itself a form of participation—perhaps in hopes of avoiding the next cold call. Being made to speak, after all, makes a student vulnerable in the classroom. In speaking, lack of preparation may be quickly revealed, and students are often understandably reluctant to take this risk, especially when they are less familiar with the norms for discourse in a given subject. From this perspective, quietness can be seen as a self-protective measure on the part of students in class.

Keeping in mind Katherine’s highly visible listening, as well as the students above who use the tools of gestural listening to negotiate particular classroom dynamics, how do we constructively think about students whose gestural listening is not as clearly observable as either? In Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students, Mary Reda takes as her focus those who she calls “quiet students”—a kind of persistently quiet and still student familiar to many teachers. Reda reflects on a graduate seminar in which she herself, for a variety of reasons, had been a quiet student. She notes how vocal, often aggressively so, her classmates had been in that particular seminar—and how she chose not to throw herself into the fray. Her final paper was returned to her with the following note from her professor written at the bottom: “For your paper, I give you an A. But because of your refusal to speak in class, I am forced to lower your grade” (Reda 60). Her quietness, she realizes, has had a strong impact. Reda writes with disappointment: “Being seen as successful as an academic meant I had to step away from the learning processes that are most productive to me so I could perform in the ways that others expect” (60). Reda’s book does not specifically illustrate gestural performances, but we can still see more broadly that quietness without a gestural performance as obvious as Katherine’s can come with a high price. Further, Reda’s experiences help reveal the expectation on the part of many instructors that verbal participation always “proves” the presence of careful attention—that is, that listening can only truly be indexed by the speaking that results from that listening. Lastly, if instructors only recognize highly vocal forms of participation, or gestural performances of listening that are as readily recognizable as Katherine’s, they may foreclose the learning processes “most productive” to students like Reda.

In fact, breaking with the forms of participation that are often taken for granted by both students and teachers, whether its effects are intentional or unintentional, can be seen as not only uncooperative but even threatening to the social order of the classroom. Reda continues: “My relative quietness in this large class broke an unspoken rule, apparently projecting an active, hostile resistance I had not actually felt” (Reda 60). Here, Reda again illustrates how certain gestural performances of listening exert pressure on communicative situations, to the extent that they can be punished as incorrect or unproductive by the classroom authority.

While we may not think of ourselves as expecting certain embodied performances from our students, there are, in fact, expected forms of gestural listening in classroom environments, and deviations from those forms can bring about many classroom risks: a negative reaction from an instructor, punishment, even simply being ignored. The gestural listening of the students in my second example works to insulate them against those risks by conveying engagement, while Reda’s gestural listening was evidently not enough, or simply not recognized as the correct form of engagement by her professor. Katherine, on the other hand, represents a student who is remarkably adept at expressive listening behaviors, and has probably benefited from that in her academic career. Embodied performances of listening clearly warrant recognition, if only to make sure we are not unintentionally misinterpreting students’ embodied ways of being.

Further, these examples begin to show how listening behaviors are more than incidental—rather, they can serve to change discursive conditions within classrooms. Katherine’s effect on our classroom was a positive one, helping to create a climate of vocal participation and collegiality that makes a discussion-based class more engaging and welcoming. The gestural listening of the students in the classroom I observed reflects their respectfulness, but also possibly an alert, low-level unease, which would inflect subsequent discussion and activities. Reda’s listening, misinterpreted by her instructor, contributed to a sense of withholding or refusal in the classroom space. Her quietness, too, may have thrown into relief the highly vocal and combative participatory techniques of her classmates. In essence, gestural listening contributes to shaping communicative situations, inflecting their affective climate, and even changing the nature of what gets said.

Dimensions of Difference in Gestural Listening

In this section, I once again analyze instances of gestural listening that other writers have noted, this time to show more specifically how dimensions of identity and difference can affect gestural listening in classrooms. Returning for a moment to the students who “snap to attention,” above, understanding physical stillness as a choice made by students can redefine the way a teacher interprets their students’ behavior on a moment-to-moment basis, and in particular reconfigures the idea of stillness and quietness as failure or lack. This becomes especially important when considering dimensions of difference in the classroom—such as race, gender, ability, and neurodiversity.

Few writers delve quite as deeply into comportment than Perry Gilmore in her three-year study of a predominantly low-income, black urban community and elementary school, “Silence and Sulking: Emotional Displays in the Classroom.” In it, Gilmore looks primarily at children in grades 4-6, but her observations nevertheless shed light on what children learn about the performance of listening in their classrooms. “Many of the most crucial social interactions in school settings are highly charged with emotion and regularly interpreted with regard to ‘attitude,’” Gilmore writes (140). Gilmore observes that in talking with faculty and staff, students with “good attitudes” were also the ones who were deemed, much more generally, “good kids.” The problems with this association between attitude and a student’s overall character become clear when Gilmore goes on to write: “Yet when the behaviors subsumed under the label ‘attitude’ were examined,” she writes, “the data indicate that they consist largely of a set of paralinguistic and kinesic communicative adornments which are associated with a particular ethnic style of socioeconomic class, rather than a set of character traits reflective of the nature of individuals” (141). With this, Gilmore shows the danger in collapsing “kinesic communicative adornments...associated with a particular ethnic style of socioeconomic class” with a much more generalized statement about “attitude.”

Gilmore goes on to give an extended description of what she calls “sulking” below. In it, she highlights how forms of gestural listening can be influenced not just by race, but also by gender. She observes:

Girls will frequently pose with their chins up, closing their eyelids for elongated periods and casting downward sideways glances, and often markedly turning their heads sidewards as well as upwards. Girls will also rest their chins on their hand with an elbow support on their desks. Striking or getting into the pose is usually with an abrupt movement that will sometimes be marked with a sound like the elbow striking the desk or a verbal marker like “humpf.”...It is necessary to draw attention to the silence, and with the girls it seems to be primarily with a flourish of getting into the pose.

Boys usually display somewhat differently. Their “stylized sulking” is usually characterized by head downward, arms crossed at the chest, legs spread wide and usually desk pushed away. Often they will mark the silence by knocking over a chair or pushing loudly on their desk, assuring that others hear and see the performance. Another noticeable characteristic of the boys’ performance is that they sit down, deeply slumped in their chairs. This is a clear violation of the constant reminder in classrooms to “sit up” and “sit up tall.” The silence displays go against all the body idiom rules of the classroom. (149)

The kind of sulking that Gilmore reports here can be understood as a particular performance of listening. Sulking students are listening “resistantly.” Another way to view this would be to see sulking students as purposely not listening, making a performance of how they are not open to what is happening in the classroom. Interestingly, sulking students, even in performing a lack of attention, may actually be paying rather close attention to what’s happening. They’re engaged enough, after all, to maintain a physical performance of inattention during instruction based on a perceived slight. That is, it’s not that sulking students aren’t listening. They may simply be performing listening in a different way—a way that is communicative in its resistance.

The ways in which difference affects gestural listening are not limited to race and gender—they also extend to dimensions of neurodiversity. For people on the autism spectrum, for instance, the usual ways of establishing connections with other people via non-verbal signals can cause distraction and even discomfort. Individuals with autism are often uncomfortable with eye contact, for example, a hallmark of what many would consider “good” gestural listening (Feibush). In an article for the Indiana University’s Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Rozella Stewart asks if eye contact should be insisted upon by parents and especially teachers working with autistic children. Educators are often taught to gather and recapture students’ attention when starting instruction and when attention seems to have diffused. Stewart writes:

To accomplish this task, teachers often first attempt to get attention by cuing “Look at me.” They also often assume that they have individuals’ attention when they “get eye contact” and that those who do not conform cannot be paying attention. Thus, when individuals who have autism seem to avoid looking into the eyes of teachers and others with whom they interact, the strategy that comes most naturally and is often pursued quite intently is the verbal cue “Look at me.” If an individual who has an autism spectrum disorder fails to respond within what is viewed as a reasonable length of time, the cue may be repeated more forcefully. If the person still fails to look as directed, misinterpretations of why the person isn’t “complying” may fuel futile power struggles that only frustrate everyone concerned and further thwart the abilities of individuals with autism to respond. (para. 5)

Insisting on gestural manifestations of listening that are the “normal” or expected ones, then, can actually backfire completely for students with autism. Eye contact often serves as a gestural assurance that attention is being paid, and that listening is occurring. The implications of Stewart’s observations, though, is that listening doesn’t always look like what many expect it to in neurodiverse individuals. Furthermore, insisting on any gestural performance of listening may actually be a disservice to some students. Stewart goes on to note that some students with autism struggle to simultaneously process information coming in through different sensory channels. This leads to situations where a student may appear to be looking out the window all during class, but can then demonstrate, upon being asked, exact knowledge of what’s been said. Investigating how listening manifests for neurodiverse individuals reminds people, but teachers in particular, that we have, already, certain expectations for what paying attention looks like, and even for what attitudes of respect and resistance look like in our classrooms. Those preconceptions can affect our perceptions of students as people, as well as our perceptions of their abilities and potential.

Another perspective on gestural listening through identity difference comes from Brenda Jo Brueggeman, who writes about her experiences both as a student and as a teacher who is severely hard of hearing. For d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, it would seem that looking literally is what it means to listen, especially for those who depend on lip-reading or communication via sign language. Unlike the autistic students that Stewart writes about, a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing person not looking at a speaker is truly unlikely to be listening, or even aware that speech is happening. Nevertheless, Brueggeman shows how pervasive expectations for gestural listening are when she writes about what it means for her as a hard-of-hearing woman to appear correctly in her performance of listening. In Lend Me Your Ear: Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness, she writes: “I tend to control is safer this way: if I don’t shut up, if I keep talking, then voilĂ , I don’t have to listen” (Brueggeman 93). Here, Brueggeman shows how for her, listening can be a form of vulnerability, one that often exposes her disability and makes her subject to a set of associations and reactions that people often have towards d/Deaf and/or hard-of-hearing individuals. “If I don’t have to listen,” she continues, “I don’t have to struggle, don’t have to ask for repeats, don’t have to assume any of the various appearances that I and other d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing people often appear as—stupid, aloof, disapproving, suspicious” (Brueggeman 93). In highlighting the “appearances” that d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing people often “have to assume,” Brueggeman references the daily expectations that exist for what “good” or normative listening should look like—that is, how listening should gesturally manifest. “If I keep talking,” Brueggeman asserts finally, “I pass” (93).

With the idea of “passing,” Brueggeman evokes what Mary Reda refers to as “citizenship in the classroom,” or the belonging granted to those who can produce the correct forms of classroom comportment, and she evokes Perry Gilmore, too, in Gilmore’s warning about collapsing “paralinguistic and kinesic communicative adornments” with students’ “attitude” (25; 141). In short, what we think listening looks like takes on serious consequences for students, especially those negotiating disability or other forms of difference. We need to be mindful of the ways in which we look for listening, and of what we habitually consider to be “good” gestural listening.

Looking for Listening Outside the Classroom

The rhetorical power of gestural listening, while heightened by pedagogical settings, is not limited to them. This section applies gestural listening as a framework to analyze instances of gestural listening outside the classroom. As in classrooms, analyzing situations through the lens of gestural listening reveals expectations of listening behaviors, dynamics of power, and the way that listening affects discursive conditions.

In Between the Blues and Blues Dance: Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy offers an analysis of the listening behaviors depicted in a photograph taken by Chris Steele-Perkins at a reggae concert in South London’s Brockwell Park in 1974. By reading the gestural listening of the people in Steele-Perkin’s photograph, Gilroy suggests a capacious notion of what listening is, and what it can do. He links the photograph’s depiction of listening to a larger inquiry about Black British life, especially the intersection of human rights with movements of diasporic African music in the 1960’s and 70’s. He writes:

The mostly youthful faces caught by the camera are both male and female. They convey a mixture of deep concentration with what looks like a profound, ineffable sadness... its subjects have been caught in what is wrongly understood as the inert or passive act of listening. The limitations of that view are repudiated by the common mood etched on their faces. Their concentration suggests not pleasure, but a demanding variety of work. (387)

Gilroy goes on to describe the “variety of work” that the crowd’s gestural listening reflects as a type of “cultural work,” undertaken by British black communities in an ongoing quest for self-understanding and healing in the wake of diaspora. Gathering to listen to reggae, a genre of music of the African diaspora with roots in Jamaica, the listeners show up for each other even as they show up for the performers. The assembled audience-members engage in participatory, community listening, absorbing and processing sound through their bodies. Invoking Corbett’s “massed physical presence,” their concentration comes to read as embodied solidarity.

The embodied listening of absorption and solidarity emerges as a key idea in Susan Leigh Foster’s discussion of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Choreographies of Protest, one of three case studies Foster looks at to investigate the role of the body in acts of non-violent civil protest. Foster asserts that the protesters in the sit-ins learned “two new kinds of kinesthetic articulateness” by cultivating active stillness and passivity (412). “Filled with kinetic potential while seated,” she writes, “their stillness, not a state of non-action but rather a kind of motion, consisted in monitoring and refraining from casually abundant kinetic impulses” (Foster 412). In fact, passivity becomes a kind of misnomer, as Foster argues that the protestors’ “passivity in response to an attack was not a letting go of energy but rather a determined softening of exterior tension so as to absorb the shock of a blow” (Foster 412). Seeing active stillness as intentional, and as an embodied choice that allows for particular types of engagement, provides a constructive way to recognize the power of communal listening at Brockwell Park, to re-envision the performances of sulking that Gilmore notes in her classroom observations, and even to constructively rethink everyday classroom silences. From Foster’s choreographic perspective, active stillness is a kind of power, or capacity, exercised under duress by those for whom more aggressive or hostile action could be counterproductive at best, and at worst, dangerous.

Recognizing and valuing the active stillness of gestural listening is crucial because it allows for different discursive possibilities. For the audience-members at Brockwell Park, the gathered presence of listeners offered possibilities for what Gilroy calls “working over and working through,” on the way towards healing, understanding the present and imagining a better future (388). The sit-in participants ultimately brought about change through their “determined softening of exterior tension,” inspiring other, similar protests, and contributing to a wider wave of civil rights activism (412). The students sulking in Gilmore’s study, as well as the students in my own observations, find ways to influence their classroom environments.

For another instance of how gestural listening affects discursive conditions, consider the response to a listening performance that deviated from the expected. Members of the Congress formed the immediate audience for President Trump’s State of the Union address on February 5th, 2019. Among them, newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looked on, participating in intermittent clapping and other forms of responsiveness. Unlike others in the audience, however, who vocalized, nodded, and made noise at times, in listening to the president’s speech, Ocasio-Cortez maintained a notable stillness and a stern expression. Her restrained, subdued listening performance was so notable, in fact, that it drew attention from commentators, including Peggy Noonan, among others. Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, tweeted that “AOC had a rare bad night, looking not spirited, warm and original as usual but sullen, teenaged and at a loss” (@peggynonannyc. 5 Feb 2019, 7:25PM). These comments show—in addition to an attitude that infantilizes Ocasio-Cortez—how pervasive an expectation exists that people’s listening behaviors should fit certain guidelines, depending on the situation in which they occur. Noonan’s comments bring to the fore the way Ocasio-Cortez’s listening performance was expected to be more gesturally supportive, or at the very least more gesturally neutral, to be “correct,” indicating a “good night.” Instead, Ocasio-Cortez chose not to listen gesturally like a good sport, participating in the usual listening norms of State of the Union audiencing, but rather to listen resistantly. In doing so, she changed public conversation about the event.

Resistant listening, and listening that changes discursive conditions, also characterizes the kneeling protests begun by Colin Kaepernick in 2016. Those who see Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem as disrespectful to the United States and its military make the expected behavior, standing, into the quintessential gestural act of respect and recognition. From a different perspective, however, kneeling contains age-old valences of respect and deference, perhaps even more so than simply standing. Importantly, though, kneeling is a change from what are currently the accepted conventions for pre-game national anthem-listening. That intentional change is which makes kneeling a gestural listening act that represents protest, defiance, and refusal.

Tracing the trajectory of Kaepernick’s kneeling protests, beginning in the N.F.L. pre-season of 2016, there is a distinct moment when Kaepernick shifted from sitting during the pre-game anthem to kneeling. This change was brought about, according to Kaepernick, in conversation with a former N.F.L. player and Green Beret, Nate Boyer, who drew inspiration from an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling in prayer at a 1965 civil rights protest (Boren, Streeter). Kaepernick subsequently changed the gestural idiom of his protest, and began to “take a knee,” a move that is now the dominant gesture for this type of protest, taken up by many athletes across the country (Mather). The history of political protest in sporting events, to which the kneeling protests are connected, is a long one. Kevin Quashie, in The Sovereignty of Quiet, highlights one of the most famous instances of athletic protest: the raised fists of 1968 Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they listen to the national anthem during the medal ceremony in which they won first and third, respectively. To do so, Quashie theorizes the term “quiet.” Resisting the elision of quietness with silence, Quashie argues that “quiet” should be understood as a “quality or a sensibility of being, as a manner of expression” (21). Gestural listening is a form of Quashie’s quietness: an expressive reception, its impact coming in part from the way it conveys the listener’s interior complexity. Like Kaepernick, Carlos and Smith employ the rhetorical power of gestural listening to turn their listening into expressive acts of resistance, refusal, and defiance.

Black subjects have particular reasons to practice refusal through gestural listening, and they show, once again, how performances of listening can carry unexpectedly high stakes. As Jennifer Lynn Stoever illustrates in The Sonic Color Line, expectations for listening behaviors in American history markedly vary based on race. According to Stoever, the sonic color line refers to how American listening habits have been historically shaped by “our experiences as raced subjects and by dominant ideologies of ‘correct,’ ‘proper,’ and ‘sensitive’ listening” (277). Stoever locates instances of the contemporary sonic color line “when you know your irritated tone of voice at a traffic ticket stop might mean your death, as happened to Sandra Bland in Texas” (278). The “correct” and “proper” enactment of listening takes on equally lethal stakes when, as it did for Michael Brown in Ferguson, “the police hear ‘OK OK OK’ as aggression, and it costs you your life” (278). The listening actions of Bland and Brown were not “correct;” that is, they were not legible in the eyes of the police as deferential and agreeable.

Dressed in his uniform, about to take the field, Colin Kaepernick in 2016 was recognizable as a highly valued subject: an elite athlete, highly paid, and often in the spotlight. Leveraging his particular visibility, Kaepernick employed the rhetorical power of gestural listening to raise awareness and bring about change. In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler describes the problem of the “field of appearance” this way: “Why is that field regulated in such a way that only certain kinds of beings can appear as recognizable subjects, and others cannot?” (35). In kneeling, Kaepernick used his own body and his own position as a professional football player to work to expand the field of the recognizable.


This inquiry into gestural listening helps crystallize how in pedagogical spaces, students may exert influence in ways that are palpable but as yet unarticulated in our field. Instructors, in particular, must sensitize themselves to different categories of expression in the classroom, even ones not often considered as communicative choices. My efforts here contribute to growing scholarship on embodied forms of invention and somatic ways of knowing (Holding, Lemesurier) and can inform contemplative pedagogies that include practices of mindfulness and deep listening (Frey), especially as it pertains to conversational approaches to writing instruction like peer tutoring (Feibush). It provides a possible way to answer Jacqueline Jones Royster’s questions in “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own:” “We need to talk, yes, and to talk back, yes, but when do we listen? How do we listen?” (38). Gestural listening shows how listening’s tight associations with the impressive rather than expressive can be challenged and productively complicated, and in its shifting of rhetorical focus from the speaker or writer to the agency and presence of the listener, it provides an analytical lens for investigating performances of attention across difference.

Gestural listening is not restricted to interactions in classroom spaces, as I have shown above, and neither is it limited to face-to-face interactions. In fact, it suggests a way of understanding embodied enactments of listening in other spaces, and even in other media. The need for an understanding of gestural listening dynamics promises to become increasingly important with the dramatic rise of screen-mediated pedagogical interactions precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. What does listening look like over Zoom, for instance? When students turn off their self-facing cameras and instructors confront a gallery of black rectangles, how should we interpret those choices?

I want to suggest, too, that gestural listening represents just one prong of what could be a broader rhetoric of listening, incorporating dimensions of listening in reading, writing, and speaking. In speech, a host of listening behaviors can be identified: when a person in conversation asks questions in follow-up about what’s been said by others, when conversational partners repeat or summarize parts of what has been said to show their comprehension, or when people in conversation use terms that have just been proffered by their conversational partner. On the page, we might consider even the way that a text may assume a kind of “listening posture” by bringing about certain types of responses in a reader. With this essay, I aim to prompt broad conversation in our field about listening as a form of pressure on communicative situations—as a vital and palpable rhetorical force.

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