Summer Reading Series: Democratic Dialogue in Education


By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the tenth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (published 2004; $33; available for purchase HERE)

Editor: Megan Boler

Context of Creation: This edited volume arises from challenges, critiques, and extensions to  Megan Boler’s notion of an “affirmative action pedagogy” that deliberately centers historically marginalized voices in the classroom at the necessary cost of (at times) suppressing dominant voices, which she first presented in 1998. The volume contains essays from a selection of philosophers of education engaged with “the profound ethical questions of how to create dialogue within classrooms that, like it or not, are microcosms that reflect the social hierarchies of race, class, gender, and homophobia that shape the larger world” (viii). Contributors respond to one another in their pieces without ever reaching a resolution or consensus regarding these ethical dilemmas, thus performing “dialogue across difference” (of pedagogical opinion) throughout the book’s chapters. “Troubling” and “disturbing” are meant both as adjectives and as transitive verbs–acknowledging the difficulties of navigating speech and silence while simultaneously interrogating dominant assumptions about speech and silence. Published in 2004, the book is grounded self-consciously in the early post-9/11 era, particularly legal and social debates over civil liberties and affirmative action. Boler is currently Professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto; at the time of publication, she was Associate Professor of Theory and Policy Studies at OISE. 

Context of Reception: I previously knew the work of Megan Boler only secondhand — from Brenda Daly’s account of her application of Boler’s notion of “testimonial reading” in an anti-racist literature classroom and from our own Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community member Danica Sumpter, who referenced Boler’s “pedagogy of discomfort” in a presentation she made to us in spring 2020. I was looking forward to her edited volume on dialogue, assuming both of these intriguing concepts would be addressed in Democratic Dialogue in Education. As it turns out, neither of them were, but I found this extended collective meditation on speech and silence in response to a third Boler concept, “affirmative action pedagogy,” a refreshing breather after reading so many books for this series that take for granted the positive value of a social identity-driven, participatory classroom “dialogue.”  

Overview of Structure and Content: Following a brief editor’s introduction in which Boler explains the volume’s genesis, a full introduction presents summaries of each chapter along with a series of synthesizing questions. Then, contributor chapters are divided into four parts. Part I, “The Challenge of Creating Spaces for Social Justice Dialogue,” begins with Boler’s explication of affirmative action pedagogy and contains two other perspectives on the role and importance of classroom dialogue; these essays diverge in terms of pedagogical approach to facilitating dialogue among a diverse group of learners but take for granted its value. Part II, “Complicating Speech and Silence,” contains three essays that interrogate that assumption by interrogating the (colonialist, Western) fantasies that attend the desire for dialogue and its assumed connection to “voice,” as well as contemplating the role and value of silence. Part III, “Moral and Philosophical Dimensions of Dialogue,” presents two essays reflecting on violence and ethical responsibility in dialogue. Part IV, “Dialogue in Practice: Risks and Benefits,” contains two essays that each explicate particular classroom experiences and what the respective authors both consider to be the pedagogical value of “trauma” during attempts at anti-oppressive lessons. This is a volume clearly written by and for higher-ed faculty, although most of the contributors teach in departments of Education, meaning they are training students who (will) teach in K-12 settings. And though the chapters are rich in anecdotes of practice, it is a work of philosophy/theory rather than a handbook.  

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers: 

  • Affirmative Action Pedagogy (AAP)

Boler explains that AAP “recognizes that we are not equally protected in practice by the First Amendment and that education needs to represent marginalized voices fairly by challenging dominant voices in the classroom” (4). In practice, this might mean prohibiting speech: outlining claims, language, and attitudes that will not be tolerated in the classroom, such as, for example, rejecting the existence of White privilege. It might mean prohibiting speakers based on identity. For example, Boler cites the case of Professor Mary Daly, who refused to allow two (presumed cisgender) male students to enroll in her women’s studies class. Boler herself argues that there are “justifiable cases” in which “white, middle-class male students” should not be permitted to speak, suggesting that self-disclosure on the part of these students is frequently a means of claiming the authority to “disprove” structural inequality in conversations about race, gender, and class by presenting their personal experiences and demanding the same validation for them as marginalized students (11). On the other hand, Boler notes that AAP can also be practiced as challenge to and condemnation of speech, rather than prohibition of it, referencing a professor of Black Studies who welcomes students to express any views they wish, with the understanding that all claims will be subjected to critical analysis and calls for accountability. The important thing, Boler writes, is that “until all voices are recognized equally, we must operate within a context of historicized ethics which consciously privileges the insurrectionary and dissenting voices, sometimes at the minor cost of silencing those voices that have been permitted dominant status for the past centuries” (13). 

  • What is your reaction to the notion of affirmative action pedagogy? What, or whom, do you choose to silence in your courses (in the syllabus as well as the classroom)? Why and with what effect?  
  • What do you imagine this might look like in practice? What do you imagine students’ reactions might be? 
  • What are the potential pitfalls of this approach? How does one prevent an earnest attempt to “privilege” or “center” certain “voices” from veering into paternalism, saviorism, tokenism, etc?


  • Voice. 

Alison Jones notes, “The key idea in contemporary praise of dialogue in education is voice — or speech — which is set in opposition to silence. . . . With a touching faith in the ‘talking cure’ of dialogue and self-disclosing narratives, emancipatory educators argue that, via a multiplicity of voices/narratives, teachers and students can speak and work across differences towards an egalitarian, multicultural, and democratic social order” (58-59). She observes how “disturbing” silence is to the progressive educator, especially when it is students who (are presumed or known to) occupy marginalized identity positions who are not speaking. In Jones’s analysis, exhorting “marginalized voices” to speak forcibly positions these students as the educators and redeemers of their peers; she begins the conclusion to her essay by asking, “Why, then, must the marginalized speak (engage in dialogue)? For whose benefit do they speak?” (66). 

Suzanne deCastell, in her own essay, pushes back against Boler’s persistent invocation of dominant versus marginalized voices, asking, “What is meant by voices here, and is it the substance of what is spoken, or is it the identity of the speaker that constitutes the basis of differentiated rights to speak? . . . Because of course identities are more often hybrid than pure. More important, identities that are ascribed rather than asserted work, again, to position the subject under the sign of passivity — the teacher, but not I myself, knows who and what I am” (51-53). 

I would add that it is telling that throughout this volume the “marginalized voices” most frequently referenced are related to race and gender — the identities that teachers often presume are most legible on sight, versus class, sexuality, religion, disability, and so on. There is thus an irony at work — if we listened more attentively to what students actually say about themselves, rather than how they appear to us (as a phenotype or as a list of identities), we would have a better, fuller understanding of what “voice” they are bringing into the conversation, both in terms of their identities and their ideologies. 

  • What desires drive your inclusion of dialogue in the classroom? What are you hoping dialogue achieves, and for whom? In what fantasies are these desires based? 
  • Think about students you have had who did not speak when you hoped or asked that they would. What feelings did their silence provoke in you? How did you respond? What conclusions did you draw? 
  • How do you know what “voices” are present in your classroom, and to what extent those “voices” have been silent/silenced or not? Put another way — how do you go about learning who your students are, where they come from, and what their experiences have been?


  • Trauma

The last two essays in the volume, by Ann C. Berlak and Ingrid M. Erickson, both conclude that some degree of “traumatization” of students occupying dominant identity positions is an a) inevitable and b) probably necessary component of anti-oppression pedagogies. “Crisis is essential in order for cultural secrets [such as racism] to be revealed,” Berlak argues (141); “I am increasingly skeptical about how much learning takes place in classroom settings where trauma does not occur,” Erickson writes (147). Both authors identify “trauma” as the result of challenge to preexisting worldviews: Berlak writes of her White students following a lesson led by a militant Black female educator, “Many students were traumatized by the encounter simply because Sekani challenged assumptions about racial hierarchy that . . . were fundamental to their conceptions of self” (137). Erickson describes how “responsible educators” are “compelled to induce trauma by challenging certain beliefs because they are wrong or destructive to self or other” (147). 

Accepting for a moment this arguable definition of trauma, I am struck by the continued focus on the learning experience of the “dominant” and in particular the focus on the trauma that those occupying non-marginalized identity positions in regards to a particular conversation might experience — that is, the focus on the trauma a White student might experience during a conversation about racial discrimination, which is the focus of both Berlak and Erickson’s essays, rather than a consideration of what the lessons they describe might possibly mean for students of color. (Berlak notes that the one African American student in her class responded resoundingly positively, but, though she identifies their presence in the class, does not discuss at all the reactions of her Latinx and Asian students, focusing on her White students’ journal responses.) 

I am also struck by the repeated reference to (new) trauma in the classroom without consideration for prior histories of trauma that students may bring into the classroom, whatever their identities, and the ways in which old trauma interacts with new. Berlak and Erickson describe or assume majority-White groups of students and seem likewise to  assume, based on White identity, that these students are uniformly psychologically “whole,” never having experienced previous humiliation, denigration, or violation, such that this fresh new trauma will be a painful, but straightforward and clean wound. It occurs to me over and over, reading these essays, that trauma is a very large missing piece from all of these conversations about student “identities” and “voices,” who should be exhorted or allowed to speak or exhorted or allowed to remain silent, who “needs” to experience trauma in the classroom versus who should be protected from it. Even if we know what every student’s list of identities are, we do not know the traumas they have or have not experienced, whether in connection to those identities or not. 

  • What is your reaction to the notion that “crisis is essential” for learning? Is “trauma” here just another word for discomfort, pain, and struggle in the learning process, or is it something deeper and more impactful? 
  • In your view, can you selectively target aspects of a person’s identity or selfhood to speak to/agitate/traumatize? If so, how? If not, what then is the approach? 

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

  • Invite Students to Critique Your Syllabus

In his essay, Ronald David Glass notes, “Educators routinely silence certain voices and amplify others through the selection of the curriculum, the design of assignments and assessments, and the structure of the classroom social relations and learning environment. . . . What most differentiates the liberatory educator/classroom is that these choices and actions are made subject to explicit critical examination rather than being left within hidden hegemonic practices. This includes making overt the moral and political commitments underlying the choices and shaping the intentions of study” (19).

It could also include, I suggest, inviting students to critically review your syllabus at regular points throughout the semester, starting in the first week of the course. Ask students to examine your reading list and identify which “voices” seem to be present and which might be missing. Have them review the course’s assignments and make comments regarding the kinds of learners who will do well with their format and the kinds who might not. Ask them to observe the physical configuration of the classroom as well as your methodologies (e.g. frequent pair work) and comment, again, on which learners might be particularly well-served by these choices and which might not, and why. Invite them to bring their own experiences to bear on these comments as well as exercise imagination.

In the first phase, their comments might be more speculative and prediction-based. As the course goes on, however, they will be responding from a location of more familiarity with the course’s goals and their particular experiences within it. You might leave several days’ or weeks’ readings as “TBD” or “subject to change” with the understanding that these texts will be nominated on the basis of what perspectives are deemed to be missing. You could identify 2-3 texts for the class to choose from, or invite students to contribute suggestions for texts. You might leave an assignment unspecified (or put in a placeholder), with the understanding that it will be designed in response to what students observe is needed. 

Inviting students to comment critically on your syllabus is not necessarily a promise to make all suggested changes or meet every demand (although at least some degree of adaptation in light of feedback should occur); you also have the opportunity to explain your choices, modeling in the process how it looks to seriously and respectfully consider challenges. 

  • A Day of (Teacherly) Silence.

Here, I suggested practicing periods of silence as a whole class. In the first post of this series on Stop Talking, I suggested a “day without reading or writing.” I will suggest now a day of silence on the part of the instructor only — in which students talk and interact with one another, but the teacher remains a silent observer/facilitator/guest. A decade ago, when I was teaching ninth and tenth grade English, I made my own silence a regular part of my practice. During formal dialogues, I would always remain physically outside the circle and silent for the duration of the students’ hour-long conversation (though not totally silent: students would start the dialogue with questions I had written, and in some dialogues I would occasionally scribble a new question on the board, thus my voice was not completely absent). Other times, I would greet students at the door with a one-page set of instructions for the day’s lesson and smile wordlessly in response to their questions (again, they could speak and work together; the goal was not disciplinary silence but rather self-direction). Though I did not yet have a body of theory (or even the language) to legitimize my silence as anti-oppressive or decolonialist pedagogy, I was acutely aware of my power as the authority figure (the “dominant voice” above all others) in the classroom. I wanted students to speak to themselves and one another rather than to, or for, me. I loved those days. I recommend it, and though the authors featured in Democratic Dialogue in Education do not engage meaningfully with the teacher as a “dominant voice” that needs to be suppressed at times, I believe an occasional refusal to speak on the part of the instructor aligns very well with “affirmative action pedagogy.” (It works, too, if you feel particularly vulnerable in your classroom. If you are transparent about needing to remain silent on a particular day or during a particular conversation, you have an opportunity to validate “opting out” as a real option for self-preservation for students, as well.) 

One Resource: Why Silence? 

Huey Li Li’s essay in the collection, “Rethinking Silencing Silences,” is perhaps my favorite. In it, Li Li deconstructs the binary opposition of speech and silence by suggesting that they form rather “a continuum of human expression” (69). She also pushes back against the oversimplification of “silence [as] the inevitable consequence of oppression” (70) (or an expression of defiance and empowerment) by arguing for an understanding of the meanings and functions of silence in, especially, non-Western cultures. She notes that even when silence is deployed as a pedagogical strategy in U.S. classrooms (as “wait time”), its ultimate purpose is to produce verbal responses. This is not an invalid or “wrong” pedagogical use of silence; it demonstrates, however, both the communicative continuum of speech and silence as interrelated and mutually complementary rather than binarily opposed on the one hand as well as the investment, in a Western context, in speech as the highest value, on the other hand. Li Li suggests, “It is not necessary to structure teaching solely through talk/speech and foster students’ exclusive commitment to speech making. Furthermore, it is imprudent to ‘evaluate’ students’ learning according to their ‘verbal participation’ in in-class learning activities. In contrast, it is important for educators to inquire into silence” (75).

Inspired by this entreaty to “inquire into silence,” I have created this graphic, “Why Silence? Reasons We Choose Not to Talk,” which names eight basic reasons one might not verbally participate. It complements another graphic,”Why Speech? Reasons We Choose to Talk,” which I originally created for the second post in this series under the title “7 Purposes for Dialogue” but have edited and adapted. I think it’s useful for students to inquire into silence, too; thus, below are some questions to accompany these “Why Speech/Why Silence” graphics, after sharing them with students.

  • Regarding “Why Speech?”: Think about a couple memorable conversations or interactions (in class, at work, at home, in a public space, or elsewhere) you have had in which you spoke up significantly. What motivated you to speak in these interactions? Is there a pattern in why you tend to choose to speak? In what contexts and for which of these reasons do you tend to speak the most? Which reason for speaking do you think is ideal, for you? Are there times you speak when you think you shouldn’t (or times you’ve spoken and wish you hadn’t)? Are there reasons for speaking that you don’t see represented among these seven basic reasons?
  • Regarding “Why Silence?”: Think about times you have been silent in conversation. Are you typically a “talker” or do you more often occupy a listening role (in class, at work, at home, in a public space, and elsewhere)? Which reasons for silence are most recognizable or resonate most with your experience? Which are new ideas to you or reasons that don’t ever apply to your own silences? Are you more comfortable with your own silence or with others’ silence? What contexts of deliberate silence (or non-speech) can you name and how familiar are you with them? Are there reasons for silence that you don’t see represented among these eight basic categories? 

Next Week . . . We will be reading It’s Time to Talk (and Listen): How to Have Constructive Conversations About Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability & Gender in a Polarized World (by Anastasia S. Kim and Alicia del Prado, 2019).

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