Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Silence is golden: OCU professor teaches without talking


Students discuss literature as Dr. Elaine Smokewood observes from her sister's Kansas home through a Webcam system.
Students discuss literature as Dr. Elaine Smokewood observes from her sister's Kansas home through a Webcam system.

An English professor has proven she can teach without talking.

When a neurological disease took away her ability to speak last year, Elaine Smokewood needed to find a way to teach Oklahoma City University literature courses from her sister’s home in Augusta, Kan. Not ready to give up a career teaching the written word, Dr. Smokewood worked with OCU’s technology department to teach without using the spoken word.

Gerry Hunt, director of Campus Technology Services, and his team put together a system of cameras, microphones, and monitors so the professor and students communicate through the Internet in real time.

Hunt and a colleague traveled to Smokewood’s home to set up the equipment.

"It cost some money," Hunt explained, "but we did it for the right reasons. We could have done it cheaper, but the technology would have been too disruptive. This is another example of how OCU really cares for its faculty and its students."

Smokewood posts lectures on a Web site so students can prepare for the class. During class sessions, the students discuss materials as she observes through a Webcam system.

In order to teach, she learned about Web-based teaching methods and voice synthesizers. She boosted her ability to type accurately and quickly. During the Fall 2008 semester—her first term of teaching through silence—she found another skill also served her well. That skill? Listening.

"I learned that I had often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking—so that I might resume the very important business of performing," Smokewood said. "I learned that active listening can be a nurturing, catalyzing force within a classroom."

She had to adjust to teaching from a remote location as opposed to "performing" in front of a classroom.

"When I could no longer speak, that performing self disintegrated. She was gone in a flash, utterly and completely. To lose that performing self was extremely disorienting. It was, in fact, frightening," Smokewood stated.

Those fears disappeared as she changed her views of teaching.

"I learned that, in the absence of my performing self, I am more honest with my students, more willing to let down some of my own defenses. I learned that, in the absence of performance, the possibility of relationship is born," she added.

Students say they’re impressed by how much they learn in Smokewood’s classes, not only about literature but also communication.

"Dr. Smokewood has really helped me realize the value of communication in all of its forms and how much you are able to learn from people by taking the time to listen," said Religion major and Bishop’s Scholar Joanna Chenoweth. "She truly loves literature, and she helps pass that enthusiasm onto others."

Smokewood has been teaching at OCU since 1996.

"I am deeply grateful to my students for listening actively and eagerly to my voice, for nurturing the silent voice of a woman who cannot speak. Most importantly, I have learned that gratitude is a healing, transforming force. It is perhaps the most powerful learning tool of all—for students and teacher alike," she concluded.


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