The Beginner’s Ear: Listening and Leadership for Systems Change in Higher Education

October 06, 2022

This is a reflective essay written as part of the WISE Emerging Leaders program.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard people express appreciation for my listening, including the questions I would ask in response to what they’ve said. I remember an elementary school teacher once remarking, “Those are good questions. You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” when I would pepper her with how’s, why’s, and what’s.

Over the last five years, however, as my role as a researcher has taken center stage, I’ve noticed a shift in how I listen. I’ve become attuned to challenging what I hear. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania studying sociology and higher education, I am constantly asked to analyze and critique existing knowledge. An analytical mindset, of course, has its merits. Contributing to knowledge means understanding where one can contribute, which often translates to “finding gaps” in someone else’s arguments. It can also mean listening in a way that confirms your research. Yet, these modes of listening also have their drawbacks. At the WISE Emerging Leaders residential session, one activity, in particular, showed me how a specific way of listening could be consequential for systems change in education. 

While the activity was only 20 minutes, it left a lasting impression on me. The task was simple enough: listen to a poem. The facilitator divided all of us fellows into three groups, assigning each group a different mode of listening. The first group was told to listen with a “critical ear,” in which they were to try to find aspects of the poem they found to be incorrect. The second group was assigned to listen with a “confirming ear,” which meant they were to listen and find lines of the poem that confirmed their preexisting beliefs. Lastly, the final group, which I was part of, was told to listen with a “beginner’s ear,” or a mode focused on listening with an open mind, free of assumptions. The selection was “Interbeing: Clouds In Each Paper,” a short poem by Thich Nhat Hanh.  When it came time to debrief our experiences, it became clear that each of the groups had vastly different perceptions. Those who listened with a critical ear took the poem literally and heard it as nonsensical. Members of the group with the confirming ear seemed to miss new ideas that the poem held. The beginner’s ear, though, seemed to yield different results. I felt enraptured listening to the poem. I relished the poem’s profound verses in ways I felt my peers in the other groups missed.

Listening with a beginner’s ear was both an ear and eye-opening experience. I now recognize that as a researcher, I’m trained to listen primarily with a critical and sometimes a confirming ear. While those modes of listening can have their upsides, I better understand that they can also have serious limitations. As I conduct interviews, read literature, and debate with colleagues, I have found that listening with a beginner’s ear enables me to better hear and engage with others’ ideas. Even if I disagree with their points of view, I find that listening with a beginner’s ear allows me to respond empathetically and engage in more productive debates. 

The power of a beginner’s ear goes beyond research. While research, or ‘knowledge generation,’ is a core function of many higher education institutions, learning, or knowledge-sharing, is another key value. Within U.S. higher education, learning from those with different perspectives can be challenging, sometimes even controversial. In recent years, many have stated that higher education is in the thick of “culture wars.” Fueled by racial tensions and hot-button partisan political issues, these wars show tensions between the values of free speech and inclusion. For example, should colleges host speakers considered by some of the student body to be guilty of hate speech? Conversely, are protests that pressure colleges against hosting such speakers ultimately limiting the expression of free speech? These issues are undoubtedly thorny and complex. Many variables factor into these tension-filled dynamics, including an increasingly polarized socio-political climate. Yet, I wonder, if we could listen to those with vastly differing views with a beginner’s ear, as simple as it may sound, what kind of systems change could occur in U.S. higher education? Perhaps listening with a beginner’s ear could help us better engage in empathy. Although we may vehemently disagree with a particular perspective, the beginner’s ear can help us understand how such a perspective was reached, leading to more fruitful discourse. I believe such a seemingly small step could lead to broader systems change, including the potential for more respectful, humane dialogue on many college campuses.