Hearing Each Other to Speech in the Academy By Xochitl Alvizo

Sometimes when I write, especially when I am writing an academic paper but even when I am writing for this blog, I imagine that I am writing it to my feminist peer-group.  I am part of a group of four feminist women who have intentionally decided to stay involved in our religious traditions.  We are Unitarian Universalist, American Baptist, Presbyterian, and Disciples of Christ, and we started our peer-group in order to enCourage, support, and inspire each other as we participate in our churches with our full feminism selves. We get together regularly and we listen deeply to each other, we celebrate, we cry, we mourn, we rage, we laugh, and, of course, we eat together. On many occasions we have each expressed that we are better versions of ourselves because we are part of each others lives.

One of the reasons it is easier for me to write to my peer-group instead of my academic audience is because I know that my peer-group is invested in my empowerment, my liberation, and my continual be-coming – they understand that my well-being contributes to theirs, and vice versa. Thus, when I write for them, I do not fear; I trust that my peer-group will truly hear me and encourage me, and that when they raise questions and point out weaknesses in my writing, they do so not in an attempt to tear down my work but in order to strengthen it and build on it.

My peer-group

My peer-group, while being able to point out the blind spots and shortcomings on my work, never fail to recognize, honor, and express appreciation for my contribution as well. They hear me to speech and understand the importance of that for bringing out my academic best.

My question for this post then is whether it is possible to practice this kind of hearing to speech with one another in the academy. Can the feminist principle of hearing one another to speech, along with the feminist ethic of mutuality, be practiced as we engage with each others’ work and scholarship? Might this not be a better ethic for the academy than going straight for the kill, as if the virtues of the academy involve destroying the academic other instead of building up and strengthening their work? One of the most disappointing and disillusioning things that I have witnessed in academentia, as Mary Daly liked to refer to it, is the inability of scholars to truly listen to and take in each other’s work – to hear it, appreciate it, and value its contribution. Too often I have witnessed scholars jump straight in to critique and tear down the work of another without truly hearing it, much less valuing it. I have heard colleagues speak with admiration of a particular scholar who could “tear you down in one succinct sentence”! But I suggest that a better ethic to live by in the academy is informed by Nelle Morton’s feminist principle of hearing to speech.

As Carol Christ mentioned in her most recent post where she thanks the women who heard her to speech, Nelle Morton coined the feminist principle of “hearing to speech.” [1] Morton’s new understanding of hearing and speaking came to her while she was with a group of women who gathered to tell their stories. As one woman shared her story – a story which at times reached points of excruciating pain – no one moved or interrupted, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. At the end, when the woman finally finished, she said, “You heard me. You heard me all the way – I have the strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.”

Morton recognized that hearing to speech, hearing all the way, was a “complete reversal of the going logic” in which a person speaks so that more accurate hearing may take place. What Morton was instead witnessing was a depth hearing, a kind of hearing that engages the whole self to the point of holding ones breath in order to allow the coherence of the story to form and come together. This kind of hearing evokes “a new speech – a new creation” – it enables one to be heard to ones own story, which then creates the possibility for new imagining, an imagining that contributes to the mutual empowerment and transformation of both hearer and speaker.

Scholarship is very personal in nature. I think people write and study because they care deeply about a given issue or circumstance and hope to impact it and make a difference for the better. If scholars would be mindful of that and keep it in mind as we engage with each another’s work, we may be more successful at bringing out the academic best in one another. We should of course point out the blind spots and shortcomings of each other’s work, but we must do so out of a sense of mutuality, with encouragement and respect, knowing that when we hear each other to speech we not only participate in another’s empowerment and be-coming, but also help tap into the source the of new imagining that can “break through political and social structures and imagine a new system.”[2]

Can those of us who are part the academy, especially those with more power and privilege, practice holding our breath and hear each other to speech? I commit to doing so, that others may also experience the same deep hearing that my peer-group offers me and be able to say, “You heard me. You heard me all the way.”

[1] Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) p. 127-128.

[2] Ibid, 128.

Categories: Ethics, Feminism, General, Women and Scholarship

Tags: , , ,

16 replies

  1. Aw, this made me smile thinking about the fantastic members of your peer-group! :)


  2. LOVE this post! I think the issues you raise, especially the hopeful possibility that academic critique could be charecterized by a “sense of mutuality, with encouragement and respect,” transcend disciplinary boundaries.


  3. I love this post. I wholeheartedly support this vision and hope to be part of its becoming reality!


  4. Hi, Xochitl and everyone,

    I love the post and fully support your vision & struggle, even as a man as I always did.

    Bless ya!

    Rev. Samuel Park, your friend


  5. Thank you all for your kind and enCouraging responses!

    After the blog went up I was thinking that I should have said more about the fact that among feminist scholars I have already experienced and witnessed this kind of mutually enriching critique. For example, even when discussing and critiquing Mary Daly’s work, and there is great diversity of responses and feelings among feminists regarding her work – feminist scholars never fail to acknowledge and value the immense contributions Daly has made, showing us that it is both possible to have our roots in the work that has been done before us, grateful for the grounding it has offered us, and also be able to build and grow in new ways and with new insights.


  6. Xochitl, thanks so much for writing this beautiful post. Academia can be so harsh and it shouldn’t be. I am not familiar with Nelle Morton’s work – I am sure to read it now. :)


  7. I love seeing the smiling faces of your peer group… and being reminded of Nelle Morton’s powerful idea of hearing others (or being heard) into speech. I continue to understand her concept in deeper and deeper ways as I grow older and live longer.


  8. Reading this I realize that I have not fully appreciated my doctoral program at the Union Institute and University with its focus on a nurturing academic process. We did not “defend” our work, but were supported in a process of refining and deepening it. I was doubly lucky because the professors on my doctoral team, who were as generous and kind-hearted as they were challenging, were all feminists who supported my methodological approach of “deep listening”. The UIU was funky with its insistence that learners focus on making the world better, display creative and interdisciplinary approaches, and stretch themselves as persons as well as scholars. I didn’t know how to explain this to doctoral candidates from other schools who described experiences that had little similarity to my own. After graduation, I allowed myself to feel ashamed of my education as if no one could really believe that I had an authentic degree if I told them how gentle and fulfilling my own process was. I could not connect with other academics who told stories of being torn down, or of fighting for their legitimacy. Reading your post has brought me to tears. I’m sorry I have not stood by my education. I’m sorry I half-convinced myself that because my education was not orthodox, because it was feminist in methodology, context, and subject matter, it was not real. It was real. And it was good.


  9. Hystery – that is such great insight. And I am happy that you have reaffirmed your education as real and good. I agree with you! Though I definitely understand the experience of not thinking that something is ‘legit’ or valid because it not follow the dominant expectation – and especially when it has ‘feminist’ associated with it. It is such a clever and powerful strategy to label something ‘non-academic’ and thereby dismiss it in one fell swoop simply because it does not conform to the dominant logic. Thanks of sharing your reflections.



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