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Tom Huckin (USA)


An oft-time collaborator of Carol’s, Tom Huckin[i] is an applied linguist working at The University Writing Program at the University of Utah. His main fields of interest are discourse analysis, technical and business writing. He teaches courses on professional writing[ii], largely based on students working together in collaborative projects, emphasizing problem-solving in organizational contexts, writing for multiple audiences, and writing with visual and numerical data.


Tom's contribution is entitled Textual Silence and the Discourse of Homelessness. In it he examines the notion of textual silence in text, identifying five basic types: speech-act silences, presuppostional silences, discreet silences, conventional silences and manipulative silences. His principal focus is on manipulative silences, a key characteristic of which is that the writer does not intend the silence (essentially an intentional omission of certain types of information) to be noticed by the reader. Manipulative silences are thus not intended to have communicative import in themselves. Silences of this kind foreground one specific set of ideas or issues and background others, and the general frame of reference for the topic in hand differs from that which the reader might normally be expected to bring to the topic. Tom then goes on to discuss and exemplify how manipulative silences may be identified empirically in a large text corpus, and goes on to analyse in some more detail one specific mass-media text – an article on homelessness published in the Seattle Times. As he points out in conclusion, silence in text is not something generally treated completely seriously by rhetoricians, discourse analysts, semioticians, teachers of writing and linguists. At the same time it potentially possesses as much power as language itself. Here one only has to consider the longer term historical and sociocultural import of the southern Italian practice of maintained social silence (or omertą), not only in the community, but also in the mass-media, without which the nefarious criminal sub-culture of the Mafia and its associated links to high-level political corruption in post-war Italy would not have managed to flourish as it did. Fortunately however, we  may nonetheless still be able to claim that manipulative silence can only really be effective in deeply negative ways wherever and whenever there is systematic denial of access over longer periods of time to a plurality of sources of information, coupled with a serious lack of critical attention to text content and framing on the part of readers. This in turn highlights the considerable weighting he puts in his conclusion on the pedagogical importance of teaching students of writing to recognise various forms of textual silences, both in their own and in others’ writing.  Critical readers and writers who do not simply go along with accepting restricted versions of the normal frame of reference for a given topic in media texts would seem to be essential to the further development and good health of any kind of modern, democratic society.


[i] The University Writing Program website at the University of Utah is at: http://www.hum.utah.edu/uwp/. Tom Huckin may be contacted by e-mail at: <huckin@aros.net>

[ii] Course website: http://www.hum.utah.edu/uwp/3400.html


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