As a philosopher, Cliff Williams has made listening to people one of the main studies of his life. To talk to Cliff is to be shown the mantlepiece of people who have colored his days. And to listen to Cliff questions the very art of listening itself. Cliff calls listening the “greatest adventure of his life.” And, as he’d tell you himself, he’s had some fascinating adventures, from sitting on the very top rock of a mountain, appropriately pondering cosmic questions of life and death, to spending time with hoboes in order to understand the conditions of their life. I sat down with Cliff, a self-proclaimed introvert with a knack for getting people to tell their stories, and he shared what keeps him listening and documenting the stories of those he listens to.
Cliff Williams, who has been a visiting professor on Wheaton’s campus since 2013, questions the austere divide between professors and students. In fact, he won’t even let me call him Dr. Williams. “Everyone calls me Cliff and they’ve done that for the last 32 years … I can’t stop now.” At Wheaton, a place where even the names of our buildings serve to remind of the legendary quality of famous last names, Cliff wants to break the boundary between himself and his students.
Cliff, whose course subject matter often allows him to set the class in motion with a question and then listen to student responses, carries this style into his interactions with students outside of class: “I listen endlessly in my office, in class, on the telephone, in the dining hall, in cafés, visiting people, everywhere.” He believes in the necessity of telling stories not just to validate experience, but because stories create ripples far beyond the storyteller.
In a culture where the ability to articulate arguments rules the day, listening can be considered a passive activity. But Cliff practices an active kind of listening that is not as easy as simply saying nothing. His willingness to actively engage and listen allows untold stories to bubble to the surface.
“They Need their Stories to be Told”
Somewhere next to “intentionality” in Wheaton’s unwritten curriculum is the idea of “active listening.” In settings varying from classroom lectures to Saga dates, we are able to encounter material and pay just enough attention to ask a single follow-up question. But according to Cliff, listening means more than simply paying attention to the stories you are told but seeking out the stories that need to be heard.
Two years after he arrived, Cliff decided to submit his own column in The Record titled “In the Margins,” where he transcribes the stories of marginalized students on Wheaton’s campus. I asked Cliff how he got the idea for the project, which to my surprise required an understanding of 1900s voluntary migrant laborers, called hoboes. Unlike most homeless people, hoboes were homeless by choice and took pride in their status, often traveling due to restlessness. During the Great Depression, many became hoboes when jobs were scarce. While they are no longer a large subculture, hoboes greatly impacted Cliff’s life.
When Cliff was in his forties, he saw a Chicago Tribune magazine about the annual hobo convention in Britt, Iowa. Something in him said he had to go and meet those people So he bought his first tape recorder and sat down on the ground to interview them. He recorded the interviews and turned them into readable biographies, sort of like “Humans of New York,” but with an Americana twist: “Hoboes of Britt, Iowa.” In 2003 the stories were published in his book, “One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hoboes,” filled with stories, songs and poems that reflect their poetic culture.
He fell in love with storytelling, especially on behalf of those “out of the public eye,” he says. Not long after the publication of that book, he had an idea for another, one that would encompass more members of, what he calls, “other America.” The “Other America” is a term coined in Michael Harrington’s book of the same name, referring to people who are homeless, voluntarily unemployed, black, LGBTQ, ex-convicts or anybody who is “different and on the outs,” Cliff says. Though he has not written the book, this idea blossomed into a column in the Record every week, with interviews on what it’s like to be “different” in a life-altering way at Wheaton, whether that difference relates to culture, orientation, religious sect or disability.
Cliff believes that this listening is actually a biological necessity, and that for this reason humans cannot be islands unto themselves. “People crave to be listened to because they crave understanding … it’s a way of caring,” he said. Listening for understanding requires an engaged listener who is willing to literally and metaphorically sit down on the ground with people in order to understand their experiences.
“Listening the Right Way”
I asked Cliff how he gets students to open up so easily. He struggled to pinpoint the exact answer, likely because his naturally humble and approachable demeanor is a large part of why students are drawn to him. He says typically the students he ends up writing stories about came to his office themselves. He simply asks them how their semester is going and this question opens up a wide range of responses, leaving him free to listen. Occasionally he asks open-ended questions like, “How does it feel to be black in a sea of white faces?” Or to a student who has survived a suicide attempt he asks, “What keeps you living?” Actually, he says, this is a good question to ask anyone. This questioning prompted him to write a book on people who have attempted suicide.
But how does one converse about topics on which they have no personal experience? When I asked Cliff, he let me in on his secret: he never gives advice, though people will often ask.
Instead, when someone comes by with an issue or problem, he often asks, “What have you thought about?” or “What are your options?” Cliff says this is one of the most powerful questions you can ask someone who is trying to figure out what to do because it makes them engaged in their own agency. “They explore (their options) right there in your presence. And then they come up with something … on their own. And then they own it.”
This may be a piece of advice in and of itself.
“Other People Need Stories”
But listening isn’t just a sign of care by acknowledging the experience of the oppressed, these stories change the listener, Cliff says. That has been for centuries the power and the danger of literature, both fictional and nonfictional; it awakens in our hearts to desires for things beyond our own lives. This means that those who aren’t marginalized need the stories of the oppressed to awaken desires in our hearts.
“If you tell the story of someone who’s hurting … not only do you understand what it’s like to hurt with someone who is hurt, but you are aroused, that is the reader is aroused to seek justice, to have compassion, to become a listener,” Cliff said. This kind of listening causes an active response.
Cliff is a vocal proponent of the Dine with a Mind program, partially because he loves it and partially because, he admits, it helps him avoid the rush hour traffic on his commute home. Sitting down for Saga meals with members of the black community, for example, has made him more aware of how white students and faculty need to be sensitive to the needs of minorities on campus. These conversations have led to his development of a Philosophy 105 course on race and justice.
In the panel discussion, Making Black Lives Matter in the Age of Donald Trump last semester, Dr. Theon Hill spoke on the importance of education for both blacks and non-blacks. “That’s my thing” says Cliff, who views his role in racial issues as that of educator. Cliff sees these issues as getting at something deeper than even race, calling them “Cosmic Questions” about life itself.
“There are No Big Things”
In this way, proper listening always becomes a cosmic issue. Though a philosopher by nature, Cliff insists that, “cosmic visions get lived out in those daily moments.” This means our spirituality, our faith, our character all get lived out in little things. “In a way,” Cliff says, “there aren’t any big things.” In fact, wanting to do only big things for God can be a way of avoiding what we really need to be doing. He insists we are surrounded by “quotidian moments” all the time, like when you are walking along a hallway and make eye contact with somebody. He says when he came to Wheaton one of the first things he noticed was lack of eye contact. While maybe 10 percent are on their phones, the other 90 percent are just looking somewhere else. “Where is everybody?” he muses.
Still, Cliff has found ways to be present and active in the Wheaton community. Sometimes, he takes students on “bubbling” expeditions in Chicago, where they blow liquid bubbles as they walk. People will often stop, lean out their windows, and yell, “bubbles!” He said he hasn’t yet worked up the courage to do an expedition on Wheaton’s campus but perhaps it’s just the kind of small daily disruption that will make people look up as they’re walking and listen.