Making it as a deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) academic can often feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Between research activities, teaching duties, and that large nebulous category ‘service,’ communication challenges lurk around every corner. Some I can troubleshoot fairly quickly— i.e. arranging a classroom so there is walking space between desks and I can approach my students to better hear them (mole whacked!). Other challenges have required a few more tries, but I’ve eventually figured out viable solutions—i.e. belatedly acquiring an FM system was a game changer when it came to group discussions of papers (mole missed, mole missed, mole whacked!). But there is a situation that I have not yet been able to master, even after many, many years: the departmental faculty meeting.
I had less than a passing knowledge of that special faculty obligation that is the Departmental Faculty Meeting when I started out as an assistant professor. I’d heard some friends and my spouse—people who’d gotten faculty positions before me—mention them, usually accompanied by eye rolls. But I didn’t really have any expectations about what these meetings entailed or what my role in them might be.
Cue over to my first faculty meeting as a deaf/HoH faculty in a predominantly hearing institution. I walked into a an overly large room (overly large for the number of people we had) that looked somewhat like this:
We were 15-20 faculty seated in a classroom meant for over 40, with everybody seemingly intent in maximizing their distance from all others. After an hour of feeling like a bobblehead as I desperately twisted my neck trying to speech read my department chair in front and my colleagues in all corners of the room, I came to three conclusions:
1. Faculty (who would have thought!) are just like undergrads, and will beeline for chairs in the last rows of a room
2. Important stuff got discussed in faculty meetings (I think I caught some words that sounded like budgets and curriculum…)
3. I was dead meat, because I could not follow anything that was being said
So I went home and cried. My first year as an assistant professor, I cried after every single faculty meeting. Granted, we didn’t have that many faculty meetings back then, but enough to confirm my deep-rooted fear that I was certainly not going to survive this career path. It was clear to me in my first year that faculty meetings were whipping me soundly; if I were keeping score I would call it: Faculty Meetings 1–Ana 0.
Of course the obvious thing to do would have been to ask my department chair to change the setup of the faculty meetings. After all, my colleagues knew I was hard of hearing and relied on hearing aids for communication. But I was terrified that if my department caught whiff of how much I struggled to hear, this would sow doubts about my competence as a teacher and doom my tenure prospects. Besides, although I had a long history of self-reliance, I had zero experience in self-advocacy. Among my many thoughts were “What in the world falls under the ‘reasonable’ umbrella in reasonable accommodation?” and “oh, wait, I’m not a US citizen, does the ADA [American with Disabilities Act] even cover me?” (I still don’t know the answer to this one).
Towards the end of the academic year I found some courage to request CART (Communication Active Real Time Translation) for a final retreat-style faculty meeting. The captionists were to sit next to me and type out all discussions. My chair knew about the CART, but I (foolishly) didn’t alert the faculty. At the beginning of the meeting, a colleague expressed discomfort about the presence of unknown people in the room (the captionists). Though an explanation brought a quick apology, I felt marked. Added to the captioning time lag that at times jarred with what I could hear, I scored another loss: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 0.
My second year brought a new department chair, a tiny increase in self-confidence, and also an increase in the frequency of faculty meetings. Aaagh! I finally resolved to approach my chair and request that faculty be seated in a
round square table format during meetings so that I would have a better shot at speech reading. Simultaneously, I acquired a new FM system and a transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone — a forerunner of the one pictured here. I would place it on the center of the table and voila! OK, so it wasn’t quite 100%, and I was still missing most of the banter and jokes, but jumping from 50 to 90% comprehension (These are completely unscientific numbers. Naturally, there’s no way for me to ever tell how much I’m missing; my estimate is based on my confusion level at end of a meeting) felt wonderful. This was it! I was going to nail this faculty thing! New score: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 1!
Then my department grew.
Okay, I get the fact that department success is gauged in part by growth. And yes, improving faculty-to-student ratios is always a good thing. But growth meant that in order to sit all of us in rectangle we were now sitting like this:
Ummm, with a gaping hole in the middle, where is microphone transmitter to go? I started putting it next to me, but of course this makes it much less likely to pick up voices from those sitting farther away. I considered going back to CART, but at this point I had had my first kid and often had to rush out of faculty meeting before the end in order to make it to daycare pickup; I couldn’t bring myself to subject others to my sometimes ad hoc schedule… so I muddled along and considered this round lost. New score: Faculty Meetings 3–Ana 1.
Fast forward a few years—the department kept growing. We were now meeting in a large room that combined my two meeting nightmares: square table arrangements with a central hole AND faculty sitting in rows (we no longer all fit around the square). Even worse… recall that faculty are just like undergrads….most actively choose to sit as far away from the center/front of the room if given an option. So much for our “round table.”
I started to cultivate the attitude recommended by some of my hearing colleagues… faculty meeting, bah, waste of time, place where people go to hear themselves talk, nothing happens there that couldn’t be solved more quickly through email….bah! OK, so attitude was my new
weapon armor. By my calculations we were now at this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 2. Ha! A comeback!
A few years later, further department growth and another new chair. But I told this one about my difficulties following discussions whenever we sat in rows. Alas, we were now too many faculty to sit in any sort of rectangular format that would fit in a room. I had started in a department with around 20 people and we now had more than 50! To maximize my visual contact with faculty in a room, we came up with this pretty funky rectangle with peninsula shape. Ummm… perhaps we can call this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 3? We would have patented this design, but there were two problems. The perimeter of the room (around the rectangle) still had to be lined with chairs in order to have enough seating should everybody decide to show up. And see observation #1 above: faculty are just like undergrads. This means that people prefer to take the perimeter spots before they take any rectangle spots. And it turns out that people prefer to STAND IN A CORNER of the room before taking ANY of the peninsula spots in the center. New score: Faculty Meetings 5–Ana 3.
So we get to where we are today. I catch myself wondering how traitorous it is for me to dream of a smaller department while also cultivating a blasé attitude towards faculty meetings so that I release myself from feeling obligated to try and follow the discussions. In a way, this outcome is an anthesis of what a blog post on thriving in academia with deafness should be. Over a decade of trying to find a solution for a way to participate effectively in what should be a routine part of faculty life has led instead to something that resembles an arms race and I have no solution to offer. At the same time, however, this post on getting by in academia with deafness portrays pretty effectively the reality of trying to adjust to shifting communication settings as a deaf/HoH academic. I hesitate to sound as if I’m advocating “managing” as opposed to “thriving” when it comes to facing the fluctuating demands of academic life, but sometimes, while we’re whacking those moles, “managing” is what we can do.
Pandemic addendum: I wrote this post before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, never imagining the ways in which my faculty meeting odyssey would be upended yet again. The thought of meeting in-person with 40-50 colleagues now seems so distant, and new “moles” have appeared in our now virtual faculty meetings (ahem…thinking here of all those who choose to speak with their zoom cameras OFF). Yet I’ve also picked up some new management strategies in the interim… For example, Michele’s recent post points out some of the silver linings for deaf/HoH academics in working from home. And from Paige Glotzer’s profile I’ve now learned of the existence of Catchbox throwable microphones;
if when life returns to normal, could this be my new faculty meeting strategy? I can’t wait to see…