Current Title: Associate Professor of Writing & Rhetoric, Syracuse University
Field of expertise: Rhetorics of Technology
Years of experience: 16
What is your Background?
I became severely/profoundly deaf after a bout of spinal meningitis at the age of 2. I was fitted with hearing aids and sent to regular speech therapy sessions quickly after my parents discovered my deafness. My educational path has been twisty, largely due to having been what would now be called “twice exceptional.” I began my education in Montessori prior to getting sick, but the school was not welcoming when I was able to return. From there, I went into the Arkansas public school system, where pre-school and kindergarten classes grouped all the children with disabilities together with two teachers. My mother advocated for me to move to mainstream classes, where I moved for part of kindergarten and on through second grade. The following year, I skipped third grade and spent fourth and fifth grades as a scholarship student at a wealthy, private K-8 school. Then I moved to a private religious school for sixth through eleventh grades, dropped out early because the school wouldn’t consider early graduation, and got myself admitted to the local state university, which had an open admissions policy. There, I made it for a couple of years, dropped out to work for a while, then returned and finished my BA while working full time. I realized that I really liked school a lot more than I liked my job, although the job’s tuition reimbursement program paid for the rest of my undergrad work, and I noticed that professors got to keep going to school forever. To be a professor, I clearly needed a doctorate. So, I quit my job the same week that I graduated with my BA, got an MA at the same university, and then moved out of state for my PhD. I had no accommodations during any of my education and really had no idea what might be available, aside from sign language interpretation. And since I never learned to sign, that wasn’t really an option.
How did you get to where you are? For example: How did you decide on your field? How did you decide to pursue a higher degree in your field? What concerns did you have when you started out?
My mother was a writer and I always wrote with her, first with crayons and then with our Atari computer. It was just always something I did, and I started publishing as a teenager in local venues. So, it was natural to double-major in English and Professional & Technical Writing and then to continue to focus on Writing Studies and Rhetorical Studies through my grad work. As someone who had become very distanced from their own deafness, I had no concerns about my own education when I began, no awareness of listening fatigue or its impact. I had some worries about whether or not I could teach in a traditional classroom, but through happenstance I began my teaching career in online learning environments. I just assumed that this was the wave of the future and that I would continue doing most if not all of my teaching online — something that turned out not to be true until the pandemic hit.
What is the biggest professional challenge (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?
My biggest challenge happened on the tenure track, when I had ideas, archival research, and arguments, but was largely unable to get my writing done while in a research-intensive job. After teaching entirely in face-to-face classrooms with students from the northeast whose accents were unfamiliar to me and then attending a variety of faculty meetings and talks, I simply didn’t have the energy left to think in ways that facilitated writing my tenure book. At the same time, I was developing advanced degenerative arthritis that went undiagnosed for longer than it should have. It took a while for me to understand that this amount of listening was causing significant listening fatigue or that a mix of listening fatigue and chronic pain will almost certainly short out one’s thinking capacity, that I could negotiate accommodations, or what accommodations might be useful for me. And as someone who had relied on passing for most of her life and knew no other deaf professors, I had no community to rely on for answers. Now that I’ve spent 6ish years sorting through internalized ableism, building community, setting limits on how much listening I do each day, negotiating accommodations through the ADA office, and educating my colleagues about CART and my availability, my research productivity has skyrocketed.
What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I use CART at all talks and large faculty meetings, teach in a variety of modalities (face-to-face, hybrid, and online), and schedule listening breaks throughout the day. To help manage chronic pain, I’ve arranged to teach in my own building or those right next door to it and moved my parking space. Our campus ADA Advocate has been an invaluable resource for negotiating all of this.
What advice would you give your former self?
Look for other people like you. Talk to them. Don’t feel like you have to do this alone.
Any funny stories you want to share?
Working with my last smart hearing aid, a Starkey Halo, led to a whole new research trajectory on algorithmically driven medical wearables. One of the moments that got me there is hilarious. The hearing aid was so new that I hadn’t yet changed the first battery. I was home alone on a dark and stormy night, prepping a chicken for roasting. Suddenly, a male voice said “Battery!” right in my ear and let me tell you, that chicken went flying. That was how I learned that the aid would talk to me when its battery was dying, which led to a host of questions about user interaction, why the default voice was white, male, and American, and other cultural aspects of this particular design.