A love letter from your HoH Professor
Hi folks. I can’t wait to learn with you this semester. But first, an admission before we can get started. And I call this an admission because it feels like I’ve done something wrong, that I’ve made a mistake to which I must confess. Apologize? Confess? Perhaps it is both.
I am deaf.
But I have done nothing wrong. (I must remind myself of this.)
Well, almost deaf. I use the word “deaf” to placate the hearing; when I use the phrase “hard of hearing” with hearing folks it is too often misinterpreted as an invitation to a needling Q&A session. The word “deaf” is just a more concrete, absolute word for the uninitiated to accept. So “deaf” it is. But I’m not deaf—I can hear, barely.
Surprised? I thought so. I am, too.
When I was your age, I sat in the back row of the classroom, mostly silent, in denial and driven by fear.
Look at me now: loud, confident, witty, encouraging in our classroom each day. Standing at ease, fielding questions, strolling the classroom as you ponder, think, write. Crushing your stereotypes and assumptions about what it means and looks like to be disabled—beautiful, smart, funny. And yes, I know I’m the one person in your life besides your grandpa that wears hearing aids.
Your curiosity about my deafness is endearing but exposes the limitations of your experience. The first and (usually only) question: How did it happen? Why are you deaf?
Wouldn’t I love to know. Like there was a playground mishap and now a little scar on my eardrum that blocks some sound from going in and out. No, children. No, there is no exotic origin; no riveting nor heartwarming story. Deaf for me just is. Has been. Will always be.
Back to the classroom. I’ll let you in on the best-kept secret of my trade because we need to talk about this if our time together is going to matter.
Great teaching starts with trusting students. Think back: I bet the best teachers that you’ve had, at times, let go of their control in the classroom. They understood that classrooms are a space for collaborative invention. They didn’t talk at you, they learned with you, even abandoning a mediocre lesson if it meant the reward—your engagement and investment—was worth the risk of class failing extravagantly as it unfolded. Great teachers trust their students to contribute to the classroom as knowledgeable, interested peers. And again and again, I’ve seen students rise to this challenge they’re given and thrive.
But I think that trusting students looks a little different for teachers with disabilities, like me.
No matter how student-centered or democratic a classroom dynamic is, professors always have power over students. But what if it’s the other way around? What if a disability puts the professor at the mercy of her class? What if I’m at your mercy?
Is there anything as vulnerable as a deaf person standing in front of an expectant audience? One that is looking to be led, to be given something (knowledge—something so abstract, fragile, personal)? Sometimes my colleagues tell me about their teaching nightmares: showing up naked to class; going to the wrong classroom; being forced to teach a class on which they know nothing about; showing up to take a test for which they haven’t studied. This is anxiety working itself out. The anxiety of a HoH professor is palpably different from this. We can prepare and utilize the latest microphones and other accommodations, but it always happens. Being exposed, I mean.
It happens often. A student raises their hand and offers a question. I’m excited: questions mean students are listening and engaging. It also means I’ve created a classroom in which they feel comfortable and vulnerable. They trust me. But instead of a question, I hear muffled patches about analysis and … argument, … I think.
Crap. Time to sweat. There’s a host of solutions and I need to flip through them all to 1) keep the cadence going and 2) assure the student doesn’t feel awkward. Do I:
- Ask the student to repeat themselves? Power imbalance makes that tricky.
- Ask a student closer to me to “translate”–basically re-stating what the first student said? There’s no guarantee I’ll understand the translator; there’s additional burden on folks in the front rows that they didn’t ask for.
- Play pretend: “That’s a great question. How about I offer it to the class first to see what your classmates have to say?” Or defer and delay: “That’s a great question. How about we chat after class about that?” But what if they asked a simple yes/no question? Awkward.
- And, recently, ask the student to briefly pull down their mask so I can read their lips while they talk? (Side note: the painful, masked-up hell of this pandemic is worthy of another letter.)
Over the years, attentive friends and family members have learned to know and even expect “the look;” the exact facial expression I make when I have no clue what someone is saying. I merely had to turn to them, and they’d repeat (this is also the second option, above). This degree of trust took years to build.
As the room sits silently waiting for my answer, I’ve got “the look” on my face, but not a single student understands. Our classroom was spirited, brisk, and it’s now still and all eyes on me.
Which option is safe? On whom do I call? Who can I trust? The nightmare plays out yet again.
You registered for my class, but you didn’t sign up to accommodate and well, here I am, broken and all. So here I sit, writing this letter, warning you about the role you’re about to take on whether you like it or not: my teacher.
Sara Heaser is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. Her writing about teaching has been featured on the Bedford Bits blog, the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and Composition Studies. Her favorite aspects of her job are mentoring undergraduate education students and new teachers, tutoring adult learners, and teaching first-year, first-semester writing students. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and Winona State University.