Tag Archives: deaf faculty

Conquering faculty meetings (or not…) when deaf/hard of hearing

-Ana

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:

A room with chairs in rows, in which a faculty meeting is taking place. Stick figures are scattered throughout, with one twisting and turning her head in an attempt to speech read what is being said by people in all corners of the room.

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.

A transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone placed on a table.

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. 

Schematic of a conference setting in a hollow square format.

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.

A Lego knight with shield, sword and helmet. It is pretty happy that no faculty meeting can hurt it now.

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!

Schematic of a conference set up that involves chair lining up the perimeter of a room, as well as table set in a U-shape, with a peninsula in the center also lined with chairs.

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

Profile: Dr. Stephanie Kerschbaum

Associate Professor of English, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA

Field of expertise: Writing Studies

  • Website
  • Twitter: @slkersch (although I rarely use it)

Describe your hearing: I wear two behind-the-ear hearing aids and speechread well in one-on-one and small-group settings. Due to years of childhood speech therapy, I use my voice to communicate for myself when conversing with hearing people and sign when around other signing deaf people.

Here’s me—in this professional head shot my short brown hair, red rectangular glasses, white skin, and many-toothed smile are readily visible, but my two behind-the-ear hearing aids are not. I have been deaf since birth. When I was about one, my parents learned I was deaf and my mom immediately enrolled us in parent-child sign language classes. I learned to sign before I could talk, but once I began talking, my mother reports that I largely stopped signing. 

I never completely let go of that early language learning, however—while I do not have deaf family members (other than those who have late-in-life hearing loss), I did attend a school with a significant population of deaf students from 5th through 8th grade, and began using sign language interpreters and CART when I went to college at The Ohio State University. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to start graduate school in literary studies, but after taking an “Intro to Comp Studies” course as an MA student, ended up getting my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition.

I’m currently an associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, where I think a lot about different forms of writing and composing with and around disability as well as the ways that disability matters to all kinds of everyday experiences. I didn’t start focusing on disability studies until I was well into my first tenure-track job, though—it took me a long time to make explicit connections between my lived experiences of negotiating communication, interactional access, and building an academic career with the kind of theorizing I was doing around how people name and articulate differences—of all kinds—during everyday interactions. 

One of the biggest challenges that I face—and that is common to many disabled faculty members—involves building inclusive environments in which I can authentically and fully participate. By this, I mean situations where I can contribute in a timely fashion to an ongoing conversation or meeting in a way that enables others to attend to what I am sharing and incorporate it into the discussion. Too often, disabled faculty members experience environments where their participation is marginalized or mediated through interfaces, material arrangements, and patterns of behavior that frustrate rather than enable inclusion. 

In a room of 10 people I’m not likely to be able to completely follow a back and forth conversation without an interpreter. And even when an interpreter is in the room, I almost always still need to ask for some shifts in the interaction. Right now almost all of the responsibility for making those changes falls on me. So the hardest part is getting others in the room to participate in the work that is involved in making the kinds of changes needed.

An accommodation I’d love to have is actually an improvement on one that I already have and enjoy using. I love working with sign language interpreters. But there’s so much that goes on around making that work proceed well that I’d really like to have automatically be part of the experience: getting access copies of scripted remarks without having to go through complicated negotiations each time; well-structured processes for securing interpreting in which highly qualified interpreters well-trained in academic transliteration are readily available; having presenters, meeting organizers, and committee chairs consider interpreters’ needs when setting up rooms, sending out meeting materials, and more.

How do you introduce your deafness to your class?

– Michele

The first class meeting of every semester includes imparting a vast amount of different kinds of information. Professors endeavor to make their brief introduction to the course content engaging and relevant, while also outlining expectations of the students and establishing course ground rules. Covering all this within 50 minutes is exhausting for everyone. If we are deaf/HoH and our students are hearing, at what point during that first course meeting do we mention our deafness? How do we explain that our deafness might affect students’ experience since we may teach our courses differently than hearing instructors do?

One strategy is not to mention our deafness and hope it doesn’t come up. I’ve tried that. Or you have every intention of telling them, but in the kerfuffle of sorting out all the course logistics on that first day, you forget. I’ve done that, too. Of course, you can always bring up your deafness later in the semester, but I’ve found that the first class is the easiest time to do so. The course instruction seems to go more smoothly when students know early on that I might not always hear them and they understand why I speak and behave the way that I do.

So after I introduce my name and my background that establishes my expertise in the course content, I have a standard spiel that seems to work for both large and small classes. I say:

I’m part deaf, so I wear hearing aids and depend on speech reading. What this means is that I may ask you to repeat your question/comment. That doesn’t at all mean you asked a bad question, it just means I didn’t catch it. This also means that if you say something while I’m facing away from you, I may not respond no matter how brilliant the comment/question. You can help me out by waving your hand to catch my attention before you speak. You should expect that I may walk right up to you when I ask you to repeat a question/comment because I really want to hear what you have to say. You can also expect that I will never talk while writing on the board because for me, effective communication involves facing each other.

Maybe this presents the students with a lot of new ideas early in the class. Maybe they want their money back after learning their professor has broken ears. Maybe, on the other hand, this introduction reminds them that professors are human. Maybe my approach to establishing a deaf-friendly classroom will show them that there is no single or proper way to run a classroom or to learn.

How do you introduce yourself to your class on the first day?

 

Why the world needs another blog

— Ana and Michele

We are two deaf/HoH tenured scientists at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and this summer we decided we needed to create a blog.

For Ana it was the cumulative frustration of feeling that after almost 12 years of teaching, she often still struggled with the same instructional challenges that had bedeviled her at the beginning of her career. For Michele it was a realization that she had shed her fear of having her hearing loss define her professional image as a research scientist. For both of us, it was a wearying sense that for too long we had each been re-inventing the wheel—continuously looking for solutions to problems that we cannot possibly have been the first or only ones to experience. “If only we had other people like us to talk to and exchange ideas with,” we thought. “Faculty who also fret about the best way to introduce their hearing loss to their students; postdocs who also have to worry about how to handle the soft-spoken person in the back row asking a question after their talk; grad students who are also trying to crack the code on how to be full participants in fast-paced journal clubs.” In the past, we had individually (and unsuccessfully) searched for blogs by deaf/HoH people working in academic settings that shared their experiences. This summer it finally dawned on us that we could create our own.

“But wait a moment!” you may ask. “You both work in the same institution—surely you talked to each other and exchanged strategies for success?” We’re somewhat embarrassed to admit that in all of our years of overlap at UMass, we actually didn’t engage that much with each other. The reasons for this are varied and nuanced and may be good sources for future blog posts. When Ana mentioned the idea of a blog to Michele a few months ago, we both instantly realized, this is it. We need to do this! We are on a mission, because people like us need this blog! So, despite all the myriad other demands on our time, we are making a blog.

Our aspiration is to create a forum for discussing the unique challenges shared by deaf/HoH professionals in an academic environment. We have two main objectives: first to build a network of academics with hearing loss from all career stages and from a diversity of fields. Through this network, our second objective is to share experiences, failures, and, most importantly, potential solutions to the professional challenges we encounter.

People with hearing loss make up 15% of the adult U.S. population, with likely similar percentages worldwide, but the proportion undeniably becomes smaller in academia. Because of our small numbers, our best shot at creating a community is online. The community we are gathering runs the gamut of experiences. It encompasses people who are recently deafened to those who were born deaf; those with mild hearing loss to those who cannot hear any sounds; individuals who communicate primarily through sign languages and those who do so verbally; academics in predominantly-hearing institutions and those at Deaf-serving institutions; graduate students initiating their careers, postdocs questioning their next step, and senior faculty who can impact academic culture; deaf/HoH people working in every academic discipline; academics in countries with abundant accommodations for deaf/HoH individuals, and academics in countries with more limited resources. Because the hearing loss experience is so variable and affects each of us in different ways, our best bet at finding solutions and workarounds to the challenges we each face is by including all of our diverse experiences in this shared forum.

We need to come together because being a person with hearing loss in an academic environment is hard. The daily exhaustion of communicating in non-ideal settings, anticipating and planning for future communication challenges, educating unaware individuals, and dealing with the social isolation resulting from communication challenges can drain us of energy, ambition, and time. We will blog about these challenges! While there is comfort in sharing stories and realizing that others are going through similar experiences, we aspire for this blog to transcend being merely a “complaint forum.” Instead, by sharing various ways that we approach different challenges, we hope to build a community toolbox of solutions.

If you are a deaf/HoH academic, please consider contributing blog posts or becoming involved in the discussions. If you know of a deaf/HoH colleague, please spread the word about our blog and help us grow our network. If you want to learn more about the deaf/HoH experience, ask questions and follow this blog. You can help TheMindHears strengthen its impact so that it provides value to each of those who visit.