At this moment, after 2 years of pandemic living, many COVID restrictions are being rolled back in the communities where we – Michele and Ana – are located. We see similar steps being taken across the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Whether these rollbacks represent a return to normality, or just a lull before the next variant strikes, only time will tell. The current result, for us, is a patchwork of requirements – our local grocery store no longer has a mask mandate, but at the time of writing, the classes we are teaching still require that everybody be masked.
This inflection point in our local pandemic experience provides a time to pause and reflect how the widespread adoption of masks has shaped our lives as deaf/heard of hearing (HoH) academics in the last two years. It is possible to simultaneously hold two opinions of masks. We are grateful that a low-tech solution like mask-wearing has allowed us to be out and about in public and to teach our classes while keeping ourselves and others safe these past years; we are grateful to be in communities where mask mandates were embraced as part of a collective action we could undertake for public health. At the same time, we have despaired about the barriers that masks have imposed on our ability to communicate and connect with others (see Ana’s post on Navigating a Masked World), and the consequential isolation; we have mourned the limits on our engagement with our students when every verbal interaction is such a struggle for comprehension. We also have tried alternatives, such as clear masks, and have found them to not be a solution– they fog up, become uncomfortable and do not protect as well as other masks. Communication is still a struggle with clear masks in the classroom and elsewhere.
In today’s post, we want to highlight the art of Ryan Seslow that so accurately captures the effect masks have had on our lives as deaf/HoH people. In his series of “The Eight Faces” (pictured above) we see our struggles portrayed much more effectively than we can do so in writing. In Ryan’s own words (<280 words each due to limits of twitter postings):
“Important fact about this series – I’m Deaf & this series is an expression of how hard it has been to receive communication from a world of people wearing masks for the last 1.8 years. Of course the masks are necessary to protect us.”
“A masked face takes away all access to read facial expressions, the lips & the mouth to speech read & connect to rapport. The portraits are what distorted audio garble looks like as a visual example of strained hearing attempts over and over again.”
We also direct our readers to Ryan’s digital art series: Waking Accessibility Awareness, which so vividly capture his (and ours!) continuous challenge for access as a hard of hearing artist in the academic and art worlds.
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.
I was born deaf. At the time, my family had recently moved to rural New Hampshire. Early on, my parents struggled because I did not hit age-appropriate speech and language milestones. However, doctor after doctor told them that my hearing was fine. One even suggested that my mother seek psychiatric help. Finally, my parents took me to Mass Eye and Ear, where I came under the care of an amazing woman, Audiologist Rhoda Morrison. She properly diagnosed my hearing loss (profoundly hearing impaired), and connected me with another amazing woman, Leah Donovan, a speech therapist.
We moved to the suburbs of Boston to be closer to Mass Eye and Ear and Ms. Donovan. I was fitted with hearing aids and rapidly became verbal. My family attributes my rapid acquisition of language to the fact that my mother and my aunt would regularly read to me. In fact, my habit of placing my ear on their throats while they read led them to believe I was unable to hear.
By the time I was ready to go to school, there was debate as to whether I should attend Beverley School for the Deaf or mainstream at North Reading Public Schools. Encouraged by Ms. Morrison and Ms. Donovan and learning about newly implemented speech and language services at North Reading Public Schools, my parents decided to mainstream me. Despite the challenges of being deaf, I found school easy and was often bored. I read constantly, everything I could get my hands on. My aunt likes to tell this anecdote about when I was very young. She asked me why I asked so many questions. I responded, “I want to know ebrything.”
My school career was checkered. Depending on my interest in the subject, I would either do extremely well or barely squeak by. I did not hear much that went on in the classroom but was able to compensate by reading everything. Even in grammar school, I had my sights on advanced study after college. However, I often felt stymied and underestimated by school administrators. On the last day of 6th grade, my friends and I opened our junior high school class assignments for the following fall. Finally, we had graduated from elementary school to having classes in real subjects: life science, English, history, mathematics. Classes were assigned numbers for degree of difficulty: 0 for honors, 1 for standard and 2 for remedial. I sat in shock and shame on seeing I was assigned to level 2 classes. These assignments were not based on my grades or my standardized test scores, but rather the perception that, as a deaf student, I would not be able to compete against my peers in a junior high classroom. Skipping ahead 4 years, my guidance counselor at my highly competitive private college prep school disregarded my National Honor Society standing and told me not to bother applying to my top choice as I did not stand a chance in getting accepted. Consider instead a local state school or even a community college, he advised. Later, at Holy Cross, an academic advisor told me I should be ‘more realistic” on learning of my intention to follow the pre-med program. Medical schools would not make “exceptions” for my disability. In any event, patients would avoid a deaf doctor regardless of his qualifications. I remember these events often and have made it a point in my life to make sure that I do not belittle the aspirations of others.
My advisor’s advice notwithstanding, I followed the pre-med track as an undergraduate. However, on being employed as a phlebotomist at a local hospital, I realized medicine was not for me. I disliked working in the hospital and found the work exceedingly stressful. Since I had been targeting medicine as a career for most of my early life, I did not really have a plan B. After a few lateral moves, I decided to pursue a career in academia.
How did you get to where you are?
Following my decision not to seek a medical degree, I was not sure what to do. I interned at a few companies in industry, but nothing really captured my interest. I ended up taking a job as a groundskeeper at a fancy New Hampshire resort on a lake. I had not quite finished my bachelor’s degree (all that remained was completing Physics II), but I agreed to work from May to November. That summer was quite idyllic. I enjoyed the outdoor work immensely and was quite prepared to not return to college in the fall. In my non-working hours, I evaluated different methods of estimating chipmunk population density for my college honors thesis. At some point, I found out that my boss, Carl, was the son of zoologist Hubert Frings of the University of Hawaii. Carl himself had done extensive behavioral ecology work with his father and advised me on my research project. From him, I learned more about science and academia as a potential career.
One day at the end of August, Carl took me aside and said, “I’m afraid I am going to have to fire you.” I was stunned. I thought we were getting along well. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time here,” Carl continued, “You should be finishing up your degree. You still have time to enroll in fall courses.” So, with that, I returned to school to finish Physics II and graduated the following semester.
As I was increasingly interested in wildlife biology, ecology, and evolution, I applied for and was accepted into the master’s program in zoology at the University of Idaho. I will not dissimulate here; my main motivation, in addition to getting a masters, was to explore the country around Idaho. I was captivated by the place names on the atlas — The Wilderness of No Return, Hell’s Canyon, Yellowstone, Snake River, Glacier National Park, Craters of the Moon — that flanked the largest wilderness area in the lower 48.
For two years, I studied the behavioral ecology of pronghorn antelope on the National Bison Range in Montana. I loved the work and found myself very much at home in science and academia. Unfortunately, I discovered that behavioral ecology was a very challenging field to pursue. Jobs and funding were difficult to acquire, and the work was very slow making it difficult to demonstrate productivity. Some faculty in my department advised pursuing other fields of biology, perhaps with microbes. At the time I thought, “Microbes? Are they nuts?”
My master’s studies were also noteworthy as I reached the limits of my ability to compensate for not being able to hear much of what occurred in classrooms by reading extensively. My professor in Comparative Vertebrate Reproduction would cover the very latest research, which was not written up in the standard textbook. This circumstance forced me to acknowledge my deafness to myself and realize that I could not compete with my peers without assistance. With considerable reluctance, I sought help with Student Services, and was provided with a notetaker. It worked out well in the end; my friend was paid to attend class and take notes (as she should have anyway) and I received extensive notes on the lectures.
Following graduation from University of Idaho, I decided to pursue mosquito biology reasoning that, as disease vectors, the research would be fundable by NSF and NIH. I joined Todd Livdahl’s lab at Clark University for a PhD. The project, which included a research assistantship, was fully funded and would be close to my family in Massachusetts. I enjoyed my time in Worcester, Massachusetts and was happy with my decision to pursue an academic career. However, after a couple of years, I became somewhat disenchanted with mosquitoes; they suck (blood). To maintain mosquito populations in the laboratory, we were obliged to feed the female mosquitoes blood meals so they could lay eggs. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest and cheapest is to use graduate students. So, I offered up my arm for mosquito feeding for science on a daily basis. The only good thing I can say about this experience is that it somewhat reduced my body’s reaction to some mosquito species’ antigens. For some mosquito species, bites no longer itch.
After a couple of years of blood-feeding mosquitoes, I decided to do my dissertation research on another topic. In a committee meeting, one of my committee members suggested that I should model my career on Richard Lenski of Michigan State University. He was one of the founders of the field of experimental evolution. For my dissertation, I decided to experimentally evolve populations of the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans to test hypotheses regarding the evolution of sex and recombination.
After successfully defending my dissertation, I reached out to Rich Lenski and inquired about a postdoctoral position. He let me know that he did not have any opportunities available, but that his former doctoral student, Paul Turner of Yale University, was looking for a postdoc. Working with Paul, I was able to acquire an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and took up the study of the bacteriophages of Pseudomonas syringae. Yes, microbes. The very same organisms I shunned as uninteresting just a few years prior.
In Paul’s lab, I fell in love with phages and decided it would be my scientific focus in my own lab someday. After three years in Paul’s lab, Ing-Nang Wang invited me to join his lab at University at Albany to work with Escherichia coli phages. Here I learned about genetically modifying phages and started a long-term project on stochastic gene expression that I continue today.
In 2007, I was hired as an assistant professor at Queens College and rose through the ranks to my present position as full professor. My two biggest accomplishments are having a continuously funded laboratory over the past 14 years and having mentored dozens of students from a wide variety of backgrounds in research. I still study the viruses of bacteria as well as other viruses such as rotavirus and SARS-CoV-2.
What is your biggest professional challenge? How do you mitigate this challenge?
My biggest professional challenge is hearing in difficult situations, such as in noisy environments or in rooms with poor acoustics. This manifests itself at events such as scientific conferences and while teaching. I have great difficulty hearing amplified talks, questions from students during classes that I teach, and people speaking during noisy conference dinners or poster sessions. This difficulty makes it very challenging to network with other scientists or keep up with advancements in my professional field. Social media, especially Twitter, have helped mitigate this challenge somewhat. In addition, the COVID19 pandemic has led to a transition to video conferencing, which, when coupled with live transcription, make it much easier to understand my colleagues when they speak.
One of my great failings has been not asking for accommodation when needed. Asking for help goes against my very strong impulse towards independence and my desire not to inconvenience others. The COVID19 pandemic has inspired me to advocate for myself much more than I formerly did because without accommodation (i.e., live transcription), I would not be able to participate in my work. I am resolved to request assistance when needed in the future, which may come in the form of interpretation at conferences and other events and in the classroom.
What advice would you give your former self?
Two things: 1. Trust your instincts, and 2. What do you care what other people think?
After early childhood in a segregated setting for students with disabilities in Canada, I was in mainstream classrooms in both public or private U.S. schools. I went to Stanford University for my BA and MA (both in Psychology) and then University of Wisconsin at Madison for my PhD in Educational Psychology.
What do you do now?
I wear several hats in my professional life. I am a full professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology, with a courtesy appointment in Special Education. I am the Founding Director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. I am also the Director of Research for Drama for Schools, a partnership with UT’s College of Fine Arts, and an Editor of Perspectives on Deafness at Oxford University Press. But no single role really captures what I do, so I started a new website: stephaniecawthon.com. Do check it out.
What kind of hearing loss do you have?
Both ears, sensorineural and congenital, roughly 50DB-55DB (moderate range). In practical terms, speech is fine in some situations, not in others. I’m missing much of my upper range. I lip read a lot and fill in gaps with contextual clues even when I don’t realize it. Talking to me from the other room is a sure fire way to make sure I don’t know what you’re saying.
How do you identify?
These days, I identify as deaf, inclusively defined. Until about five years ago, hard-of-hearing. Never as hearing, although many in my family would have described me that way.
Do you use an assistive listening device?
I got hearing aids at about age 4 and used them continuously in public until recently. Now I use them as additional support in settings that are not accessible. I also appreciate captions to help fill in gaps when people are not signing.
Do you sign?
Some. I first took a few ASL courses in college (liberating!) and then more much later, when I had deaf graduate students and colleagues who signed. I’ve had some private tutoring and learned a great deal working with a wide range of signers and interpreters over the years. Fingerspelling (expressive or receptive) at a natural pace is still the most difficult part of the language for me.
How do you communicate at work?
If there is a deaf person in the room who signs, I will sign. In the last few years, this includes public presentations, which is terrifying — particularly when the interpreter is new or doesn’t know me. If the group is all non-signers, I will voice and, depending on the accessibility and availability of interpreters, will ask for access support for receptive language. When I am teaching a large class, I will sometimes sign, especially if I know I will be relying on interpreters for receptive language to communicate with my students. It’s too hard to switch back and forth from voicing in English and seeing ASL.
What advice do you have to your former self?
I pretty much went full steam ahead for the 20 years from PhD and through full professor promotion. At one point, a senior colleague advised me to remember academia is a marathon, not a sprint, and to slow down. That felt pretty entitled coming from someone who didn’t have to face the negative biases and elevated standards of my cohort — especially compared with that of 30 years ago, when jobs were more plentiful and budgets were flush. Instead, my advice is to pay attention to the physical and psychological requirements of running a very fast marathon, because that is the reality for anyone facing an uphill battle in light of audism and other -isms that are still very much the drivers of perspectives in higher education. I now know the tremendous energy and personal costs required of running that fast marathon. But I also now know what helps: earlier bedtimes, more boundaries around the speed of responding to requests, the magic of saying “no,” yoga, therapy, relying on a support network, finding a creative outlet, and taking vacations.
Has your professional identity as a deaf academic evolved?
I think it’s pretty clear from my research that I have a personal connection to deaf people, but there was rarely a time early in my career when I put my deaf identity front and center in my work. A major pivot point was when my college asked me to be a presenter for a brown bag lunch series. Instead of focusing on a research study or line of inquiry, I presented a personal account of how my professional identity has evolved over the course of my career (so far). I called my presentation “Statistics Don’t Lie ‘Til You’re Trying Not to Be One.” I quite nervously signed it, with a trusted interpreter who knew me well.
Something I name in that presentation — and have been working through ever since — is the twin impact of audism and imposter syndrome. I think many deaf academics and professionals come to realize the extent to which we internalize audism, which then sets up the tyranny of low expectations about us and can contribute to feeling like we’re totally fake (imposter syndrome). This has shown up in subtle and overt ways throughout my lifetime, both personally and professionally — such as the attitude that research in deaf experiences and deaf education isn’t as important as that of other fields. I was even told by a boss once to consider another line of research, because people aren’t really interested in it. Over 100 publications and nearly $25 million in grant funding later, I just smile.
What do you know for sure?
As all ideas that mature, there is a deepening of the core essence of what you are doing. I think I always knew this in a general way, but as I quickly approach 50 — at what is typically the halfway point in an academic career (I finished my PhD just shy of 30) — here’s what I know for sure:
Systemic barriers and opportunities are the long term solution. That kind of work is not what I was trained to do, but I have a passion for it. Working towards systems change is my number one goal for the next half of my career.
Inferences about individual outcomes of deaf people require taking context and deaf perspectives into account. Research is very much about evidence — and how we view that evidence says as much about us as researchers as the data themselves.
Disciplined work and progress in small ways add up fast. Even when you can only do a little, just do a little. I recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it has been the most influential boost in this pandemic productivity malaise.
It’s really hard to keep up with current literature without having a reason to read it. Write so that you have to read, so that you can then write. The most recent article I led, Evidence-Based Practices in Deaf Education: A Call to Center Research and Evaluation on the Experiences of Deaf People, will publish in Review of Research in Education in April 2021, and it was an opportunity to explore new fields and tie those perspectives with what I have already built over the past twenty years.
One of my best and apparently rare skills is asking good questions. This is true in my role as friend, as colleague, as mentor, as supervisor, as leader. I have learned that there’s no right answer to most situations or problems, but there are great ways to think clearly about strategy and decision making when you have a chance to respond to good questions.
I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next. There’s a shift coming, and I’m in that pause between letting go of one bar on the trapeze and catching the next. I love working in a leadership role and building places where people can thrive. This is inclusive of mentoring graduate students — having them as part of a larger team is such a critical experience in their development — and working with staff, who are some of the most important and under-recognized members of an academic community.
Thought leadership and dissemination is one of the most exciting things that I do. I very much like giving media interviews and graduation speeches, using social media tools to build a community of thinkers, and writing and sharing information that has practical application. I love the intersection of research and communications, especially how strategy makes the whole endeavor coherent, both visually and in terms of message and content. Being asked to be on this blog is part of it! Thank you so much for the invitation.
This semester I am teaching a large lecture course with about 175 students. I have taught this course 6 times before, with enrollment varying between 150 to 200. To be completely accurate, I only teach a third of the course, usually the first third of the semester, with two hearing faculty leading the other portions. Of course, teaching even a third of a course represents a challenge when your hearing is as crappy as mine. Therefore, my top priority for this class is ensuring that the students and I can communicate effectively (I speech-read and don’t sign). How do I do it? And does it work?
Like much of my professional life, the answer to the question “does it work?” shifts frequently. Some days I come out of class thinking I’ve nailed it and given students the educational experience they deserve. Other days, not so much. But, for better or worse, here is what I do:
I start out by making a very explicit announcement about being deaf/HoH the first day of class. I love the language that Michele used in her recent post about announcing your deafness to your class, and am thinking of borrowing some of this language next semester. Besides giving students tips on how best to communicate with me, my main preoccupation this first day is to emphasize that my deafness should not in any way scare them from asking questions, as I will work hard to ensure our communication. In a class this size, I am not always 100% sure I am getting this message across, but I try.
The second thing I started doing 3 or 4 years ago is using clickers. This classroom response system allows students to use handheld remotes to choose from alternative answers to a question I have posed, and I can assess their understanding in real-time. For me, this opportunity to interact with ALL students in my very large class, bypassing the usual difficulties of oral communication, is a radical departure from the usual state of affairs. I really like clickers, and love not having to dread the very solid silence that sometimes followed my lobbing a question to the class, while vainly hoping that an individual would venture an answer. However, clicker questions only go in one direction; they are no substitute for class discussion or questions asked by students.
So the final frontier—answering students’ questions! Large classes are, by their very nature, less interactive than smaller ones, as students are much more reticent about speaking out. I will here make a shameful confession in the era of “active learning” buzzwords—I derive some amount of comfort (or at least a decrease in anxiety) from knowing that a large class means fewer questions for me. Of course, questions still get asked, so the problems remain (and what serious instructor would prefer that their students ask less questions?!).
Walking up to students when they ask a question is not really an option in this course. I teach in auditorium-style classrooms and there is no way to get close to a student sitting in the middle of a row. What I have been doing instead is getting myself a student translator. I don’t have a TA, so I designate somebody in the class, ideally seated in the first row, to repeat questions for me. I have tried a few different student translator strategies. One semester I hired a work-study student to perform this role. The student was not a biology major and struggled mightily with the scientific vocabulary in the class—which meant that I struggled to understand the questions. I chalked this up as one of my not-so-good semesters. Another semester I asked a different student in the course to play the translator role each class period (in the interest of not overburdening anybody); this led to a lot of re-explaining of what I needed at the start of each class, which in turn led to awkwardness. Most semesters what I’ve done is ask two students—one for each side of the room—at the beginning of the semester if they are willing to play this role.
In general, things worked better once I started asking enrolled students for help, as students immersed in the class are very capable of understanding their classmates’ questions. A nice consequence is that most students feel surprised and elated to be asked to perform the translator role (that said, a few students have turned me down). Yet each year I find myself re-evaluating what I do. There can (and have been for me) hiccups with this approach. Examples are, designated students missing a class, leaving you without a translator. Or, students’ unease about speaking up in large classes might result in your designated translator whispering, and now you have TWO students you can’t understand; to work around this, I have occasionally fitted my student translator with a directional mic that my FM system can pick up, but have found the amplified sound of notebook pages being turned too overwhelming. Finally, there is that constant whispering doubt: is it fair to ask a student to perform this extra bit of work for me?
You will notice an underlying thread to these strategies. At no point have I asked my university or department for help (though I should clarify that my department contributed to the work-study hire I once tried). Why not? Hmm, this sounds like material for another blog post. What I’m doing seems, for the most part, to be working for me so far. But there is room for improvement. I would be thrilled to hear from other deaf/HoH instructors about the strategies used to manage large classes.
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?