Tag Archives: hard of hearing faculty

Profile: Dr. Stephanie W. Cawthon

A smiling white woman with straight, shoulder length brown hair. She is wearing a pink top and dark blazer, and a delicate chain around her neck.
  • Current title: Professor 
  • Location: The University of Texas at Austin, USA 
  • Field(s) of expertise: Education and Disability Equity
  • Years of experience in academia (since start of PhD): 24 years
  • Website: stephaniecawthon.com       
  • Twitter: @swcawthon

Where did you go to school?

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.

Teaching (very) large classes

-Ana

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.

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?