Lawyers and a disability rights advocate stressed that faculty members must be proactive rather than reactive in making sure their online courses and materials are accessible for students with disabilities.
My younger brother celebrated his first birthday at a campus protest. It was 1988, and my Mom, a Gallaudet University graduate, had been following the growing student movement to demand a deaf president at her alma mater. She couldn’t stand being 400 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y. So never mind that my youngest brother was still nursing. She took him with her, and joined the Deaf President Now movement.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the movement. But I can’t remember not knowing I. King Jordan -- the president whose appointment was the result of that movement -- as a symbol of what was possible for me. My mother told me stories, and I grew up with Gallaudet. There was no other university for me. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be born deaf, and the third to attend Gallaudet.
I’m a senior so I should have been spending this week celebrating (when not studying for my last round of finals). Instead I’ve been protesting, with hundreds of my fellow students, over the appointment of Jordan’s successor. It’s difficult to explain to the outside world just what we’re doing, and granted it’s difficult to understand. After all, the trustees picked a deaf woman, who has spent much of her career at Gallaudet. What’s all the fuss about?
To best understand what’s happening now, you need to know that the Gallaudet I grew up with is not the Gallaudet I am graduating from. Whereas going to Gallaudet and demanding a deaf president were once part of simply affirming our pride in ourselves and our right to basic human needs, students want more today. In fact, some deaf students don’t even want to attend Gallaudet or the deaf high schools most of us attended because a range of opportunities are now available elsewhere. Many of those opportunities exist because of civil rights laws for people with disabilities -- laws the Deaf President Now movement had a hand in getting enacted.
But that doesn’t mean Gallaudet’s historic role isn’t part of why people care so much. The university matters to the millions of deaf people around the world who have never visited it, who can only dream of enrolling in what is widely considered the “Deaf Mecca.” That’s no surprise when you consider that more than 80 percent of all deaf people in the world who have college degrees earned them at Gallaudet. Because of the hereditary link to some forms of deafness, many deaf people are like me, from deaf families, allowing us to share a passion that comes when so many of those you are closest to grew up with the same experience.
Jordan isn’t just a college president, but is a spokesman for deaf men and women around the world. The board that needed to be pressured into promoting him never assigned him that role, but it came about naturally because of the Deaf President Now movement. When he announced his retirement after 18 years, word shot around the globe in minutes. Everybody wanted a say in who is going to replace King, the man who lived up to his name.
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
When the board selected Jordan in 1988, students were thrilled that a deaf educator got the job. But the reality is that they didn’t know what kind of president he’d become. My mother took his psychology class in 1973, and could never fathom him becoming president some day. Fortunately, Jordan did just the kinds of things that presidents are expected to do (and that people previously assumed deaf people couldn’t do): He raised money, he oversaw huge endowment growth, he presided over the planning of new facilities, he dealt with campus controversies -- making both popular and unpopular decisions. In the end though, he was as good as advertised. Jordan’s tenure as president will always be marked by the history made with his appointment, but it also is marked by normalcy – by Jordan doing what presidents do.
And that’s what people are missing about the protests this week. They aren’t about us reliving Deaf President Now, trying to get our 15 minutes. The protests are about concerns we have that are just like those of other students at other campuses. On many campuses these days, students feel disconnected from trustees and from decision-making, and that -- in the end -- is what’s going on here. Jane Fernandes, whom the board selected as president, has served as provost for the last six years. There are no doubt better candidates for the position in our eyes. But what truly is upsetting is that students weren’t listened to at all. We were stunned by the decision -- and started the protests -- because an extensive system had been set up to seek our views, and we provided them. Then we were ignored. Sadly, the trustees’ willingness to only pay lip service to student opinions is not at all unique to our university.
Part of what is unique to Gallaudet is the role of its president well beyond its campus. When Lawrence Summers said some foolish things about women, he didn’t bring down the reputation of all colleges and universities. People said Harvard had a bad president, they didn’t stop paying attention to academe. One of the reasons we are concerned about Fernandes (who is not a bad person) is that she’s an administrator, not a leader. We don’t have the luxury of just going with someone who knows how to balance a budget -- we need more. We need someone who -- like Jordan -- knows everyone on campus and their families, and who can be eloquent with the media, politicians, and philanthropists. Someone who can navigate the tough issues we face – of how to attract students and define our institution’s mission in an ever changing world. In an era when people talk about “cures” for deafness, when deaf students can demand sign interpreters to go to any institution, when technology has created huge new opportunities for the deaf, Gallaudet is at a turning point.
And here too, what we want now is different from what Deaf President Now was pushing for. After 1988, we told ourselves that Gallaudet would never again see a hearing president, and only now are we able to affirm that sentiment. But with the advances of the last 18 years, deafness alone isn’t enough. We want the same kind of “good fit” that all colleges need in a president. And to say that we should be happy to have a deaf president is insulting. If Harvard makes a bad choice for president and students protest, you won’t see people saying, “Well they should just be happy that the president can hear.” Actually I’d like to see our provost considered for a presidency elsewhere, where her particular skill set would be a better fit. And I’d be proud of her for achieving such a high post in a hearing world.
Those still trying to make sense of our protests should understand that what is happening is part of a broader social movement. Gallaudet is a microcosm of colleges everywhere, where students are growing increasingly tired of being ignored. (Just witness students forcing change at the University of Miami over how their janitors are treated or at many institutions over investment in Sudan.) Keep in mind that this isn’t just Gallaudet. But the source of our passion?
It is Gallaudet.
Anthony Mowl graduates from Gallaudet University this month with a degree in English. He is the former editor in chief of The Buff and Blue, the student paper.
An undergraduate student in my sophomore-level course has been periodically checking in with me during the semester about her class work. When she received a failing grade on her last out-of-class essay, she e-mailed me a complaint. I indicated that the paper had been a 70 percent or a C before I had to grade it down for being more than 500 words short of the required length -- in effect, her work had shown improvement, if only she had followed the minimum word or page count as indicated on the syllabus. Frustrated, she responded that she didn't know how to make her essay longer. I made a few suggestions, indicating that this was what we had been going over in class during these last six or eight weeks, and asked her to meet with me in person for help and clarification.
When she met me in my office the next day, she launched into a long list of vague complaints: that she should be doing better, that she'd gotten better than a C in high school, that a lot of what I was teaching seemed too difficult, and that she didn't see how her work was not a B level. When I asked her to be specific, she pulled out her last out-of-class essay, pointed to one of my comments and asked, "So, what's a single, unified, 'open' thesis statement?"
Dumbfounded, I realized that my student hadn't been able to comprehend simple, core concepts that had been reviewed many, many times in this course not only through lecture, but also with hands-on exercises that incorporated immediate feedback and a chance to rewrite. In theory, students were also required to understand this core concept as well as others in order to be passed in the course that preceded mine.
After explaining the concepts behind my comments, I gently asked, "Have you ever been tested for a learning disability?" Shocked, she mumbled something about never having such a difficult instructor before and that she didn't see why she would need to be tested. I replied, "Well, it just seems smart to rule out that possibility so we can focus on alternate methods to help you get this information more thoroughly." Listless, she folded up her paper, stuffed it into her backpack and mumbled something about having another appointment.
That evening, I received an e-mail message from the student, indicating that she had consulted a lawyer. Her reasons? Not only was I too hard in grading her work, but I had also insulted her by asking if she'd ever been tested for a learning disability.
I started to collect information about the process of referral to find that there is an interesting "gray area" that not only puts our professors at risk, but leave students who are suffering with undiagnosed disabilities in a state of confusion, unable to get help.
In short, although my university has many, many clear policies and procedures about what to do once a student has declared him or herself disabled, there are absolutely no guidelines for instructors who believe they might have a student in their classroom who exhibits signs of a learning disability.
In the case of my sophomore student, although she was passing with a C, she had always performed poorly in the classroom. Sometimes late, she always seemed disorganized and unable to collect her thoughts. The few times I called on her, she responded, "I don't know" -- no matter how many times I restated or simplified the question. Even if the textbook was in front of her, her eyes did not seem to focus on the area that we were studying, even if I held up my book up to the class with the area in question highlighted. During group work, she seemed to "ride on" other students' well thought out ideas-her participation limited to off-topic comments and whispered conversations about her personal life.
I wish I had linked these behaviors in my mind and alerted her sooner to the possibility of an undiagnosed learning disorder. I think I was distracted by her visits to my office; this seemed to indicate motivation on her part. If I had been sharper, or better trained in recognizing learning disabilities, I might have realized that professor-student conferences motivated by poor grades do not rule out underlying problems. Although it is heartening that this student could sense that she was not doing as well as she wanted, I hadn't yet been able to see that her inability to recognize areas that needed improvement and take suggestion was crippling her academic progress.
Her papers also fell short in every area: mechanics, structure, content and logic. No matter how much she revised these essays, her ability to produce sound writing was never realized. And with a university with very low admissions standards, a large percentage of my undergraduates equate time with grades. The ones who are willing to make the effort to improve their work often feel frustrated. Even when they spend hours reworking a major project, their final grade may not rate an A. In an instructor's mind, it simply is not A level work. At times I wonder if the high schools here are rewarding students for effort more so than the final product. Students coming out of these weak systems often think, "lots of effort equals an A" -- no matter how much their final work produced falls short of the grading rubric outlined and reviewed in core classes.
I sometimes combat this by making past student work available for current classes (with permission from the original authors, of course). Students are often shocked to see what garners an A or B in my course. Faced with an example that is far superior to their own work, they realize that the rubric does apply to their work-and the less than perfect grades are not to punish, but to motivate them to learn techniques and apply concepts that we've worked on all semester to produce a better end result.
After talking with my department chair, head of disabilities, compliance officer for the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the student's academic advisor, I've been told that as long as my intent was to help the student, I'm not at risk -- and the university will support my concern as stated. There is, however, an interesting implication here. I suppose that somewhere, at some college, a professor has referred a student to the disabilities office with the hope of pressuring the student to withdraw his or her request for a grade review -- but I have a difficult time imagining this. The idea that a professor would take something as difficult (and potentially embarrassing for the student) and use it against a student is shocking. I am hoping that my university is simply trying to avoid litigation and that this stance is not based on experience.
I will say that once identified, every university and community college I have worked for has done a wonderful job of supporting disabled students. After receiving documentation from the disabilities office on how to accommodate a student, I, like my colleagues, have always complied with enthusiasm. In one case, a student with low-vision needed to work at a front desk and used special lenses to see; I included her in projects without making her the topic of conversation. In one case, a student needed to bring her seeing-eye dog in class. Not only did I resist petting or distracting her service animal, but also made sure that she received all class lecture notes and learning materials in a format that she could review after class. We also scheduled a series of in-person consultations so she could review concepts integral to her success.
This semester, I have two students with learning disabilities in one of my sophomore-level English composition class. So that they are not "identified" in class as different, I not only make assignments available outside of class, but have created a two-tier system for specific work. They start timed writing assignments in class, I collect them as I do all student work, and then bring their materials to a private room in our academic skills center for completion. In some cases, they opt simply to do work privately outside the classroom, but this technique allows them to work alongside other students while in class. As they hand in materials, they enjoy swapping good-hearted complaints with other students, knowing that they will not be identified as "different" or "special" -- and know that their learning difficulty will not penalize their success in the class.
I recognize that some students feel stigmatized by their learning disability. Last year, I received a call from the father of a freshman student who was having difficulty in my class. Although I could not give his parent any information about his progress, the father shared with me that his son had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder -- which explained the 20-year-old's inability to focus in class, his tardiness, and ultimately his lack of attendance during the midterm.
I told the father that if his son could contact the disabilities office on campus, I could do much to him succeed in my course. When he indicated that his son was embarrassed to go to the disabilities office on campus, I suggested that the student simply bring me a letter from a doctor indicating his condition and what accommodations needed to be made. With the parade of students passing by my podium with excuses, questions and written notes from doctors and dentists, this would hardly be out of place. I even offered my address and e-mail information in case the student wanted the doctor to contact me directly. Still, the son resisted.
During a private professor-student conference in my office, the student simply told me that he couldn't deal with his disability. He hated being different. Even worse, he hated being treated differently in or outside of class. It was a heartbreaking case for everyone involved. In the end, I had to record a failing grade for this student. His father later called and thanked me for my efforts. I couldn't help but feel that I needed to do more.
I recently completed an online course on identifying different forms of disabilities. After reading through pages of information and examples, I finished a post-test to see what I had retained. Although I scored above 95 percent, I realized that on-paper learning and the ability to put into practice what I found out will be the real test. My hope is that I'll continue to make it possible for students with learning disabilities to succeed without making them feel plucked out of the crowd. And in a perfect world, the campuses where I work will help me draw the line between waiting for a student to identify a possible disability when it may be too late to recapture the learning experience, and the time when it may be appropriate for me to gently ask a leading question-with the intention of doing all I can to insure success not only in my course, but courses to come.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
I am not a psychologist or otherwise qualified to say for certain that “Fred,” the name I am using as a pseudonym for one of my students, has Asperger Syndrome. He never identified himself as such, or sought any accommodation. I have not even been a teacher that long, having recently become an assistant professor after a 30-year career in the business world. Before meeting Fred, I had, however, read media coverage of the seemingly swift rise in the reported incidence of autism-related disorders, including the controversy over whether the phenomenon was related to childhood vaccinations. After meeting Fred, I took it upon myself to do some reading. From that reading, and from my four months of interaction with Fred, I feel comfortable that my lay diagnosis has at least some accuracy.
I completely miss the first clue that something is different about "Fred" during the first class of the semester in an undergraduate business school class: the white mesh gloves he wears throughout class. I do not even notice when he comes up after class and fires off several questions. He is a bulky young man, in his 20s, with shaggy light brown hair and wearing all gray including a gray ski jacket.
I do take notice the very next day, however, when I log on to the Blackboard site for the class and see that a student has sent me five or six e-mail messages in rapid succession following class the evening before. I usually receive only one or two e-mail messages a day from students for this class, and rarely so early in the semester and not related to an examination.
I answer the first two or so questions, with responses like "no, but see page __ of the textbook." By the third question, however, I respond back, "Fred, you can get the answers to these questions yourself by reading the book and you should not be sending me questions unless you cannot find the answer there." His response: a quiet, "OK."
That same day, I start some research. First, I consult my department chair, who refers me to a seasoned professor in the same department. He tells me that Fred had enrolled 10 years or so before, and is coded “SP” rather than "FR”, “SO”, “JR” or “SR.” Several weeks later, I would use online faculty resources to check Fred’s record myself and see that “SP” apparently stands for “Special Non-degree Low GPA.” My colleague volunteers that the university likely would not admit someone like Fred today, referring him instead to a community college. My department colleague also tells me that Fred has taken my course before. That night, thinking that Fred seems to fit the profile of someone with autism and Asperger Syndrome, I start surfing the Web for information on those topics.
The next day is an office hours day. As an adjunct professor, I hold my office hours in the student lounge, bustling with other students, and located at the entrance of the school. Fred is waiting for me and holds the front door open for me. His gloved hand holds a print-out of the first class’s slides, about 15 pages’ worth. While normally such a stack of paper might be about 1/16-inch thick, Fred’s stack is a fluffy one-inch tall, full of pencil marks and several highlight colors and obviously well-thumbed.
Fred wants to review most of the slides but mainly wants me to repeat back to him the points made in the slides. I recall the word I had learned from my Internet surfing on Aspergers the night before: “echolaic.” Several times, he says things like, “I already knew that.” If he ever makes eye contact with me, I do not see it.
During this first “office” visit, Fred is clearly pleased with the results of the online extra credit assessment for the first chapter. In an effort to encourage students to review course material immediately after class, I make available on Blackboard, for 48 hours after each class, an online test consisting of five true-false or multiple choice questions on the chapter just completed. If every single extra credit assessment is taken and every single question answered correctly, a student can raise his or her final grade by ten percentage points. The catch is that a student must attend at least 75 percent of the classes to get the credit.
Fred has gotten four out of five correct on the first assessment and wants to make sure that I know that. I say, “Good work!.” His response is no response – he just moves on to his next clarifying question. After 30 minutes or so, I tell him I think we are done and that others ought to have a chance to ask questions. He looks quickly around the room to see if anyone else from the class is waiting, and quickly jumps up and says “OK.” I notice in class that evening that he has not signed the seating chart I pass around, but had sat in the same seat as he had in the first class: front left corner several seats removed from the next student.
In the weekend following the first class I do more reading, including checking out of the library Ann Palmer’s Realizing the College Dream with Autism or Asperger Syndrome (2006). This is an excellent resource for confirming Fred’s symptoms but is clearly aimed more at parents than teachers. One helpful anecdote is the author describing how her son, who is autistic, had received a D+ in a college course for which he needed to earn at least a C-. The professor had turned down a request for extra credit because the student seemed disinterested during the course term.
Fred asks one question after the next class. His reaction to my answer is that he “already knew that.” Coincidentally, after that same class another student hands me an official disability accommodation form, advising me that she might need to get up and leave during classes, might need more time to take exams and might need a peer note-taker. I wonder if Fred would benefit from such accommodations.
Fred sends off three e-mail questions after class, either not requiring a response or at most requiring a response of “That’s right.”
During office hours that week, he finds me quickly and we review the class slides. Taking a verbal cue from me that we were about done after reviewing each and every slide, he quickly stands up and leaves the table. Later, I pass him in the computer lab, ski jacketed and gloved, staring at the next class’s slides just a few inches from the PC monitor.
In the previous two weeks, I had posted my class slides on Blackboard several days in advance. I fail to get the slides up by 24 hours before a class this week, however, and Fred calls that to my attention by e-mail. He also wants me to recognize that he had scored a 100 percent on an extra credit assessment.
I am not able to have in-person office hours this week, so I experiment with the real-time “Chatboard” feature of Blackboard. There is only one student online, Fred.
This is the week of the first exam. Fred has more than his usual four or five e-mail messages that week in advance of the exam, asking questions like “What do I need to know about…?”
After the exam, for which I use a Scantron form, I can pick Fred’s form out of the other forms even if he had not put his name it, because he has darkened the answer bubbles with ferocity. With trepidation, I immediately run the forms through the scoring machine after class. My heart sinks when his form zips through with a score of 66.
During office hours in the student lounge, Fred is not the first to see me. However, after spending 30 minutes or so with two other students I notice out of the corner of my eye that he is sitting behind me about two feet away, and facing away, listening intently to my conversations with the other students. When it is Fred’s turn, he wants to review his exam. He is clearly disappointed in his results, but brightens when I note that he has gotten all of the questions right on a particular topic. I ask him what he had done differently on that chapter, and he seems puzzled. Still, it gives me something positive to talk about with him.
It is shortly after this session that I notice that his student record has a notation of “Low GPA.”
Weeks Seven and Eight
I am still receiving about 15 e-mails per week from Fred. Most do not require a response, or are in the nature of “What do I need to know about….” He does not participate in the second Chatboard substitute for office hours.
Fred greets me at the front door of the school for office hours this week, immediately before the second exam, but tells me that he does not have any questions for me “right away.” He sits a few feet away from me while I talk to other students. I notice that he is reading a review book for the professional examination offered in the subject of the course, in preparation for the second exam.
I am relieved to see that he scores a 74 on the second exam. Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not miss the same questions most often missed by the other students. Even as a new teacher, I know how predictable it is that the same questions will be missed most often, even in different classes taking the same exam. When I do not have the results posted as quickly as I did for the first exam, Fred asks me via e-mail when I will have them posted.
After the results are posted, Fred immediately advises me that his average is now a 70, and asks me what he can be doing over Spring break to prepare for the classes after the break. This saddens me to think that he does not see the vacation as a respite but rather as an annoying deviation in routine.
I read Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, a Ph.D in animal science, who is autistic but also a recognized expert on livestock behavior and facility design. I wonder if my use of pictures and other visuals are helpful to Fred. Grandin’s book is inspirational but a bit depressing in its coverage of most of the author’s experiences as a student.
Fred sends me a reminder e-mail that the slides for a particular class are not ready when they normally are. During office hours, he sits close by while I talk to a spirited student about a wide variety of topics some of which are not related to the class. He pronounces the student preceding him a “piece of work." He also is perplexed by a prior class’s discussion involving a gay man serving as a dressing room attendant at a women’s undergarment apparel chain. I detect both some hostility as well as puzzlement.
In e-mails, Fred seems to challenge the answers to several of the extra credit assessments that he gets wrong. He defiantly asks how he was “supposed to know” the meaning of a word (“adjudicate”) that I had not defined. I wonder what the reason for his irritability is.
I get a reminder from Fred when I am late in posting class slides, although one other student also does so. He scores a 100 percent on an extra credit assessment and I say “Great work!” in an e-mail to him. During office hours, he asks me if on the final exam I will test on a concept that is taught at the post-bachelor degree level only, and I say simply, “No," and he moves on. Mentally, I am trying to remember the concept myself.
Last Week of Class and Final Exam
Fred has his usual questions during office hours, based on well-worn copies of class slides. He tells me that he has gone to a government agency Web site to do his own reading, even though I had never suggested doing so. He also tells me that his “advisor” had given him a particular piece of advice about test-taking. Intrigued, I ask him the name of his advisor. I consider calling the advisor, but decide to wait to see what Fred’s final grade turns out to be. I look him up and see that he is a “general studies” advisor.
I am out of town for the final exam, given in the late afternoon during finals week, and have it proctored by a student assistant. At 8:44 am the following morning I have an e-mail from Fred asking me when the results of the exam will be available.
After returning from out of town, I gather up the exams and head toward the Scantron machine, with Fred’s grade top of mind. Again, I notice that his form is heavily marked. I am somewhat relieved to see that his score is 75. I head to my office to see how the math works out after taking into account his 7.9 extra credit assessment points. With those points, Fred’s final grade works out to be … 80, a B.
Lessons Learned and Observations – About Fred
Asperger individuals often are sensitive to touch and wear loose-fitting clothing. Fred never did take off his gloves or jacket in my presence.
Fred did not tolerate changes in routine, including last-minute posting of class slides, another classic Asperger symptom.
He did not want confrontation, even if his tone or behavior might indicate otherwise.
Fred wanted to be treated like every other student. Hence, my decisions not to ask him if he has Asperger and never to let on to him that I knew this was his second shot at the course were probably wise decisions.
Fred never indicated that he “thought in pictures” or otherwise relied on my pictures and other visuals to remember the material. During office hours, however, he did recall my examples used during class.
The extra credit assessments were a benefit to Fred, I believe. He could take them anonymously immediately after class (indeed, I suspect he raced to the computer lab immediately after class, because he never asked another question following class, after the second class). He scored better on these exams than he did on the regular exams, thereby boosting his grade from a C to a B. The exams’ immediate testing of materials covered just hours or even minutes before might have appealed to his desire to echo back what he has learned.
Individuals like Fred crave clarification. His questions constantly sought the key to his knowing the right answers. Even his last e-mail to me upon reading his final grade and my congratulatory note revealed his desire for certainty: “It looks like I got 75% on exam 3 and a B for the class?” My response: “That’s correct – good work! ”
And one more thing: Fred had perfect attendance.
Lessons Learned and Observations – About the Teacher
My experience demonstrated several limitations we as teachers face with learning disabled students: lack of knowledge about the disability itself; restraints arising from privacy rules; and lack of time to fully meet the student’s needs.
Fred’s failure to self-identify his condition put me in an uncomfortable box: Asking him about his situation would mean offending him and violating his privacy, but not asking him would also mean not being able to direct him resources that might help him.
We all must make adjustments for our students’ particular needs in each class. Just as an eager non-English speaking student in the front row makes us realize that we cannot use too many colloquialisms and local examples, so too did I realize that much of what Fred needed was simple repetition of key concepts.
If the incidence of autism is indeed rising, all college teachers might need to learn to make adjustments for these students, who undoubtedly will seek higher education.
Stephen A. Yoder
Stephen A. Yoder is an assistant professor at a research university.
After years of successful teaching, early neurosensory hearing loss (late-40s rather than mid-60s) inherited from my mother gradually worsened for me, to the point that I couldn’t hear my students in class discussions, even with high quality digital and programmable hearing aids and a small, quiet seminar room with acoustical tile and carpeting. Professors with hearing loss more severe than mine teach successfully with lectures, using hearing aids and various strategies to ensure that student questions are heard and answered. But in my writing and freshman core courses, lecture isn’t an option; discussion is a primary means for students to gain a deeper understanding of the material. However, discussion situations of any kind (professional, social, family) present the most difficult challenges to me or anyone else with any degree of hearing loss or hearing disability. I’d sought expert advice from audiologists, searched for classrooms with the best acoustics and most flexible seating arrangements, and changed how I led discussions, but the problem persisted. Last semester I experimented in my two sections of Lewis & Clark College’s core freshman humanities course with using a “sound-field system” (an FM system that distributes sound evenly throughout the room) to amplify everyone’s speech, my own included. If it hadn’t worked, I would have had to give up. Fortunately it did.
In one sense the story could end here, with a recommendation that teachers -- and not just aging baby boomers -- get their hearing checked. (Experts estimate that 1 in 10 people of all ages suffer from significant hearing loss, frequently undiagnosed, with little-known side-effects, including isolation, anxiety, irritation, fatigue, depression.) But solving my problem, it turned out, is only part of this story, because along the way my students and I discovered an unexpected bonus that has implications for every classroom: their learning was amplified, along with my -- and their -- hearing.
This is how we worked and what we learned. At the start of the semester, along with the syllabus, I handed out a letter explaining why and how we were going to use two hand-held microphones to amplify all speech. I asked students to read the letter carefully and write to me about comments, questions, and concerns. I was apprehensive about their response to being asked to take on an extra challenge in their first semester, but I needn’t have been. Some students admitted to being nervous about using the microphones (including students who confessed that they were shy about speaking in class in general). Several mentioned close relatives with hearing loss; none mentioned their own. A couple of students expressed concern about germs. But they seemed genuinely willing to try this experiment we were taking on together.
Before each class meeting, as students took their seats around a rectangular seminar table, I set up the system and wiped down the mics with anti-bacterial wipes, which I kept handy so anyone could reach for them at anytime. I handed one mic to a student on the other side of the table and used the other to open class. After the introduction I passed my mic to the first person wishing to speak on my side of the table, while the other mic was put into play on the other side. Usually I stood throughout class for two reasons: It enabled me to position myself quickly to be able to see the speaker’s face, making it possible for me to speech-read, and it also helped me to move the mics around a little more quickly. Sometimes I inserted a comment of my own as I passed the mic; sometimes I just facilitated getting it swiftly to the next speaker.
A week into the semester my pleasure in teaching -- along with my sense of confidence, competence, and well-being -- began to return. I could hear without strain and fatigue, and the quality of class discussions seemed strong. Students seemed to listen and focus, and even build on others’ contributions. But since I had been struggling so long in hard to follow discussions, I didn’t entirely trust my perceptions. So I invited the director of the core program to sit in, and he confirmed my impressions that the process was indeed working well.
Then, as the semester progressed, I began to get unexpected feedback from students who stopped after class to talk. At first they usually just commented on their way out the door that, to their surprise, they liked using the mics, some of them admitting they’d had concerns at the start. Then one day a couple of students lingered longer. One told me that until this course she had never voluntarily talked in class because she found it so hard to fight her way into a discussion, and once she did, no one listened because they were thinking of what they were going to say next. Her friend nodded and added that she didn’t talk in other classes. A few days later a student who was less confident of her speaking skills because she had learned English as a second language in elementary school, told me she was especially grateful because she felt she could follow the discussion so much better than in other discussion classes; another time she told me she felt “smarter” on the mic because she was listening to what she was saying. She was not alone with these reflections. Over the semester it became more and more clear that the mics had become a catalyst for a striking mindfulness; individual students were reflecting meta-cognitively about their own learning, and about how to contribute to good discussions as speaker and listener. The mics provided a feedback loop that helped students to monitor themselves and others as speakers and listeners, and behave (individually and together) in ways they felt made good, focused, productive discussions possible. I joked with them that my colleagues would be jealous.
Such conversations confirmed my own sense that students were unusually attentive: listening to each other with real care, making extremely thoughtful and increasingly articulate contributions, often building on what others had said, or referring to a previous point. I, along with other teachers, have worked hard for years to help students develop just such skills. It isn’t easy, especially in an era when TV and radio talk shows provide models of “lively” discussions in which interruption, rudeness, and talking over others is the norm, and in which careful listening that results in probing an idea or interpretation, and checking it against evidence, gets lost.
One day before class a couple of students started talking about how they were finding it difficult to follow discussions in other classes. Everyone talks at once, and talks over each other, they complained, adding that they thought no one could really hear, and they were lost. In mid and end of semester evaluations students picked up this comparison indirectly, noting that with amplification there are “no outbursts before someone else has finished their thought,” and “it keeps people from blurting things out,” and “we all really listen to whoever is speaking and the mics promote a respectful and organized environment.”
Students listened to each other and themselves differently: “I’m more aware of what I’m saying,” wrote one; “You need to think about what you’ll say instead of speaking mindlessly”; “I can hear myself think, so I find myself articulating my thoughts better,” noted others. The student who learned English in elementary school, who signed her name on the anonymous evaluation, wrote: “My ideas became more eloquent and elaborate.... I understand/ hear things better. I actually believe it helps me learn better by allowing me to think more clearly. I really wish my other classes had them too.”
Of course, there is always trouble in paradise. A few students wrote at the end of the semester that, “It scares me away from participating,” and “They are intimidating.” It would be interesting to know what helped the following student move from intimidation to empowerment: “At first, the mic was intimidating, but now I see it as empowering. People have to listen to me when I’m on the mic.” Shyness, feelings of intimidation, fear, and anxiety are of course common when learning something new, especially among college freshmen. It was striking, however, how many students who thought of themselves as reluctant to speak in class, talked about how speaking on the mic changed this because they felt powerful: People were listening.
The most frequent complaint centered on the slower pace of discussion. I’d anticipated this problem and was concerned about the possibility that students would be resentful or impatient. I also knew that slower speech is itself helpful to someone with hearing loss, often as much or more so than increased volume. (In fact, the boost in volume needed is modest, and not uncomfortably loud for those with normal hearing; the increased intelligibility, for me and students, comes from adjusting the upper frequencies to sharpen the soft consonant sounds [s,f, t, th] crucial for distinguishing between words.) But it is interesting, however, that comments about the slower pace was not all negative. One student noted “the delay between speakers provides time for contemplation.” And my favorite: “The mics definitely focus the class on one person’s ideas and help prevent people from talking over each other. The delay between raising my hand and receiving the microphone gives me time to properly compose my thoughts before sharing them.” Even students who complained about the slow pace frequently added that they liked the mics; several suggested solving the problem by putting a third mic into circulation.
These benefits, in one sense, aren’t surprising. There is strong evidence from elementary school studies that increasing intelligibility by amplifying the teacher’s voice -- first done to assist hearing impaired students -- increases the learning of all students. These studies indicate that test scores of all students go up; behavior problems go down; teachers need to repeat themselves less frequently; and teacher voice strain and fatigue decreases. ESL students test scores also improve significantly, and some studies find that ADHD students have fewer problems. The evidence is so convincing that school systems are increasingly installing sound-field distribution systems; last fall, the Salem, Oregon system installed them in all elementary school classrooms. Studies of the upper grades and college years show similar positive results.
All these studies, however, assess classes in which only the teacher’s voice is amplified. I am unaware of research on classes that use amplification as we did, in discussion classes, where students learn from each other, not just from the teacher, and where amplification simultaneously enhances learning of content and the habits and practices and appreciation of productive discussions. Last but not least, amplification seemed to activate many students’ reflective and meta-cognitive capacities, giving them a concomitant sense of power and control in relation to their own learning.
This experiment began as an effort to solve problems presented by my hearing disability well enough for me to be able to continue teaching productively. A happy byproduct of success in that area is the discovery that people with and without hearing loss benefit from such amplification in discussion settings. An even happier one is that the ability to listen, focus and hear others better, and to become mindful of habits and practices that make good discussion possible, seemed to feel intrinsically rewarding to students. As one student put it: “Everyone listens to each other and [we] work harder to discuss constructively versus arguing. There is more a sense of communal cooperative learning.”