Mush-Mouthed Professors

by Tina Blue
October 10, 2004

          Last week I attended a one-hour meeting at the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) here at Kansas University.  Usually I avoid such meetings, even when they cover topics that interest me, because I know I will not be able to understand most of what is said. But the topic of this meeting (how to reduce the amount of time it takes to mark assignments) was interesting enough that I could not resist giving it a try.

          There were perhaps 15 of us at this meeting, seated at tables arranged in a square so we were all facing each other over a space in the center.  The woman leading the meeting was a professor from the Speech-Hearing-Language department here at KU.

          I had not known in advance that this would be the case, so I was very interested when she passed out copies of the assignment response we would be looking at during the meeting.

          The assignment was to write a reaction paper in response to an experiential assignment regularly given to people who will work with deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) students. The graduate students involved in the assignment were told to simulate a hearing loss by wearing hearing protection for four consecutive hours so that they would experience a moderate high frequency hearing loss.

          As I read the paper, I chuckled quietly to myself.  The student who had written it was astonished at how hard it was to manage at all in the most common language situations.  (Her experience is so fascinating to read that I plan to get permission if I can to reproduce the paper in its entirety for this website.)

          One thing she commented on was how hard it was to follow the conversation when she went out to lunch with four of her closest female friends [emphasis added]:

Improve Your English Grammar with WhiteSmoke
      . . . Because I wanted to see how my friends would react to my "hearing loss," I made the decision not to tell them that I was wearing hearing protection.  After we sat down at the table, I noticed that I was having a hard time distinguishing what they were saying and that I was relying heavily upon speechreading techniques to understand much of the conversation.  I was able to hear my friends speaking, but their words had a very muffled quality, especially my friend Alissa, who has a very quiet voice. . . .

       I was surprised by how quickly I became frustrated and how impatient I became with not being able to clearly understand what my friends were saying at the table.  On multiple occasions I had to ask my friends to repeat some of the things they had said, which was especially difficult if someone was in the middle of telling a story.

       After a while, I became more of an onlooker as opposed to a participant in the conversation because it was effortful to try and keep up with what was being said.  About thirty minutes into lunch, my friends began to notice that I was being quieter than normal and they asked me what was wrong. . . .
      Now, understand that this meeting at the CTE was not about the substance of the paper, but about the techniques the professor had used to evaluate the paper (and others like it).  But by the time the discussion began, we had all just finished reading this essay about how hard it is to follow conversation when you are HoH.

          The woman doing the presentation was, of course, a professor in the Speech-Language-Hearing department. She has the habit of projecting her voice and speaking in a way that HoH people find easier to understand than the speech of most people. Therefore, I was able to understand most of what she said, missing points only when she turned her head too far toward the opposite side of the table.

          But strain though I might, with my hand cupped behind my ear, hearing aids turned up full blast, I couldn't understand one single word that most of the other people said.  There were two people directly across from me whom I could understand occasionally--maybe two or three words in a row sometimes, but mainly by reading their lips, not by hearing what they were saying. And even they spoke too rapidly for me to understand much through reading their lips.

          Then, about ten minutes into the discussion, the woman sitting to my left looked startled, touched her finger to her chest, and said, "Me?" 

          And then the woman sitting directly across from us, one of the two whose words I occasionally caught by way of lipreading, said, "No, her," and pointed at me.

          I said, "I'm sorry. I am very hard of hearing, and I have no idea what you have been saying." All heads turned in my direction, and all faces registered surprise. 

          The woman had recognized me and asked, "Aren't you in the English department, too?" (I know, because the woman to my left repeated her words to me as soon as I said I couldn't understand.) I had not recognized the other woman. She is a graduate student in my department, and because of my hearing impairment I am not social enough to bother meeting most of the new people as they come and go over the years.

          I answered her, and then, with the woman sitting next to me relaying her words to me, I answered her questions about grading that she had wanted to put to me.

          Then the discussion proceeded as before, with no one at all, including the woman from the English department, bothering to face me or speak up even slightly to help me follow the discussion. The presenter did make a special effort from that point on to make sure she faced in my direction while speaking, but no one else did, and several mumbled and swallowed their words in such a way that I am willing to bet that even the "hearies" sitting around the table had trouble understanding some of them.

          After the meeting I gave the presenter the URL for this website.  I also told her that just because no one has self-identified as HoH in those other people's classrooms, that doesn't mean that they don't have HoH students.  When I was in college I sat front and center to follow as much as I could, but I never self-identified to a professor, and whenever my professors turned around or wandered around the classroom, I lost whatever they were saying. 

          It didn't bother me much, because I was an unusual student.  In fact, I actually cut most of my classes because they moved too slowly and it was more efficient to study the material on m own and then write the papers or take the tests.  Back when I was an undergraduate (1968-1972) most teachers didn't bother to take attendance, and as long as I could do the work at an A-level, the teachers were perfectly willing to give me A's.

          But frustration with the slowness of the classes was only one of the reasons why I seldom attended.  Another was the fact that I often couldn't understand what the professor was saying.  Back then my hearing loss wasn't all that pronounced, so I am quite sure that people with normal hearing in the back of the room were not hearing the professors any better than I was.

          I told the presenter at the meeting that other professors needed to understand that they probably have at least a few HoH students in every class, especially now when so many students have already damaged their hearing with loud music at concerts or dance clubs or blasted into their ears through headphones. And the chances that those students will identify themselves as being HoH are very slim.  (In fact, some of them might not even realize it themselves!) Teachers at all levels need to understand that when they are teaching, they are in a sense "on stage," and they need to project their voices just as actors do, or else they can just forget about reaching the students in the back.

          But there is something about professors that seems to make most of them mumblers. I honestly believe that as a whole, professors are the most mush-mouthed people I have ever been around. 

          I won't be returning to the CTE, no matter how tempting the discussion topic looks.  I know that the other people at the table will not make any effort to project their voices for someone like me. 

          I bet they don't project in class, either.

          And I bet they also don't have a clue about why they cannot hold their students' attention.

back to homepage
back to article index