Susan Naomi Bernstein

Hearing Loss and Listening to Loss in the Basic Writing Classroom

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Apr 9, 2018

Teaching basic writing involves imagining more accessible classrooms for students that account for hearing losses of all kinds. That is, the loss of audible sound, and the signs of loss or trauma that may be inaudible and invisible for us, but not necessarily for our students. What if the seemingly glazed look, the head on the desk, the fingers busily at work on phone screens do not signify boredom or disrespect?  What if we, as teachers, learned to read “inappropriate behaviors” as part of a system of cognitive dissonance, a frustration with the incongruity of home, school, and working lives? What would it mean to think of hearing loss as the absence of audible sound, and also as listening to loss as expressed through audible and inaudible actions of our students?

 

HEARING LOSS: Several years ago  I began to notice the benefits of universal design at conferences that I attended. For instance, I watched emotions unfold on the faces of the sign language interpreters at general sessions and discovered a dimension to language that I had not imagined before. At a meeting of the CCCC Committee on Disability Issues, I learned about CART and felt more relaxed reading the captions. I added closed captions to videos we watched in classes, as well as at home and in the office.

 

Then I noticed in class that the steady hum from the projector seemed to muffle sound in the classroom. Students’ voices grew softer. I wondered if the changes were issues with auditory processing, a difference that can be associated with depression. But rather than self-diagnose, I visited an audiologist who confirmed moderate hearing loss. Universal design and the consciousness around accessibility gleaned from Disability Studies helped to ease the way.  Indeed, this is the purpose of accessibility, to create inclusiveness, to transform the stigma of difference. In a more accessible world, seamless transition is precisely the point.

 

LISTENING TO LOSS: The writing process may involve dealing with emotional self-disclosures that students will rightfully not wish to reveal to teachers or classmates. This semester I am attempting to honor this wish while still offering students access to emotion through other means. In reading and writing about the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, and Terry Tempest Williams, students can identify with the emotions of loss and resilience without having to write about such events in their own lives. At the same time, if students do make the choice to disclose their experiences, they are offered a resonant perspective for comparison and exploration.

 

In practice, writing about “difficult times” often appears as writing that needs more development, specific details, and extended analysis. After reading through a recent round of rough drafts, I composed a letter to students that offered suggestions for riding out the storm. Here is a key recommendation:

Be as specific as possible throughout the essay. Rather than saying “times are difficult,” mention specific events that SHOW your perspective on why times are difficult. Here are some examples (insert your own experience or opinion in place of these statements, and of course, as ever, only what you feel comfortable sharing):

    • Tornado drills and school lockdowns made me feel unsafe in the classroom.
    • The startling differences between the troubles of Oakland, California, and the fantastic beauty of the uncolonized nation of Wakanda, moved me to tears. Throughout the second half of Black Panther, I wept openly.
    • The #metoo movement helped me to better understand my own situation because so many people openly discussed pain that had once been silenced.

 

I invited students to consider my “English teacher” style as an example and not as a model, further suggesting that students explore their own styles of academic writing. In discovering how our style grows and changes over time and through particular genres, we also can gain access to hearing our own loss.

 

By hearing the losses of others, we bear compassionate witness to experience in the lives of students and colleagues, no matter how different those lives may seem from our own. In recognizing hearing loss, I gain new perspective on the lives I encounter, moving closer to softer voices, and learning along with students to be as specific as possible to carry the weight of difficult times.

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