Tacenda, or Speaking the Unhearable

How do I say the unhearable? One of the few essential informants of my deepest, dailiest life is a relationship to hearing and deafness that very few people share.

How few? Fewer than you mean when you say “few people.” Fewer than I mean when I’m talking about anything else. I was a hearing child, a hard-of-hearing adolescent, a late-deafened adult, and am now a cochlear implant user. I’ve done some time guinea-pigging for scientists, and they tell me that my CI results fall in the top 2% of CI users – that is, with a CI processor on, I hear damn well.

The figure of total CI recipients, world-wide, is about 325,000 now. Results, as they say, vary. Two percent 325,000 is 6,500. I don’t know how many of these people have my history of “normal” hearing, hearing loss, and late-deafness, before high-end CI results. About 11 years for each phase, rounded. So in terms of direct sensory experience of the major sense that defines one’s social existence, across this whole range of deafness and hearing, I share that experience with – let’s round it up to – 7,000 people in human history. Using this estimate of the number of people who have ever been born, that’s .0000065% of human beings.

That few. I know a few of them. There is much in life that one cannot discuss intelligibly without a common frame of reference. And in certain respects, my typical experience isn’t in anybody else’s frame. I could talk about it, but nobody knows how to hear it. Usually, I don’t want to put myself through the emotional wringer of others who mistake their misunderstanding for knowledge.

So I’m stepping out on the limb here, a little bit. I’m doing it because this past week stirred up several media swirls that directly touch on this part of my being.

Last weekend, the hashtag #academicableism emerged on Twitter, initiated by @zaranosaur. Most of the contributors seemed to be current students, who were speaking to the exclusions they routinely encounter in academic life. Readings these, participating in the discussion, was a heartening agony.

When I was a student, I didn’t talk about any of this. I don’t mean that I suppressed a desire to speak, and felt silenced. It never occurred to me to talk about this stuff. If it had, there wasn’t anyone to speak to. I mean that last part literally, in the proper old sense of “literally”: my college and grad school had no disability services when I was a student. I recall some conversations with university staff in which I brought up my deafness, but these episodes either didn’t take the form of accommodating me as a student, or they occurred with someone who lacked the power to effect accommodation.

In college, my hearing loss was in the severe range, and it crossed a jagged line into profound about half way through grad school. I used hearing aids and FM devices (big clunky things back in the late ‘80s & early ‘90s). As I write this, I’m still feeling extreme reluctance to say much publicly, so I’m going to use the unfortunate short-hand of grades: I can point to places on my undergraduate transcript where my grade represent what I didn’t hear, not what I learned. Yes, I asked professors for what I didn’t even know at the time to call access. Didn’t get it in college. So in grad school, I never asked. The only dip on my graduate transcript came in a term when a dear friend died. Here the gap between grades and lived experience opens wide and deep: through eight years of grad school, I “heard” class discussions only in fragments, and responded only when I thought I understood well enough. I missed almost all of the social life of graduate students, nor did I realize then how much connections with one’s peers, or the lack thereof, forms later professional experience. Again, I’m going short on detail here because my throat clamps up as I write this. There’s too much to say, and I’m not sure I want to risk it.

I was deaf before I became an academic. As an academic with a CI, I’m still deaf. Yes, I have substantial hearing function from the implant, for which I am amazed and grateful. But my CI doesn’t make me un-deaf now, and it certainly doesn’t change the past. Nor can a CI do anything to change systemic injustice against deaf people, inside or outside academe. My experience of academe, from grad school till today, is a deaf person’s. When I bring this to the attention of others, that fact is sometimes trivialized, but it is not trivial. Sometimes I prefer invisibility to undergoing trivialization.

Every discussion I’m part of, as an academic, is intimately conditioned by this fact, whether my colleagues and students realize it or not. Usually, not. For instance, I grimace at discussions of the academic market that assume, usually tacitly, that systemic injustice in academe sprang fully formed from the head of 2008. But that’s not today’s ball of wax.

In #AcademicAbleism, I saw common experience as I never had it in my student years. Yet the very ability to speak about it – in public, even with the sometimes-necessary cloak of anonymity – seemed like a great boon. Who were these kids (yes, you all look young to me) who just assumed the right to speak in a public forum? Who supposed that redress was possible and just? Amazing. Painful. As my complex and difficult emotional response to the hashtag was still formulating itself for a post, another media wave crashed over my head: the viral video of Joanne Milne’s hookup and the ensuing critique on the interwebs, with posts by Lilit Marcus and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke. So I foolishly posted these to my Facebook timeline, thus prompting a discussion thread I later deleted. It was just too – so let me try again.

Read Blankmeyer Burke’s post for an excellent discussion of why these videos are problematic in how they represent deafness. She also digs into the gender tropes, an important piece of intersectionality.

I’m taking a different tack here: this video genre is also problematic in how it represents CI-hearing. The whole trope of “deaf person hears” invites the hearing person (the implied audience, and the vast majority of the actual audience) to equate the CI user’s experience with hearing as hearing people know it. And it’s not.

My hearing isn’t your hearing. No one can ever perceive the qualia of another’s sensory experience. But some of us have more sensory experience in common than others. When I see those videos, I remember my own hookup and the first sounds. It’s a bleeping bubbling delightful mess. Sometimes, it’s speech discrimination too. Point is, the CI, especially at hookup, is a distinctive sensation, neither hearing nor deafness. I have never seen a hookup video that attempted to do justice to this basic fact.

I’m not talking about the acoustic performance of the implant – which is damned impressive these days. Here was the pitfall that I found too painful on Facebook: we can’t reduce all discussion of the implant to the question of the device works. It works, and there is also much more to say. Acknowledging the complexity of experience, or expressing frustration when this complexity is silenced, is not an attack on the CI itself.

So what’s missing? I mean something simpler, just what it sounds like, especially at first. I also mean something that acknowledges the temporal nature of our being: what does the CI sound like, at first, to someone who has been profoundly deaf for let’s-say ten years. Acoustically, emotionally, it’s not a restoration to a status quo ante surditatem. It’s a new thing, another phase, an alternate universe of sensation. Also, how it sounds at first isn’t how it’s going to sound in a few weeks, much less years, later. Natural hearing doesn’t change like this over time. It changes, but not like this. Others have pointed out the absence of narrative from these videos, and I agree with that point. Sensory experience integrated with time would be one facet of such a narrative. But we won’t find it here. We won’t even find its absence acknowledged.

You want to know how I feel, right? It varies. Sometimes I tear up at these videos, although I did not get weepy at my own hookup. (Cue gender tropes.) I notice how the deaf person is situated in space, vis-à-vis the hearing people: does she have good sight lines, or are backs turned, and if so, whose? Sometimes I’m paying more attention to the hearing people than to the deaf one: what emotions are on their faces, how are they narrating this event to themselves, and what is the gap (but I know) between their own narration and the deaf person’s internal narration? Sometimes I’m distracted by camera jolts or the audiologist’s hair-do. Over a year ago, my cousin posted his own hookup video, at which he said to the audiologist, “What, I’m supposed to make sense of this shit?” – Hilarious and very him. Since then, hookup videos always remind me of this line, precisely because I know what it sounds like, but I had a very different emotional response to it. In short, my attention isn’t structured by the deaf-person-hears narrative.

Just a disclaimer: I don’t think the blog discussion of these films is about the CI itself. The device really does work, if we define that as “provide better speech discrimination than someone would have otherwise.” That’s an amazing feat of bioengineering, and it should not be distorted or sniffed at. However.

I resist the over-simplification of deafness that occurs when it is coded as brokenness that needs fixing by corporate medicine. I resist the over-simplification of hearing as merely a sense, with no attention to Hearing as ideology (see Teresa on this). I resist the over-simplification of CI use as “hearing,” in either sensory or ideological terms. Functionally, it is, and that’s great – but there is so much more to talk about that should not be passed over as not worth discussing.

Finally, I’m all too aware that these videos serve up a deaf person’s experience for the consumption of a hearing audience that will, in all probability, never have, and can’t really imagine the sensory experience represented. Yes, I know about those  clips you can find online that purport to show how a CI sounds. (Start at 3:15 for the CI simulations.) I know some of the scientists who made the clips. (Hi, Michael.) But I’ve listened to these, and they don’t sound like how I hear, either now or when I was first turned on.

The functional quality of a device and lived experience of its users, from the physical sensations and demands, to our subjectivities over time, to how we ascribe meaning to our implants – these are not the same things, and the latter cannot and should not be reduced to the former. Yeah, it works damn well for me. I love this machine. But it’s not the hearing I lost, and it’s not your hearing. It’s something else that has not been named, much less adequately articulated.

Even if I could describe it well, how would anyone who doesn’t hear what I hear know what I’m talking about? There is way too much to say, and it is all unhearable.

Misfits in MOOCland

I had already framed the story: the professor who had enough background and put in the effort, who failed a MOOC. I relished that story. No such luck. Much to my surprise, I passed.

As much as enjoyed the songwriting MOOC, I found myself a mis-fit for the course and the format. Let me count the ways.

First: This genre just isn’t me. Most popular songs are about the romantic or sexual lives of teens and twentysomethings. Here, I don’t mean pop as the subgenre, but music produced for mass consumption via radio, internet samplings, and large sales volume. Songs that narrate some arc of this circle make up the largest piece of popular pie: I want you; now we’re together and it’s great; now we’re broken up, and that’s bad or good, depending on who dumped whom. That’s about it.

I have no interest in writing on that topic. The implicit self of that narrative arc is just not me, or any persona I can muster.

Second: I can’t sing, and we had sing. The course information said that singing ability wasn’t required, but that wasn’t quite true. You have to understand: I don’t mean that I have poor vocal quality, although this is also true. I mean that I can’t match pitches to an instrument or another voice. I can’t even sing a single pitch, any pitch, forget about matching, for the duration of one damn quarter note. Never mind why, if there’s a reason, and please don’t encourage. I can’t flap my wings and fly, either, but I muddle through.

Now the course was not about singing. However, about half way through, we had to submit our assignments in the form of uploaded tracks of ourselves singing what we had written. Most people, I gather, did as recommended, and recorded themselves over ready-made loops provided by the instructor. But we were free to choose other means of recording, including composing our own music and accompanying ourselves on an instrument.

I wanted to write my own music, to dig into that task. Also, I thought that composing would be easier than learning Garage Band on a tight schedule. This was superficially true. So I composed at the piano, in pencil on manuscript paper.

But how to record myself? The first time, I just chanted over the metronome and recorded to an mp3 file. For the final assignment, I played my chord progression into Garage Band, and then recorded myself “singing” over it.

Third: the limitations of peer-grading. I failed every assignment from the third one on. One of these was our second full verse, full chorus assignment, in which my peer comments included several “corrections” that were themselves mistakes. (Incorrect rhyme identification, failure to understand that stability and instability are partly relative, etc.) From the fourth assignment on, we had to make the singing tracks.

Yes, back to “singing.” I could write lyrics and set phrases into the musical structure according to the rubrics. But I could not sing what I had written. I’m not talking about pitches, which are out of the question. I mean that I can’t sing my own rhythmic intensions. And doing that was, unlike accurate pitch, necessary to show if one had fulfilled the assignment. So doing the assignment required me to be able to do something else that wasn’t the assignment, but on which basis others would assess whether I had done the assignment. (There was no way of uploading sheet music – which I circumvented in the final assignment by temporarily posting the sheet music to this blog, and linking it. And then I’m assuming that others can read music, which also wasn’t required.)

Here was my frustrated Inner Student griping: if they say it doesn’t matter, it really shouldn’t matter. We should be able to submit sheet music, or there should be synthetic voice software that can sing from an e-score. Maybe there is, and you just don’t know how to find it. I asked friends, and no one knew. Is this something everyone else but me (and my friends) knows? Or maybe there is no such thing yet. (Imagine all-synthetic music, including vocals: ick. We’re close enough to that already.) It’s a really simple thing to be able to sing in rhythm. You wrote the damn rhythm, and the words. But I can’t do it. I would have to practice a lot more, and I can’t take that time away from work and sleep. These are basic skills, you should work more on them. But I would need more time, and these skills are related, but not necessary, to my being able to write a song. These assignments require things they don’t say are required.

All assignments do that. Said the Inner Professor. There’s no way to write an assignment without assuming something, and no way to teach a class without assuming something. Even MOOCs have to assume something. I realized that I felt (part of) the frustration of a student who finds herself lacking unstated background knowledge – and I felt crappy about it.

Crappy, lost, having to waste time attending to extraneous tasks because those skills weren’t even supposed to be tasks anymore.

This happens in real classes. It happens in mine. I have taught classes where the reading, writing, and thinking skills of the group varied from about seventh grade to seventeenth (by my own reckoning). Yes, ideally, the range would be narrower. Often it isn’t. So what do we do? My current approach is design courses flexibly so that some tailoring is built in, and more tailoring can be done in consultation with the students. The goal is that everyone who works at it improves from where he or she starts out – and that everyone has to put in some effort. Yes, it takes time. It takes attention. And I actually have to know the students. Even in classes where the prior preparation and ability range is more focused, each student has the potential to benefit most if this dialogue can unfold – unfold with an instructor, someone who can assess quickly and then focus the student were the most growth is likely to occur.

Brings me back to peer-grading and its central problem: who is grading the graders? How does anyone know if the peer-grader has the skills to perceive key elements of others’ work? In one songwriting assignment – on phrase setting on or off the downbeat to achieve different effects – the peer-grader would have to be able to perceive the downbeat itself, and its relation to the verbal stress. In fact, there had been a quiz calling for just this skill. (I aced it.) People who may not have that skill were scoring the work of others. It seems to me that peer-grading in MOOCs has to rely on graders whose fitness to assess specific tasks has not itself been assessed.

As MOOCs progress, I wonder what will win in the end. Students being students, when will they realize that they could all just give each other As? Maybe the best thing to do with pseudo-assessment is to turn it into mutual back-scratching. Then again, the internet being the internet, MOOC grading could turn into a troll-infested comments section with the super-density of black holes. In neither case do we know if anyone has learned anything. But in both cases, the owners of the big data generated by all this activity – they still win.

Song of MOOCs and Grades

In January, I signed up for a MOOC. Given the extreme burdens of my recent work, the timing was lousy. What was I thinking?

I have followed MOOC news for the past two years and been active in Twitter discussions of venture capital’s latest attempt to abolish the professoriate. (I strongly recommend the blogs by Jonathan Reese and Tressie McMillam Cottom on this and related topics.) But I felt that my ability to critique was limited without direct acquaintance with the beast – a scruple that doesn’t seem to trouble billionaires who don’t know which end of a university is up. My one previous attempt, last spring, foundered on the shoals of professional duties. This time, I meant to finish.

So I picked the Songwriting course offered by Pat Pattison of Berklee on one of the major platforms. It fit the bill: a humanities-arts course for which I had some background but which would also be challenging. I’m a poet with extensive formal training in English and an amateur pianist. I have not attempted to write a song since I was a guitar-playing 12-year-old with no knowledge of music theory, so I didn’t have a head start on songwriting itself. Also, the course focused strongly on lyric-writing; musical composition wasn’t even required. Old skills, new form. A good combination.

I viewed every lecture, consulted recommended resources, participated in the boards, aced all of the quizzes, and completed five out of six assignments for peer review (lowest score dropped, so the 0 disappears). I enjoyed Pattison’s presentation and yes, learned from it. He avoided stumping for MOOCs themselves, offered useful nuts-and-bolts approaches to lyric-writing, and drew some insightful parallels between poetics and musical structure. In short, I worked. I had fun.

I am probably going to fail. But I get ahead of myself.

I was especially curious about how the peer-grading worked – I wanted to feel that from the student’s end. As a professor, I find it frustrating how much students focus on the grade instead of the learning, to the point of seeing learning as incidental. I can remember my growing, dumbstruck awareness, early in my career, that what students wanted from me were grades. Good ones, ideally, but often just lots of them.

This MOOC’s peer review took the following form. Each week, we had a writing assignment that focused on specific elements of lyric prosody – e.g. developing a structure that goes somewhere, use of line lengths, types and use of rhyme, and similar. The rubrics were clearly written and directly correlated with the assignment instructions. Did the work use the strategies taught to create stability? Were important ideas highlighted by structural elements? And so on. Each week, after submitting my work, I then received five anonymous assignments to score. Every scoring rubric had a field in which one could write comments to the other student. A few hours after those scores were due, everyone’s results would be available.

On the first two assignments, my peers, whoever they were, scored me very high. This, I felt, demonstrated my ability to write for a rubric. Not that it was that mechanical. In the first week, I made a list of song ideas – could only come up with three – and then I would just use whichever idea best lent itself to that week’s rubric. In my reviews of others, five per week, I saw a wide range of ability to follow instructions. I’ve been teaching too long for that to surprise me.

Anyone I reviewed got way more than they paid for.

By the second week, people who were mad about their peer grades started posting complaints. Some would post their whole assignment, with the reviewer’s scoring and comments, and then append point-by-point rebuttals of the grade. I hadn’t thought about how the online format would make it easier to complain about grades. The comments to such posts contained a mixture of encouragement and agreement with the refuted reviewers.

These had me laughing out loud – inadvertent entertainment! – until I began to feel voyeuristic: I was watching students gripe about grades. Except they weren’t complaining about or to a professor, they were debating with anonymous “peers.” I use the scare quotes because the concept of peer came under attack. Some people felt they were being graded by people who knew less than they did. This is, at least some of the time, true. But this is what we signed up for – didn’t people know this going in?

What did they want?

Many of the complainers wanted the professor or teaching staff to grade them. You know, ‘cause those people know more about the subject than the rest of us do. This desire both heartened and appalled me – heartened because it showed an understanding that an expert can assess work far better than another random student. Appalled because, evidently, expert attention should be free to any and all comers.

The grade-complaint threads amused me until I started getting failing scores on my weekly assignments. Oh, I was still writing to the rubrics. I’m not sure why my scores were suddenly so low – and then I got to feel the temptation to make a score-refutation post. Of course, I resisted, since doing that suggested that something was at stake. Nothing was.

I’ll indulge slightly here, to a point. In one assignment, we had to mark the natural spoken stresses in our lyrics. Now I can out-scan my thousands and tens of thousands. Yet one reviewer’s sole comment was that I should have marked stressed syllables with / and unstressed with – . I had done that. Did my marks not appear in his/her/their browser? Did the “peer” get the natural stresses backwards? Or what? I don’t know, and I can’t find out. Most of my reviewers left no comments.

Since my plummet from As to Fs – I never received any intermediate score on a peer reviewed assignment – occurred when I chose to write more complex language, and continued as we had to record ourselves singing our work, I suspect that my combination of linguistic ability and truly abysmal singing turned people off. (We were instructed not to judge the lyrics by singing quality, but that’s another post.)

The point: when grading is de-coupled not just from expertise, but also from the possibility of dialogue, the student has little means for understanding why a score was low or high. Posting work and reviews to the forums doesn’t solve this problem because the forum commenters didn’t give the scores. They are trying to read the minds of anonymous others.

Pattison and the staff responded on forums to some of this grousing. The purpose of peer review, said the staff, was to help the student doing the reviewing, not the student reviewed. Reviewing others’ work makes us see our own differently. OK. But why then give me the score? If we’re really trying to learn to perceive elements of lyrics, then we need to practice on that – and be assessed on our ability to do so by someone who knows how. That is, if the assessment matters for anything. But maybe it doesn’t.

Last year, I remarked in a Tweet that you can’t mass-scale human attention. I’ll riff on this from other angles in future posts, but here I want to apply this to that activity called grading, marking, assessment. Whatever. In a credentialing system, the letter or number is the end, and any performances (student’s or instructor’s) simply a means to it. Pretty soon software will be able to do a plausible simulation of grading at far faster rates than I can. Hell, if the point is grades, we could write a very simple code that will just spit out a number at the push of a button. So if producing grades is the real point, let’s ‘fess up to that and write that little code.

But if we want to teach and learn, we have to respond to student work. Responding is a broad activity; it requires time, attention, and is inherently dialogic. I respond to students when I speak to what they have spoken in class, when I ask for justification or consideration of alternatives. I respond when I write comments on their writing, addressing their arguments, organization, style, ideas – their sense of what’s important and why. Sometimes, in consultations, students realize for the first time what they actually said when I read a sentence or two back to them – because when they were writing, they did not attend to their own thoughts and language. Most of them don’t know how. That’s one of the things I try to teach them, and the effort embeds the deeper lesson that thoughts and language – including their own – are worth somebody’s attention. The whole testing regime does not send, indeed suppresses, that message: your thoughts and language and character, even, are worth another human being’s attention.

My piano teacher doesn’t grade me. She responds in ways that help me improve as a musician – if I attend to her attention. To work, this must be reciprocal. That cannot be mass scaled, unbundled, or outsourced to software, without first abandoning the purpose of instruction. I wouldn’t trade her response for a piece of paper with a letter or number on it.

The real work of teaching lies in the response, after the student has attempted something. The opening move, the delivery – the rhetoric of which is highly variable and grossly undervalued – is not the whole of it, or even the main thing. Part of the work of learning lies in the response to the response, something that the finality of the grade doesn’t easily allow except in the form of complaint.

Overall, I enjoyed the songwriting course. For a well-educated person who wants to dabble, to refresh, or to supplement private training, MOOCs can be fun. I have had a hell of a year since this one started (long story), and the songwriting course was my one little oasis for six weeks. But let’s not pretend that what I was able to learn is unrelated to decades of formal instruction in English and classics; reams of reading, memorization, recitation, and performance; and the attention of human beings who were more advanced in these arts than I.

Let’s also not pretend that what I learned has anything to do with my grade. I aced the online quizzes, and flunked the peer reviews as soon as we had to write more than simple sentences. I expect to fail this course.


See also:

Jonathan Rees on Peer Grading

Rees’s IHE article on same

and while I was preparing the post, Slate ran this article about who takes MOOCs