Tag Archives: disability

Academic Mix Tape (Mixed Again and Again)

Leaving academe as a breakup song – I remember it well. Last weekend, @kelly_j_baker started a Twitter hashtag on this premise. I tossed in one or two, but felt out of place. Or out of time: my academic soundtrack, including breakups, spans nearly two decades. I’m also tenured now, and thus perhaps an unwanted interloper in conversations among academics who have not found a place in academe and must leave. I never expected to have the place I now hold – the time I spent unemployed, on part-time contracts, and on full-time annual contracts still exceeds my time on tenure track and tenured.

I stopped for a few minutes there, running through the unpacking those last two sentences need. But I get choked up thinking about it. Literally, literally. My throat constricts. Maybe the #academicmixtape concept will let me string together the key moments and moods, if not the full narrative. Every track is a song that I listened to at its moment, repetitively, craving the meaning it might yield if I squeezed hard enough. Yeah, I know many of these are sappy sentimental. Tough shit.

Track 1: John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels” – 1997

With no job for the coming year, I move back to New Orleans to live with the parental units. I’m burnt out on academe and eager to focus on the literary writing I had neglected while finishing my dissertation. Academe’s a game. Real writing comes from watching shadows on the wall.

Wheels within wheels. Whiff of Ezekiel, whacked by God into either muteness or a speech that no one could hear properly.

Track 2: Elaine Page, “Memory” – 1998

Still unemployed, a year after leaving Chicago. I have a little musical Renaissance – start piano lessons, take a music theory course at UNO, and try a little community ed singing class. The singing teacher assigned “Memory.” I had never heard it before. Actually, we could debate whether I hear it now, since I was quite deaf at the time. Still, it sticks in my Chicago-besotted head. There I am, walking through the parking lot by UNO’s Performing Arts Center, looking up at the stars and missing another lifetime.

Note: The song’s blend of standard Broadway sentiment with the language of T. S. Eliot gives me whiplash. Then again, my brain is filled with such strange bedfellows.

Also, I can’t sing.

Track 3: Neil Diamond, “Love on the Rocks” – 1999-2000

In 1999, I start a half-time, semester-contract job, and keep looking for tenure-track jobs. Or at least full-time academic jobs. But in my first week of teaching, I cannot hear well enough to respond to students. This changes everything. The question is no longer, can I find a real gig, but can I teach at all? Not really. So what else could I do – bearing in mind that I would be doing whatever it was as my deaf self, which preceded my barely socialized academic self, and would follow it too? Of course, I’m not listening to the song so much as to my auditory memory of it. Memory can be louder and clearer than reality.

(I have an I’m-quitting letter that I wrote to both of my Doktorväter around this time. A recent Twitter discussion stirred that memory, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. The Twitter discussion assumed this would be a conversation, an assumption that puzzled me. Were all those people still in the same cities as their grad schools, that they could drop in on their advisors? Or – what, phone calls? I couldn’t use phones. Seriously, people, you had these conversations face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice? Does no one write letters anymore?)

Anyway, I didn’t quote “Love on the Rocks” in the letter, but I listened to it often as an academic break up song. No apologies here for the sappy side of my taste: listen to that chorus. There’s real wisdom for leaving academe. When you know there’s nothing you can say, you stop trying to say anything, and just go.

Track 4: Frank Sinatra, “Send in the Clowns” – 2002

May 2001: cochlear implant surgery. I did not do this to save my academic career. I did it so that I could move on, leave the limbo of half-time contracts and the fruitless annual cycle of academic job searches. In the months that follow, I glut on music – old music I can now hear again and far better than before, new music that I could never have parsed on my powerful hearing aids. This is the Year of Sinatra for me, and also a year of love songs. Sheer infatuation with sound.

Of all the new songs that year, this is the only one I connect with academe: the out-of-sync partners, will-they-or-won’t-they, can anyone tell where this is going if anyone even wants to? And is it just too late? I try to get back in the game, but no one was there. I’m now on a full-time contract, after two and a half years half-time, but this is still limbo. I dig into publication, teaching, and applications for tenure-track jobs. It was several more years before it really sunk in: at the point when I could hear again, I was stale, past the expiration date. There was no way, was never any way, that I could go on the job market as a fresh PhD who could also hear.

Certain consonant sounds occur in the higher frequencies. In a progressive hearing loss, they’re the first to go. For me, they were the longest gone, the sounds I had not heard in 20 years: v, f, s. On my recording, Sinatra really drags out the lines.

Don’t you llllovvve ffffarccce? Enter clowns.

Track 5: Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed” – 2006

The department tried repeatedly to get my position converted to tenure-track. I tried continuously to land other jobs. Pointless all. After the destruction of New Orleans in August 2005, academe was chaff to me. Even my own bitterness at it was chaff.

In that year that started with a grief so large that it’s off the scale of the standard Life-Stress Inventory, I am told in February that the provost’s previous Nos to the conversion of my position didn’t just mean Not Now, they meant Not Ever. Word comes down in the clearest possible terms not to ask again. My job search was then in its eleventh year.

I used to care.

Track 6: James Darren, “Here’s to the Losers” – 2010

In 2006, I began looking for support positions in universities – what’s now called alt-ac, but we didn’t have a name for it then. Applied for over two years, had many phone or video-chat interviews, even one campus visit. No offers.

Summer ’07. I’m at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, with a manuscript of poems about New Orleans, my troubled relationship to it and its imago, pre-K and post-K stuff. Day 2 or something, and I’m checking email at the library. From my chair: admin converted me to tenure-track. I think he’s joking. That was my reply: “Are you joking?”

I know a few of the details leading up to the decision, but these don’t amount to an explanation. If anyone does know why, she or he has not told me. I was sure of one thing: my merit, whatever that means, was not the reason. Yes, I believe I deserved it; I just don’t think that my deserving it is the reason why it happened. Nor was my lack of merit the reason why it didn’t happen for so long. This should not be true, but it is.

I first heard “Here’s to the Losers” on Deep Space Nine – one of my grad school shows, my favorite Trek – sung by James Darren. During my post-CI music glut, I found a CD Darren had made in ’99, with all of his Vic Fontaine songs. This was my favorite, and I revisited it often over these years. In most of those listenings, I imagined it as an anthem for those academe spat out, who lurked on the margins, who were never in the right place at the right time. Who did the work but were never wanted. In other words, me.

I don’t consciously associate the song with tenure. However, when I compiled this list a few days ago, I looked on my iPod for my seasonal playlist the year I was tenured. There it was.

Just to be clear: I do not hear this as an affirmation that academic things will work out academically. Often they don’t. Or if they do in a superficial sense, the reality that lies beneath may be quite strange and incommensurable with standard scripts. Since I left Chicago in ’97, the greatest joys and the greatest griefs of my life have had nothing to do with academe, or with any reaction against it.

Bless them all.

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.

Not Motley in My Brain

On the rare occasions when I have been on flat land with no body of water near, I panic. It feels like a trap, all that uniform land. I’m from New Orleans. The coast, the swamp, the ambiguities of deep interface, lie deep in me. Unlike the water table. That’s very close to the surface.

Academic writing can too easily resemble an expanse of flat land: far from the margins and mixtures that make anything productive possible, it has been buffered, separated, marked out in plots, accessed by paved roads. Or at least, I try to make mine look that way. That’s as it should be, perhaps must be. Flat interiors have their place in the global ecology. But sometimes, for me, it induces panic. Where is the source?

For years, I thought of my literary writing – poetry and other sorts, not nearly enough or as good as I’d like – as a fundamentally different kind of work than academic writing. The processes seemed different in development, execution, and purpose. That much is true. But I overlooked an underlying similarity: the origins. Other than set pieces, every work I do starts with a collision of divers elements, a strong emotional reaction to the collision, and a need to work my response into words – and from there, into some insight that could be offered to others. Literary and academic work differ primarily in the last two phases, but not much in the first two. A collision of life-altering proportions led to my main scholarly project, not that I say so in the articles or book. Books. Working on the plural. Still – I wear not doctoral gowns in my brain. Writing, music, deafness, these all came before the academic role.

This process happens far more often than I do anything about it. That’s not to say that every such moment and its reflections must be put into words. Culling is an underrated art these days. Nevertheless, some of my culling occurs simply because the collision doesn’t fit anywhere. Someone’s story moves me and evokes a bit of Renaissance drama, and I write a poem. A post-modern literary theorist (tautology?) prompts insight into ancient religious texts, and I do a conference paper. As in metathesis reactions, things change places, but within a stable basic structure. Usually one thing precipitates out.

And then there are islands, with their windy sides and marshy sides, where everything is a border. Given the particulars of my life, the flora and fauna and fantasies include a library, strange bodies, cathode-ray visions, music, religions, speculative worlds, animals, and a college or something like one. That is, I’ll write about literature, disability, television and film, music, science fiction, cats and maybe some dogs, and education.  Yes, I left out religion in the second list. I won’t always leave it out. I’m a scholar of religion on the mainland, but I write from the island, the place of un-disciplined fecundity that underlies more socialized projects.

This blog is my island – the coastline, the estuary, the overlapping phases of elements, states, life-forms – or, in temporal terms, my native carnival. I want to write from the hypnagogia of thought, the place of juxtapositions that have no other place.