In-person classes heighten age-related hearing problems (opinion)

My family tells me I’m starting to speak louder than I need to around the house.

On my campus, all students are required to be vaccinated or masked. I can hear my students much better than last term, when everyone was masked and practicing social distance.

Today I got several emails alerting me that students are in quarantine or isolation, and that they should contact me about how to make up missed work. Four in-person students stayed after class today. One was having problems using his blog. Two had very good questions about big-picture issues.The final student waited until everyone else left to tell me that she had just put her dog down, and tearfully apologized for not contributing during class as much as she would have liked. (I told her that her contributions were fine today, that the last thing she needed to do was worry about the routine homework that she can make up as soon as she’s up to it, that she should take care of herself.)

I like it when students stay after class to talk. (The students from the next class who were gathering in the hall may have had other opinions.)

The open doors, open windows, and whirring fans add a lot of noise to the mix, complicating these after-class moments when students might expect a bit of privacy, but when my own difficulty hearing makes me instinctively talk louder.

This is certainly why I like moving around a classroom so I can position myself in front of whoever’s talking, and it’s why I feel so disconnected and frustrated at faculty meetings when people aren’t facing me when they talk. (I’d be a happy camper if I never had to attend another in-person committee meeting, ever.)

When I’m teaching a synchronous class that includes both in-person and remote students, it takes a lot of mental effort to switch back and forth between engaging with students whose voices are bouncing naturally and organically off the walls of the classroom, and students whose voices are coming in through my earbuds. At my school, all students are issued MacBooks, so it’s a simple thing to ask the in-person students to join the class Zoom and use their microphones “so that our remote students can hear you.”

At home, if two people are talking to me at the same time from two different directions, my brain just goes haywire. I can recognize who is talking, the emotional tone of their voice, and exactly how many syllables are in each word, but my brain just can’t turn those sounds into recognizable speech.

I used to like breaking students up into small groups and cruising casually through the room, listening in on the various conversations without disrupting them by moving too close and intruding on their time together. When the small group discussion was over, I would usually open things up to a full class discussion, during which I encouraged students to talk to each other, rather than talk directly to me. Once two students decided before class that they would take opposing views on every issue, because they noticed how happy I was when students debated each other. I thought something was up when one of those students was struggling to come up with any evidence to defend the position he was taking, and I realized his smirking buddy had manipulated him into taking an indefensible position. (The trapped student admitted the conspiracy, and we had a good laugh about it.)

Sadly these days I wouldn’t be able to hear students too well if they talked directly to each other, so I’m more likely to give them another prompt to talk about in their small groups. I’ve had to adjust my teaching. I’ve let students know if I ask them to repeat something, it’s probably not because I’m shocked by what they said and I’m daring them to say it again. Even though it doesn’t actually help me to hear much better, I have started doing the “cupped hand behind the ear” gesture as I walk closer to the student, sometimes holding up a finger so that I can move to where I’m standing directly in front of them. This does mean that our conversations are a bit formal, with just one student speaking at a time, and with the students mostly speaking to me.

Teaching is a performative art, and online instruction too often features a talking head addressing comments to thumbnail portraits of students. It just isn’t the same as interacting with people a few feet away.

But as much as I’ve looked forward to teaching in the classroom, one aspect I’ve worried about was oral participation — and not without reason. This time around, I’m straining to hear masked, soft-spoken, socially distanced students speaking against the noise of the beefed-up HVAC system.

I’m not the only anxious one. When I polled other faculty members about this issue via a campus Listserv, I received an overwhelming response. As one professor noted, “I have a slight hearing problem anyway. All this is making it impossible to understand even the ones up front.”

Source: In-person classes heighten age-related hearing problems (opinion)