Hearing, processing, and mindfulness

anatomy of the human ear
A diagram of the anatomy of the human ear. “Tidens naturlære fig40” by Morten Bisgaard – From the book “Tidens naturlære” 1903 by Poul la Cour. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png#/media/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png

This is a story about hearing and understanding, and it will eventually connect to burnout.

I have been dealing with what I believed to be progressively worsening hearing loss for quite awhile now, over a year, at least. I hear things, but I don’t understand. Everything sounds garbled, or I’ll miss the beginning of a sentence and spend the rest of the sentence trying and failing to catch up. Talking in a place with lots of background noise is the worst. I am constantly asking my wife to repeat herself, which is annoying and tiresome to both of us.

I finally mentioned it to my primary care doctor this summer while consulting him about other matters. He told me he could refer me to get my hearing tested, but unless I was willing to pursue getting hearing aids if indicated, there probably wasn’t much point in getting tested. At that point, I was quite resistant to hearing aids, so I did not ask for that referral. But over this past month, I found myself mentally ready to get hearing aids if it turned out that’s what I needed. My inability to understand people was not just impairing my domestic life, but it was adversely affecting my encounters at the reference desk and in the classroom. I was tired of asking people to repeat themselves, and I was also tired of feeling ashamed that I needed people to repeat themselves, because apparently it’s terrible to need accommodations. Yes, I know how dumb that sounds.

Last week, I returned to my primary care doctor, who referred me to an ENT practice. Today I had my appointment, which consisted of a hearing test with an audiologist and then a consultation with an otolaryngologist. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that I have normal hearing. In fact, the doctor and audiologist both said I had excellent hearing. The achievement addict in me preened a bit at this, of course, and then I was like, wait a minute, what’s going on then? Why am I having such a hard time hearing and understanding things?

It turns out that I have a processing problem, not a hearing problem. I am hearing people just fine when they speak, but my brain is taking longer to process the information, so that’s why it sounds garbled to me, and why I need people to repeat themselves, so I have more time to process and translate the information. My doctor said that the neurons that affect the processing of auditory input can decline over time due to the normal aging process–or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the basic idea.

It was at this point that about eighty million revelatory lights came on in my head. I have always had immense difficulty understanding things like verbal instructions or verbal driving directions. When I’m making group study room reservations over the phone at the reference desk, I die a little on the inside when someone has to spell their name for me, because hearing a word spelled aloud sounds like gobbledygook to me and I usually have to have them repeat it more than once. In fact, despite my excellent vocabulary and spelling skills, I stopped participating in school spelling bees at an early age because I have great difficulty understanding a word when it’s spelled aloud, even if I’m the one doing the spelling. Hearing a word spelled out sounds like hearing a foreign language, or a grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Since nothing is real or true until I can research it, I started googling almost the minute I left the doctor’s office. It turns out that there is a thing called auditory processing disorder, which my doctor did not mention, and I don’t believe I have, because I’ve never had a speech problem, and I definitely have not had any academic problems. However, some of the characteristics strongly resonated with me.

A processing problem like mine is not fixable. This is not something that can be addressed with hearing aids. You just have to adapt. My wife almost seemed kind of excited at the prospect of helping me to develop adaptations to this challenge, which seemed weird at first, but then made sense, since she was born with a visual impairment and was educated at a school for the blind, where one of the main things they teach you is how to cope with a world that was not designed for you. My wife is the Queen of Adaptation ruling over the Kingdom of Making It Work. And looking back, I can see how I’ve developed adaptations to my difficulties over the years. For whatever reason, translating a spelled-aloud word into a typed word is about 10 times harder to me than it is to hand write it. So when I’m talking on the phone to people and they need to spell their name, or an author’s name, I take my hands off the keyboard and try to hand write it.

Another thing the doctor said was that when I miss the beginning of the sentence, I shouldn’t panic and try to figure what I missed, but instead I should pay attention to the rest of the sentence that I’m hearing just fine. If I do the latter, I probably can figure out the part I missed by context. There are some customer service encounters I have where this always happens–why is always so loud in Chipotle?–but if I pay attention and hear BLAH BLAH YOU? I can pretty safely assume that the words I missed were probably “May I,” so I need to not internally freak out so much and just do the best I can with what I do understand.

And isn’t this just like life in general anyway? It is for me. I struggle so hard to just fucking pay attention and sit with the feelings and that I end up not experiencing the actual moment I am in. I have learned and read a lot about mindfulness over the past several years, and it is something I am trying to cultivate, but it is hard. A few weeks ago, I had an especially restful and blissful and pleasant weekend, and I turned to my wife and said aloud, “I am experiencing happiness!” Everything just felt so amazing and perfect that I had to mark it in some way and bask in the loveliness of a fall day, a clear blue sky, a leisurely walk around my neighborhood.

And here’s how I’m connecting this to burnout: for me, responding to and resisting burnout involves mindfulness. It requires intentional, deliberate attention to what brings me pleasure and joy and what makes me feel alive. It was indeed revelatory to learn that I do not have hearing loss, but it was also meaningful to have my problem reframed in a way that made a thousand different kinds of sense. It was helpful to get yet another reminder that the only way I’m going to be able to continue shuffling through this weird life and feel moderately okay doing it is to just pay attention–to listen, to do the best with what I have, to adapt, to be here.

Neutrality Burns–Guest Post by Nina Clements

Note from Maria: I am very excited to publish the first guest post on Academic Library Instruction Burnout. Today’s post comes to you from my friend Nina Clements, who is a reference and instruction librarian outside of Philadelphia, where she lives in a house of books and cats.


 

In addition to struggling with instruction burnout from the grinding machine that is the college semester, I also find myself burned out on particular ideas. For instance, the neutrality of our profession as manifested in the ACRL Standards and the RUSA guidelines. If I believe the personal is political, how can I promise to espouse apolitical neutrality in my working life? Does such a thing even exist? In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks says that it doesn’t. Education is never politically neutral (Teaching to Transgress, 30).

As Lauren Wallis writes in her recent post on silence in libraries, “Whether it takes the form of a database demo or something else (CRAPP test, anyone?), skills-based, apolitical IL instruction silences librarians.” She goes on to explain what it is that we really do in instruction sessions:

“We lecture and demonstrate, we present research as sterile and detached from students’ real lives, we cover so much material that students absorb nothing. We might be talking a lot, but we are silenced because we are not able to truly teach, or to address the complexity of information literacy.”

This resonates with me; I almost never refer to myself as a teacher in library settings. I am an instructor and often provide very sterile instructions: access this course guide here, click there. I try to avoid this, incorporating as much active learning as I possibly can in my plans, but there’s a certain amount of pointing and clicking that seems inescapable. Wallis also notes that “Coming out of silence means we will make some people angry. After all, we’ve convinced everyone we’re just obedient, cheerful helpers.” I’m certainly guilty of this. I project an easy-going, “how-can-I-help-you” persona, even if there are very different thoughts and emotions buried under the surface.

I recently had an interesting discussion with a colleague about the need to meet students where they are, and how this means becoming complicit in the capitalist hegemony and commodification of education. One way I’ve struggled to resist is to avoid the language of capitalism when discussing my work. Instead of “reference transaction,” I refer to it as a conversation or interview. I tell students that we don’t rent books, we loan them, the way a friend might loan them a favorite book. A group of students approached the circulation desk where I spend most of my public service hours (another possible source of burnout, but that’s another post for another time) and mused, “Wouldn’t it be great if the library rented out computers you could use anywhere on campus, not just in the library?” I explained that we don’t rent computers, but we do lend them out, for a week at a time. Their reactions to this were mixed. They were thrilled and excited. Then they asked, “Why didn’t we know about this?” These students were business students, so they also expressed some disappointment that a potential business plan had fallen through for them. “We could have charged a lot of money for this,” they told me. I wish I had said something really pithy at that very teachable moment, but I just explained that libraries aren’t in the business of making money and that the campus library was a large benefit of going to school here. They looked at me like I was crazy. They couldn’t fathom an organization that was not in the business of making money, that was not in business in any recognizable way.

How do we change students’ consumerist ideas about education into something more personally and intellectually transformative? I don’t have an answer to this question, though this problem is not particular to librarians. bell hooks discusses this at length in Teaching to Transgress. She writes, “the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring.…and if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (3). I’m in total agreement, but how can we disrupt students’ notions of consumer-based education in a fifty-minute one-shot session? hooks continues to say that teaching is a performative act, and that is certainly true of library instruction, even if the performance often makes me feel like Vanna White. We are not a spectacle, as instructors/teachers/educators; we are catalysts (11).

Perhaps the fifty-minute one-shot is simply broken; perhaps we are expecting too much of ourselves in our desire to introduce students to library resources while disrupting their thoughts about such resources? To participate in the engaged pedagogy hooks describes, we need to “not merely…share education but…share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (11). But if this is impossible, what are we to do? These one-shots are our homemade bread and vegan butter.

The first step, I think, is to resist this view of education as individuals. Sometimes this means being unpopular or braving conflict even though the library profession as a whole is much more familiar with passive-aggressive strategies. But it is possible to engage in substantive disagreement/conflict while still remaining respectful of the positions/ideas of others. One way to unpack the burnout we feel is to dig a little deeper. Is it the sheer number of sessions that we’re asked to do without input from the teaching faculty, or is it the false construct of neutrality that undergirds these sessions? Is it the repression of the self? It seems that getting to the root of our exhaustion is the first step in understanding and combating it. The second step is reaching out to other librarians and creating space for a larger conversation.