Is it possible to teach evolutionary biology “sensitively”?

Michael Reiss, a professor of science education at University College London and an Anglican Priest, suggests that “we need to rethink the way we teach evolution” largely because conventional approaches can be unduly confrontational and “force religious children to choose between their faith and evolution” or to result in students who”refuse to engage with a lesson.” He suggests that a better strategy would be akin to those use to teach a range of “sensitive” subjects “such as sex, pornography, ethnicity, religion, death studies, terrorism, and others” and could “help some students to consider evolution as a possibility who would otherwise not do so.” [link to his original essay and a previous post on teaching evolution: Go ahead and teach the controversy].

There is no doubt that an effective teacher attempts to present materials sensitively; it is the rare person who will listen to someone who “teaches” ideas in a hostile, alienating, or condescending manner. That said, it can be difficult to avoid the disturbing implications of scientific ideas, implications that can be a barrier to their acceptance. The scientific conclusion that males and females are different but basically the same can upset people on various sides of the theo-political spectrum. 

In point of fact an effective teacher, a teacher who encourages students to question their long held, or perhaps better put, familial or community beliefs, can cause serious social push-back  – Trouble with a capital T.  It is difficult to imagine a more effective teacher than Socrates (~470-399 BCE). Socrates “was found guilty of ‘impiety’ and ‘corrupting the young’, sentenced to death” in part because he was an effective teacher (see Socrates was guilty as charged).  In a religious and political context, challenging accepted Truths (again with a capital T) can be a crime.  In Socrates’ case”Athenians probably genuinely felt that undesirables in their midst had offended Zeus and his fellow deities,” and that, “Socrates, an unconventional thinker who questioned the legitimacy and authority of many of the accepted gods, fitted that bill.”  

So we need to ask of scientists and science instructors, does the presentation of a scientific, that is, a naturalistic and non-supernatural, perspective in and of itself represent an insensitivity to those with a super-natural belief system. Here it is worth noting a point made by the philosopher John Gray, that such systems extend beyond those based on a belief in god(s); they include those who believe, with apocalyptic certainty, in any of a number of Truths, ranging from the triumph of a master race, the forced sterilization of the unfit, the dictatorship of the proletariat, to history’s end in a glorious capitalist and technological utopia. Is a science or science instruction that is “sensitive” to, that is, uncritical of or upsetting to those who hold such beliefs, possible? 

My original impression is that one’s answer to this question is likely to be determined by whether one considers science a path to Truth, with a purposeful capital T, or rather that the goal of scientists is to build a working understanding of the world around and within us.  Working scientists, and particularly biologists who must daily confront the implications of apparently un-intelligent designed organisms (due to ways evolution works) are well aware that absolute certainty is counterproductive. Nevertheless, the proven explanatory and technological power of the scientific enterprise cannot help but reinforce the strong impression that there is some deep link between scientific ideas and the way the world really works.  And while some scientists have advocated unscientific speculations (think multiverses and cosmic consciousness), the truth, with a small t, of scientific thinking is all around us.  

Photograph of the Milky Way by Tim Carl photography, used by permission 

 A science-based appreciation of the unimaginable size and age of the universe, taken together with compelling evidence for the relatively recent appearance of humans (Homo sapiens from their metazoan, vertebrate, tetrapod, mammalian, and primate ancestors) cannot help but impact our thinking as to our significance in the grand scheme of things (assuming that there is such a, possibly ineffable, plan)(1). The demonstrably random processes of mutation and the generally ruthless logic by which organisms survive, reproduce, and evolve, can lead even the most optimistic to question whether existence has any real meaning.  

Consider, as an example, the potential implications of the progress being made in terms of computer-based artificial intelligence, together with advances in our understanding of the molecular and cellular connection networks that underlie human consciousness and self-consciousness. It is a small step to conclude, implicitly or explicitly, that humans (and all other organisms with a nervous system) are “just” wet machines that can (and perhaps should) be controlled and manipulated. The premise, the “self-evident truth”, that humans should be valued in and of themselves, and that their rights should be respected (2) is eroded by the ability of machines to perform what were previously thought to be exclusively human behaviors. 

Humans and their societies have, after all, been around for only a few tens of thousands of years.  During this time, human social organizations have passed from small wandering bands influenced by evolutionary kin and group selection processes to produce various social systems, ranging from more or less functional democracies, pseudo-democracies (including our own growing plutocracy), dictatorships, some religion-based, and totalitarian police states.  Whether humans have a long term future (compared to the millions of years that dinosaurs dominated life on Earth) remains to be seen – although we can be reasonably sure that the Earth, and many of its non-human inhabitants, will continue to exist and evolve for millions to billions of years, at least until the Sun explodes. 

So how do we teach scientific conclusions and their empirical foundations, which combine to argue that science represents how the world really works, without upsetting the most religiously and politically fanatical among us?  Those who most vehemently reject scientific thinking because they are the most threatened by its apparently unavoidable implications. The answer is open to debate, but to my mind it involves teaching students (and encouraging the public) to distinguish empirically-based, and so inherently limited observations and the logical, coherent, and testable scientific models they give rise to from unquestionable TRUTH- and revelation-based belief systems. Perhaps we need to focus explicitly on the value of science rather than its “Truth”. To reinforce what science is ultimately for; what justifies society’s support for it, namely to help reduce human suffering and (where it makes sense) to enhance the human experience, goals anchored in the perhaps logically unjustifiable, but nevertheless essential acceptance of the inherent value of each person.   

  1. Apologies to “Good Omens”
  2. For example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science

Jeanne Garbarino (with edits by Mike Klymkowsky)

Purely scientific discussions are hallmarked by objective, open, logical, and skeptical thought; they can describe and explain natural phenomena or provide insights into a broader questions. At the same time, scientific discussions are generally incomplete and tentative (sometimes for well understood reasons). True advocates of the scientific method appreciate the value of its skeptical and tentative approach, and are willing to revise even long-held positions in response to new, empirically-derived evidence or logical contradictions. Over time, science’s scope and conclusions have expanded and evolved dramatically; they provide an increasingly accurate working model of a wide range of processes, from the formation of the universe to the functioning of the human mind. The result is that the ubiquity of science’s impacts on society are clear and growing. However, discussing and debating the details of how science works, and the current consensus view on various phenomena, such as global warming or the causes of cancer or autism, is very different from discussing and debating how a scientific recommendation fits into a societal framework. As described in a recent National Academies Press report on Communicating Science Effectively  [link], “the decision to communicate science [outside of academia] always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom, are a reflection of values.”

Over the last ~150 years, the accelerating pace of advances in science and technology have enabled future sustainable development, but they have also disrupted traditional social and economic patterns. Closing coal mines in response to climate predictions (and government regulations) may be sensible when viewed broadly, but are disruptive to those who have, for generations, made a living mining coal. Similarly, a number of prognosticators have speculated on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on traditional socioeconomic roles and rules. Whether such impacts are worth the human costs is rarely explicitly considered and discussed in the public forum, or the classroom. As members of the scientific community, our educational and outreach efforts must go beyond simply promoting an appreciation of, and public support for science. They must also consider its limitations, as well as the potential ethical and disruptive effects on individuals, communities, and/or societies. Making policy decisions with large socioeconomic impacts based on often tentative models raises risks of alienating the public upon which modern science largely depends.

Citizens, experts or not, are often invited to contribute to debates and discussions surrounding science and technology at the local and national levels. Yet, many people are not provided with the tools to fully and effectively engage in these discussions, which involves critically analyzing the scope, resolution, and stability of scientific conclusions. As such, the acceptance or rejection of scientific pronouncements is often framed as an instrument of political power, casting a shadow on core scientific principles and processes, framing scientists as partisan players in a political game. The watering down of the role of science and science-based policies in the public sphere, and the broad public complacency associated with (often government-based, regulatory) efforts, is currently being challenged by the international March For Science effort. The core principles and goals of this initiative [link] are well articulated, and, to my mind, representative of a democratic society. However, a single march on a single day is not sufficient to promote a deep social transformation, and promote widespread dispassionate argumentation and critical thinking. Perspectives on how scientific knowledge can help shape current and future events, as well as the importance of recognizing both the implications and limits of science, are perspectives that must be taught early, often, and explicitly. Social or moral decisions are not mutually exclusive from scientific evidence or ideas, but overlap is constrained by the gates set by values that are held.

In this light, I strongly believe the sociopolitical nature of science in practice must be taught alongside traditional science content. Understanding the human, social, economic and broader (ecological) costs of action AND inaction can be used to highlight the importance of framing science in a human context. If the expectation is for members of our society to be able to evaluate and weigh in on scientific debates at all levels, I believe we are morally obligated to supply future generations with the tools required for full participation. This posits that scientists and science educators, together with historian, philosophers, and economists, etc., need to go beyond the teaching of simple facts and theories by considering how these facts and theories developed over time, their impact on people’s thinking, as well as the socioeconomic forces that shape societies. Highlighting the sociopolitical implications of science-based ideas in classrooms can also motivate students to take a greater interest in scientific learning in particular, and related social and political topics in general. It can help close the gap between what is learned in school and what is required for the critical evaluation of scientific applications in society, and how scientific ideas can and should be evaluated when it comes to social policy or person beliefs.

A “science in a social context” approach to science teaching may also address the common student question, “When will I ever use this?” All too often, scientific content in schools is presented in ways that are abstract, decontextualized, and can feel irrelevant to students. Such an approach can leave a student unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions on the applications and limitations of science in society. The entire concept of including cost-benefit analyses when considering the role of science in shaping decisions is often over-looked, as if scientific conclusions are black and white. Furthermore, the current culture of science in classrooms leaves little room for students to assess how scientific information does and does not align with their cultural identities, often framing science as inherently conflicting or alien, forcing a choice between one way of seeing the world over the other, when a creative synthesis seems more reasonable. Shifting science education paradigms toward a strategy that promotes “education through science” (as opposed to “science through education”) recognizes student needs and motivations as critical to learning, and opens up channels for introducing science as something that is relevant and enriching to their lives. Centered on the German philosophy of Allgemeinbildung [link] that describes “the competence for participation in critical dialogue on currently important matters,” this approach has been found to be effective in motivating students to develop the necessary skills to implement empirical evidence when forming arguments and making decisions.

In extending the idea of the perceived value of science in sociopolitical debates, students can build important frameworks for effectively engaging with society in the future. A relevant example is the increasing accessibility of genome editing technology, which represents an area of science poised to deeply impact the future of society. In a recent report [link] on the ethics of genome editing, assembled by an panel of clinicians and scientists (experts), it is recommended that the United States should proceed — cautiously — with genome editing studies on human embryos. However, as pointed out [link], this panel failed to include ANY public participation in this decision. This effort, fundamentally ignores “a more conscious evaluation of how this impacts social standing, stigma and identity, ethics that scientists often tend to cite pro forma and then swiftly scuttle.” As this discussion increasingly shifts into the mainstream, it will be essential to engage with the public in ways that promote a more careful and thoughtful analysis of scientific issues [link], as opposed to hyperbolic fear mongering (as seen in regard to most GMO discussions)[link] or reserving genetic engineering to the hyper-affluent. Another, more timely example, involves the the level at which an individual’s genome be used to predict a future outcome or set of outcomes, and whether this information can be used by employers in any capacity [link]. By incorporating a clear description of how science is practiced (including the factors that influence what is studied, and what is done with the knowledge generated), alongside the transfer of traditional scientific knowledge, we can help provide future citizens with tools for critical evaluation as they navigate these uncharted waters.

It is also worth noting tcorrupted sciencehat the presentation of science in a sociopolitical contexts can emphasize learning of more than just science. Current approaches to education tend to compartmentalize academic subjects, framing them as standalone lessons and philosophies. Students go through the school day motions, attending English class, then biology, then social studies, then trigonometry, etc., and the natural connections among subject areas are often lost. When framing scientific topics in the context of sociopolitical discussions and debates, stu
dents have more opportunities to explore aspects of society that are, at face value, unrelated to science.

Drawing from lessons commonly taught in American History class, the Manhattan Project [link] offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the fundamentals of nuclear chemistry as well as sociopolitical implications of a scientific discovery. At face value, harnessing nuclear fission marked a dramatic milestone for science. However, when this technology was pursued by the United States government during World War II — at the urging of the famed physicist Albert Einstein and others — it opened up the possibility of an entirely new category of warfare, impacting individuals and communities at all levels. The reactions set off by the Manhattan Project, and the consequent 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are ones that are still felt in international power politics, agriculture, medicine, ecology, economics, research ethics, transparency in government, and, of course, the Presidency of the United States. The Manhattan Project represents an excellent case study on the relationship between science, technology, and society, as well as the project’s ongoing influence on these relationships. The double-edged nature often associated with scientific discoveries are important considerations of the scientific enterprise, and should be taught to students accordingly.

A more meaningful approach to science education requires including the social aspects of the scientific enterprise. When considering a heliocentric view of the solar system, it is worthwhile recognizing its social impacts as well as its scientific foundations (particularly before Kepler). If we want people to see science as a human enterprise that can inspire rather than dictate decisions and behaviors, it will require resifting how science — and scientists — are viewed in the public eye. As written here [link]. we need to restore the relationship between scientific knowledge and social goals by specifically recognizing how

'So... cutting my funding, eh? Well, I've got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!'
‘So… cutting my funding, eh? Well, I’ve got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!’

science can be used, inappropriately, to drive public opinion. As an example, in the context of CO2-driven global warming, one could (with equal scientific validity) seek to reduce CO2 generation or increase CO2 sequestration. Science does not tell us which is better from a human perspective (although it could tell us which is likely to be easier, technically). While science should inform relevant policy, we must also acknowledge the limits of science and how it fits into many human contexts. There is clearly a need for scientists to increase participation in public discourse, and explicitly consider the uncertainties and risks (social, economic, political) associated with scientific observations. Additionally, scientists need to recognize the limits of their own expertise.

A pertinent example was the call by Paul Ehrlich to limit, in various draconian ways, human reproduction – a political call well beyond his expertise. In fact, recognizing when someone has gone beyond what science can legitimately tell us [link] could help rebuild respect for the value of science-based evidence. Scientists and science educators need to be cognizant of these limits, and genuinely listen to the valid concerns and hesitations held by many in society, rather than dismiss them. The application of science has been, and will always be, a sociopolitical issue, and the more we can do to prepare future decision makers, the better society will be.

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD, Director of Science Outreach, The Rockefeller University, NY, NY

Jeanne earned herJGarbarino Ph.D. in metabolic biology from Columbia University, followed by a postdoc in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at The Rockefeller University, where she now serves as Director of Science Outreach. In this role, she works to provide K-12 communities with equitable access to authentic biomedical research opportunities and resources. You can find Jeanne on social media under the handle @JeanneGarb.

Strategies for Hearing Impaired Students, Educators, and Colleagues and The Bigger Picture

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education, and this is her third post on the topic (for the first post, click here, and her second post is available here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

One of the biggest frustrations facing students with disability (or those with disability in general), I think, concerns our lack of familiarity within society as a whole with respect to the needs of individuals with disability. This isn’t taught in schools and some of us just simply are never exposed to the experiences that require us to educate ourselves about disabilities. Even worse, the general sentiment often seems that we may be afraid to even approach such individuals for fear of not knowing how to conduct ourselves or for fear of offending someone. The recommendations and suggestions below for communicating with hearing impaired individuals are by no means comprehensive, but they are a good place to start. Although they are written specifically with the educational system in mind, they are by no means circumscribed to a single context (I also encourage you to read Parts I and II before moving on).

Advice to Other Students and Colleagues
Remember that hearing impaired individuals need to see your lips. Always face them when you are speaking and ensure your lips are visible. Do not shout. Do not over enunciate. Be prepared to have to repeat yourself here and there. Remember that saying “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not important” can be considered rude or offensive; if it was important enough to say the first time, then it’s important enough to repeat. Not doing so may unintentionally make the individual feel left out or excluded. When possible, get the individual’s attention first; it’s the polite thing to do. In public, choose a place with adequate lighting and minimal background noise. In large groups, ask the individual where they would prefer to sit; I usually like to sit in the middle of a large table where possible so that I can see everyone. Please don’t ask us to turn up our hearing aids or suggest that we turn up the volume (reading Part I will help you understand why this may appear offensive). When going to the movies, be flexible to theatres and movies for which personalized closed captioning (e.g., CaptiView) is available (Atif Note: This information is often listed on their website). Most importantly, be curious and don’t hesitate to seek feedback on how you’re doing!

captiview
This is an example of CaptiView, which plugs into your cup holder, and provides subtitles (click link to learn more)

Advice to Hearing-Impaired Students
Accommodations are useful, but individual needs will vary. Some of these accommodations will be self-driven, such as sitting in the front of the classroom, or familiarization with the material beforehand where possible in order to facilitate comprehension. However, other accommodations require registration with campus disability services, and I do strongly recommend that individuals register as soon as possible to ensure that services can be supplied as soon as they are needed). Such accommodations might include note-takers, assistive listening devices (such as an FM system- the professor wears a microphone that transmits the sound directly to the student’s hearing aid, or transcriptions. I also recommend that students introduce themselves to the professors during the first week of class so that they know who you are, and be specific in telling them exactly what you need from them. It might help to write this down in a list or by email to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases. If you are shy, this medium can be helpful too, but remember that it is the responsibility of Disability Services to ensure that your needs are met.

The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid
The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid | Click link to go to Phonak website

One strategy I have used in the clinic is to mention my hearing impairment to clients as soon as I meet them. I let them know that I need to see their lips when they speak and that I may ask them to repeat themselves, and that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. I will then give them the opportunity to have questions, if needed. This is a good educational opportunity for others, and it also gets any confusion out of the way. Excerpts from this also lend themselves easily to other professional (and even colloquial) introductions.

Advice to Professors or Teaching Assistants of Hearing Impaired Students
Ensure that you are facing the student wherever possible. If you write on the board, minimize the amount of information that you speak while your back is to the class. Avoid walking around the room where the student cannot see you. Repeat questions spoken by other individuals in the class, especially in large classrooms. Ensure that you provide subtitles or transcriptions for all videos shown in the classroom (even if they are non-essential!). The student may ask you to wear an FM system, so you may need to wear a microphone or a small device around your neck. Online lectures or Skype calls will require additional support, likely through real-time transcription.

If you are a conference organizer, please consider providing an audiovisual projection of the speaker onto a large screen if you are using a big room. This is helpful to everyone, especially when you have various accents in the room!

Advice to Educators and Clinical supervisors
You will need to discuss with the student what kind of accommodations they need. However, you need to be aware that the student may not necessarily know what they need, or in my case, how much help they actually do need. Use a recorder to verify a client’s responses on an assessment. Importantly, remember that this may be a touchy issue for your student. He or she will appreciate sensitivity and compassion in your approach (as I certainly did).

The Burden of Advocacy, and the Bigger Picture
Everyone has different ways of dealing with their disability. But the good news is that people are generally receptive to feedback and input. In one example, my Master’s defense involved all four faculty members on my committee being as spread out in the large boardroom as could be, and I knew that this wasn’t going to work for me when I was faced with a similar situation for my oral comprehensive examination. This time, I asked all the faculty members and evaluators to sit closer so that I could read their lips, which was a seemingly terrifying thing to do since they were all there to evaluate me. Not only did this relieve a lot of the added intellectual challenges (and eye strain from trying to lip-read at a distance), in their feedback the evaluators actually expressed that they were impressed about my self-awareness. I still struggle with self-advocacy, however, such as when I ask the clinical department to keep the lights on during a PowerPoint presentation so I can see the speaker’s lips, but I’m getting better at it.

Nevertheless, advocacy is a social and moral issue. The unfortunate reality is that post-secondary education is generally not kind to individuals with disabilities. Such individuals often have to work harder than their peers to compensate for their added difficulties and achieve the same level of performance. As I have discussed, the process of obtaining accommodations may not be seamless, and challenges can act as both physical and psychological barriers to education. I hope that my experiences resonate and I hope that they will contribute to making post-secondary education more accessible to all.

But let’s be clear here: the problem is bigger than this; the challenges don’t stop once students leave the post-secondary institution and enter the workforce. I’ve been transparent in discussing the ways that my personal beliefs about my disability may have perpetuated my social and educational exclusion. However, I’ve begun to think more critically about the ways in which society shapes and reinforces implicit beliefs and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities. In turn, these promote an unspoken culture of shame and personal narratives of exclusion. Thus, the issue isn’t necessarily what is said about disabilities, but rather, what remains unsaid.

Generally speaking, individuals with disabilities have to speak up on their own behalf for accommodations and resources for integration. Consequently, this places the onus squarely on the shoulders of those who are most vulnerable. Social pressures and the desire for conformity often take precedence over individual needs, especially when individuals may have difficulty articulating them in the first place owing to shyness or fear of discrimination.

As educators and students, and as members of society in general, we will feel a diffused sense of responsibility. However, each of us needs to contribute our share to help fill in these gaps of silence. We must open ourselves to these difficult conversations about disability. We must negotiate an equitable place for disabled individuals within our society, and by extension, within the educational system.

Often, the amount of concern we have for an issue is directly proportional to the degree to which it affects us personally. However, I implore you to consider impact of the growing prevalence of age-related hearing loss in a society in which we are living longer than ever. Take a look at your parents or your grandparents, and you will see that this is an issue from which no one is immune.

I don’t know what the solution is, but every instance that we don’t speak up perpetuates the silence. Until disability awareness is taught in schools, until it becomes part of a wider discussion, then we must step up, one student, one individual at a time. For if we don’t, then who will?

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Insights into Coping with Hearing Impairment within Post-Secondary Education

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne back to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education for her second post (for the first post, click here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Previously, I discussed five principles for communicating with hearing-impaired individuals. Now that you are acquainted with some of the communication challenges that hearing impaired individuals face, I want to discuss my experiences as a hearing impaired individual within the context of post-secondary education. I should stress that my experiences might not be reflective of others with hearing loss, as the level of support required will vary considerably between individuals.

My experience in the Classroom and at Conferences
As an undergraduate student, I managed to duck many of the issues that hearing-impaired students face in the classroom. I was lucky in that my level of speech understanding allowed me to get by without formal accommodation so long as I arrived at class early enough to get a seat front and center. However, this is problematic if you have a professor who likes to wander around, or when students ask a question from somewhere in the back row in a large classroom. Occasionally, I would have to ask a friend or a neighbour to fill me in on something. However, because there was a lot of redundancy between the material taught in class and the contents of the textbook, I managed to get by for the most part without any major problems (although there was one exception, which I will get to shortly).

Given my relative ease in coping with hearing loss in the undergraduate classroom, I managed to convince myself that I could make up for all the added challenges of having a hearing impairment without much substantial outside help. Then I started graduate school. Although the classes in graduate school were smaller, I found myself struggling even more because the material was more difficult. As I mentioned previously, the process of compensating for hearing impairment often involves using context and experience (or even the PowerPoint slides) to fill in the missing gaps, but when the material is also challenging, it is difficult to concentrate on both at the same time. Quite simply, I had reached my limit of compensation. To add to this, most of my classes and meetings involved group discussion, so it became essential for me to pay attention to what my peers were saying, which is difficult when everyone is spread out in a large boardroom.

In graduate school, I wasn’t always able to show up early to get the best seat. While most people in undergrad shy away from sitting in the front, it seems that most graduate students prefer to sit at the center of the conference room table (or at least that seems like the natural thing to do when you are one of the first people to arrive in the room). I was extremely shy about asking my peers if I could switch seats with them in the boardroom so I could be in a better position to see everyone. I often did not even bother asking, which compromised my ability to participate in discussion. I eventually recognized that these obstacles were easily surmised once I worked up the courage to ask my peers to trade seats with me, which they were more than willing to do.

Another issue I faced is that listening to someone with an accent is challenging for most people. However, whereas the average person can adapt pretty quickly, this is more difficult for someone with hearing loss, especially if there is noise in the background. In two cases during my undergraduate career, this required me to seek note-taking services for these particular classes. But in the academic or working world, this isn’t always an option. For example, conferences bring researchers together from around the globe, and it can be frustrating for individuals to carry out a conversation with someone you cannot understand. Not only is it also frustrating for them, but they often become self-conscious about their English ability and their accent, which adds awkwardness to a conversation. Secondly, when listening to a speaker with an accent, it is more difficult to follow along, especially when they are talking about a very dense and difficult subject. This is also a problem I’ve encountered in working with ESL clients.

Conference Calls or Online Lectures, or Videos
This domain has really been a test of my advocacy because most of the challenges I encountered here involved the process of obtaining supports for these mediums. I can recall two situations with two different professors over the course of my graduate career. The first one involved my assignment partner and I having to critique a lengthy video we had recorded of us practicing therapeutic techniques in a simulated environment. This required us to record our session using a stationary camera, which made it difficult to see anyone’s lips, and the audio quality wasn’t particularly great either. I asked the professor for video transcription, but this never materialized, which meant that it took my partner and I at least twice as long to critique our video as it should have, since she had to translate everything for me. In hindsight, I felt that I didn’t advocate for myself as much as I should have; if faced with the same situation again, I like to think I’d have acted differently. I didn’t talk about having the transcription as being necessity rather than convenience. Although the professor undoubtedly had good intentions, I walked away feeling that an extension on the assignment wasn’t a fair solution for my partner and myself.

In a second situation, we had an online conference call during one of our classes for a guest lecturer. I had assumed that since we’d be able to see the speaker’s face, it wouldn’t be an issue (and again, I was shy about advocating for myself at the time), but unfortunately, there was too much of a time delay between the audio and the video for it to be effective. Between shifting my attention back and forth between the speaker and the dense slides, I essentially got very little out of it. Thus, the professor and I agreed that we would need to recruit help for the second online guest lecture. In the end, this worked out really well. We moved the class to a classroom that was better equipped to support video, and I received an online transcription in real-time, which was very helpful to me (although not perfect, as they rarely are). However, I must confess that obtaining these supports felt like both a hassle and a struggle for all involved. I was also left with the impression that (at least at first), my professor didn’t appreciate the true extent of my disability and my needs, but in the end I certainly appreciated the efforts that the professor and disability services extended in order to make the lecture accessible to me.

My experiences in the clinic
Clinical or psychoeducational assessments rely on an accurate assessment of a client’s cognitive abilities or achievement. This frequently requires administration of a test where clients have to read out pseudowords (these are not real words but sound like they could be). Differences between syllables and mistakes in pronunciation are very difficult for me to hear (since even a mild hearing loss affects the frequencies in which speech sounds like “s” or “th” are produced). My strategy was to record my client and have someone else check it over at a later time, which usually worked well, and concerns were rarely raised. But this wasn’t always the case.

There is a memory test that requires the individual to repeat back words that he or she was asked to remember. Clients being assessed for dementia or cognitive impairment may make articulation errors that are indicative of a neurological condition, or they may falsely recall a word, instead naming a similar but incorrect word than the one they were asked to remember (for example, in a list containing several animals, they might remember “leopard” instead of “lion”). This case is problematic for someone with a hearing impairment like myself because I often rely on contextual cues for speech understanding. In this case, if I wasn’t sure what I heard, but I knew it was something that started with an ‘l’, based on contextual information, I would deduce that it would be more likely that the client would have said “lion” than another animal that begins with the same letter. But this isn’t always the case. Moreover, certain populations of patients with neurodegenerative disease will mispronounce words in ways that are subtle to even a hearing person, and such mispronunciations are important diagnostic clues. No one questioned the accuracy of my clinical notes and administration until my sixth and final practicum supervisor carefully reviewed the audio tapes that I had always been keeping and noticed that I had made an error in my scoring, even though I was so absolutely sure that I had heard the words correctly.

The apparently infallibility of my hearing ability was upsetting to me. Not only did it force me to think back on how many other errors I might have made in previous assessments, it really challenged my notion of feeling that I could be self-sufficient and minimize any indications that I might be “different”. Although this is a revelation that had been insidiously creeping up on me since I started graduate school (if not much earlier), its full impact didn’t fully manifest until I was forced to confront it directly. The notions of disability and shame that I had quietly developed quickly became disentangled for me.

As difficult as it was for me to hear, the conversation I had with my clinical supervisor dislocated me from my conditioned state of denial. The less I resisted, the more I began to appreciate the extent to which I minimized the physical barriers to my education. I started to see how some of the barriers were self-imposed and the impact of them on my actions; for example, my fear how my peers would react to switching seats with me actually perpetuated feelings of exclusion within a classroom environment because I was too afraid to ask for what I needed. At the time I thought this was okay. A 20-year history of coping without additional supports enabled a false sense of self-sufficiency, one that not only made me even more reluctant to not only seek help, but also to accept it.

Now, I only wonder how many others there who feel similarly. Or worse, I wonder how many people feel ashamed of their disability and don’t even know it.

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Pardon Me? How to Enable Successful Communication with the Hearing Impaired

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog for the first of three posts to discuss hearing impairment in higher education. For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Here are a few things you should know about me: I am a PhD student in clinical psychology. I enjoy writing, hiking, single malt whisky. I love to travel and listen to live music.

I’m also hard of hearing, and have been since birth. I was born to two deaf parents and my sister is hard of hearing as well (Note: Both the terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” refer to individuals with hearing impairment; those who rely on sign language for communication generally identify as being deaf, whereas hard of hearing refers to those relying primarily on oral speech).

Estimates of the prevalence of hearing impairment in the general population vary dramatically depending on the criteria used. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of permanent, congenital hearing loss in the US is roughly 1% . However, approximately 25% of individuals aged 65-75 years and 70-80% of individuals over the age of 75 suffer from age-related hearing loss.

These are hearing aids that I wear
These are hearing aids that I wear | Click the image to go to the manufacturer’s website

I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss and I wear two hearing aids. In case you’re wondering, no, I can’t hear anything without them. Through a lot of effort and support from my family and speech therapists, most people are largely unaware of my hearing impairment, that is, until we find ourselves in a noisy hallway or café and I ask them to repeat themselves (often numerous times). I’ve encountered some unique challenges during my undergraduate studies, but now that I’m in graduate school, the environment has changed. And the stakes are higher.

In retrospect, I’m very lucky to be where I am, and I’m committed to improving the lives of hearing impaired individuals and students.

In order to understand the perspective of what it’s like for someone with hearing loss both inside and outside of the classroom, it’s important to dispel some common misperceptions about coping with hearing impairment. Below are five key strategies requisite to successful communication with hearing impaired individuals (Please note that most of these points assume that the individual uses oral speech rather than sign language).

1) It’s not just about amplification, it’s about clarity.
I once emailed a well-known psychologist who produces demonstrative therapy videos for students and clinicians. Her DVDs were not subtitled, and as such I could not benefit from having access to them, so I asked if it was possible to obtain a set with subtitles. The response I received from her staff member (who had PhD and thus was academically endowed) was that they did not provide subtitles, but that I might consider listening through a headset so as to increase the volume level. Similarly, in high school, I asked my French teacher to repeat something, and she responded with “turn up your hearing aid”.

Good hearing ability requires both good sensitivity (i.e., level of volume), as well as good acuity. While hearing aids and other assistive listening devices provide a boost in sensitivity (that is, they make sounds louder), they unfortunately don’t compensate for deficits in acuity (meaning that they don’t make sounds clearer or more resolvable). My research supervisor likens this to taking someone who has myopic vision and increasing the brightness of the room without giving them glasses. Thus, as you can see, amplification is only a partial solution to the problem.

2) We need to see your lips.
Because of an inability to rely on auditory input, many hard of hearing and deaf individuals rely heavily on visual speech input (or lip-reading) for speech understanding. We actually all do this, but people who are hard of hearing, like myself, rely on visual speech more than the average person. In fact, you may be surprised to know that many of these individuals can understand you through lip-reading alone! However, it’s important to remember that visual speech is affected by lighting conditions, distance from the speaker, and visual obstructions (like covering your hand with your mouth, which people often do, to be polite while eating). For this reason, it is also considered polite to get the attention of the individual before you start speaking to them. Incidentally, it’s also not a good idea to over-enunciate; we have less experience with exaggerated speech movements, and thus they are often actually more difficult to understand! However, the catch is that everyone’s visual speech looks a bit different, so individuals with accents or less typical speech production movements can be harder to lip-read.

3) Hearing is especially harder when there is background noise
Individuals with hearing loss are significantly more adversely affected by interference from background noise or disruptions. Given the deficits in hearing acuity, it is very difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to separate the target message from the background. Therefore, they have to rely more on context, experience, or informed guesses to understand what’s being said. Which leads to the next point…

4) Speech understanding requires effort
Since those with hearing impairments have to rely on visual information and other sources of information to boost speech understanding, this means that hearing is more effortful in this population. As an analogy, think about trying to hear a conversation in a noisy restaurant or a crowded pub; it’s not as easy as when you’re listening in a quiet room. However, the reality is that most of our conversations (especially outside of the classroom) take place in these environments. In addition, understanding becomes more effortful not just as you increase the background noise, but also as the content of the message becomes more challenging (e.g., think about trying to follow an intense academic discussion in a pub vs. talking about what you ate for dinner last night). Both of these factors draw on your cognitive capacity.

5) Subtitles for Audiovisual Media are Absolutely Necessary
Audiovisual media are largely unsuitable for even someone with mild hearing loss. In the case of voice-over narration or when the camera is facing elsewhere or too far away from the speaker, lip-reading becomes impossible. Even if the camera is focused on the speaker for the entire duration of the clip, the resolution and visual clarity often does not match those of real-life conditions, making lip-reading difficult. This is also complicated by the fact that films or media often have music playing in the background. An analogy I often give is watching a foreign movie in a language for which you aren’t entirely fluent without subtitles. Not very easy or enjoyable is it? Subtitles (or closed captioning) aren’t a luxury for those with hearing impairments; they are a necessity.

In conjunction with the above principles, successful communication with hearing-impaired individuals ultimately relies on sensitivity and patience. You may sometimes forget to employ some of these strategies from time to time, and that’s quite normal. In fact, my friends and colleagues occasionally forget to look at me while speaking, apologetically remarking that they often forget I have a disability. I take this as a great compliment. The suggestion that my disability has faded into the background, I think, is the hallmark of true integration.

References:
1: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/bod_hearingloss.pdf
2: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001045.htm

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Twitter for Sci-Ed Part 3: To boldly go where no lecturer has gone before

So far, I’ve talked about how Twitter can be used by scientists to help disseminate information, and acquire new information. I’m going to change gears in my final post and talk about how Twitter can be used in the classroom, and how it can be used by scientists moving forward.

If you missed them, click here for Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

Reason #4: For lecturers, Twitter can contribute to discussions and deepen understanding

While researchers spent most of our time trying to get our work published and publicized, another responsibility we have is to train the next generation of researchers. With increasing budget cuts at Canadian universities, being offset by increased undergraduate and graduate enrolment, classes are getting bigger while there are fewer lecturers to teach those classes.

Twitter can be used to give shy students a voice, and allow for them to have discussions with peers easily. They can be pushed on issues, deepen their understanding and further their knowledge; which is the goal of education. This occurs in a forum that they might be more comfortable in. While people may be nervous to make a point in class, or simply unable to due to lack of time and large class sizes, Twitter allows for those conversations to continue easily outside of the classroom.

Twitter has been used by professors with some success. Monica Rankin at UT Dallas taught a history class (video above) where she used Twitter to engage students. She also wrote about her experiences here, for those who would prefer to read about her experiences or cannot access YouTube.

For those interested, Mark Sample has created a framework that sums up how Twitter can be used in the classroom based on an idea proposed by Rick Reo. There are many ways Twitter can be used in the classroom to supplement learning – it just depends how you want to use it!

An interesting framework for how Twitter can be used in the classroom. Click to go to Mark Sample’s blogpost.

 

Reason #5: The way we translate information is changing

This is important for those beginning their careers in science. The current publishing paradigm has come under fire recently, with many improvements being proposed. There has been an explosion in science blogging, which is a great way for people to get their work out and communicate with people they otherwise wouldn’t. Big networks such as Nature Blogs, Research Blogging, Scientific American, Science Blogs, Occams Typewriter, PLOS Blogs and others have provided a haven for scientists who want to get information out. Knowing how to use Twitter, and use it effectively can help get your message out. Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor at Queen’s University, talks about this, specifically how those in Public Health can use social media, in more detail here (her slides are embedded below as well).

And now for a rant. While I would like for you to embrace social media and see the value of it in your work, I realize that many people either 1) don’t have the time, 2) don’t have the means, or 3) don’t have the interest, in engaging in social media. But there are few things that frustrate me more than when someone posts about how they dislike social media because “all it is is people posting pictures of cats” or “how much can you really get across in 140 characters.” This is cheap, and this is lazy. The fact is that your students will be using these platforms, and the general public is using this platform. Simply putting your head in the ground and ignoring it just adds to the ivory tower attitude that people have towards scientists.

Now, there are good reasons to not use social media, and the worst thing you can do as an organization is start using social media but not have a clear vision for what you want to do with it. Social media has become a bit of a buzzword, and, as a friend of mine in communication says “It’s the ‘we need a brochure’ of the 21st century.” Organizations make an account, but have no idea how they’re going to use it, or what their goal is. That’s a bad idea – social media is not a magic bullet, where, once you make an account, you suddenly have thousands of followers and your business triples overnight. Like any form of communication, it requires time, and also requires cultivation of information. However, if you choose not to engage your audience on social media, be aware of what doors you’re closing, and how you’ll engage those people otherwise. You’re deliberately ignoring sections of the population, and so you need to engage with them using some other means. That requires a plan, and that requires some forethought. But don’t just rule it out based on preconceived ideas.

So there you go – five reasons why I think you should use Twitter. What are your thoughts readers – is there anything I’ve missed? Any reasons why you think other readers should or should not sign up for Twitter? Let me know in the comments!

Ed note: A version of this series originally appeared on Mr Epidemiology (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Twitter for Sci-Ed Part 2: Networking and connecting

This week, I’ll be talking about Twitter (Pic via Tweepi)

On Monday I discussed some of the reasons why I think you should sign up for Twitter, and why it is a useful tool.

Encouraging scientists to use social media isn’t a new idea. When I originally posted this piece, friend of the blog @muddybrown (you may remember him from the graduate school roundtable) pointed out a series by Christie Wilcox (@nerdychristie – you should really give her a follow). It’s a four part series, but definitely worth a read for another perspective on social media and science (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

Today, I’ll be continuing that discussion, but focusing on two other aspects of Twitter: How it can be used to get information that you wouldn’t otherwise, and how it can be used at conferences.

Reason #2: It’s a great way to get information you otherwise wouldn’t

You can use Twitter in many different ways. You can use it socially, posting funny comments, videos and pictures, or academically, posting links to interesting news articles and journal articles. Alternatively, you can use it similarly to an RSS reader or news crawler. If you follow organizations and individuals you find interesting, when they post links to new content, you will see it on your Twitter feed. Suddenly, you have a whole host of information being presented to you, and it’s been filtered by people for accuracy and quality. However, social media follows the principles of GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage out. If you follow celebrities, musicians and athletes, you’ll get tweets relevant to those people. But if you follow national organizations (the CDC, NASW, PLOS), you’ll get information relevant to them, which will be markedly different.

One of the most useful ways I’ve used Twitter is in “Twitter chats.” @NinaJTweets and @SaraRubin are two public health professionals who have set up #PubHT, which is a biweekly discussion group on public health issues. On the 1st and 3rd Monday of the month, at 9pm EST, a bunch of us get together to talk about burning public health issues (and occasionally non-burning issues, such as sharknado attacks). It’s been invaluable in helping me gain other perspectives, and has opened me up to a world of ideas and broadened my horizons considerably. But it isn’t limited just to this – Steven W. Anderson has compiled a list of Twitter chats here and you can see they range from coaching, to STEM discussions, to everything in between. Even if you’re not interested in participating, listening along can be quite rewarding.

In the same vein, it can help connect you with others in an informal setting. And what better way to connect than with humour! We talked about #overlyhonestmethods before on this blog, but other popular hashtags include #melodramaticlabnotebook and #sciconfessions all help break down the barrier than exists between the public and science, and shows that scientists have a sense of humour.

Twitter also useful as a networking tool. I’ve had the privilege of “meeting” some really cool people on Twitter, both academics and non-academics. In fact, I met Jonathan Smith through Twitter, and that was how the interview series that I did on my old blog started. It’s exposed me to a whole host of science bloggers and Epidemiologists I would never have met, and perspectives on education, healthcare, science and policy that are far outside my thinking (the way an economist views a healthcare problem is considerably different to a clinician for example). I’ve also made a point to meet up with fellow tweeps at conferences too in order to put a face to the avatar 🙂

And speaking of conferences…

Reason #3: At conferences, Twitter is invaluable for stimulating discussion and finding out what is happening in other sessions

This is one of the best reasons to join Twitter in my opinion.

Twitter is being used extensively at conferences. While some conferences have yet to embrace it formally, others are encouraging the use of social media, even going as far as “hiring” bloggers to cover the events; the National Obesity Summit in 2011 was covered by Travis and Peter of Obesity Panacea, and the Society for Neuroscience conference was covered by a host of bloggers, including friends of the blog Neurobytes.

Using Twitter, you can join conversations with other delegates, as well as organize meetings and events around the conference schedules – referred to as “Tweetups!” It’s a great way to meet new people. Indeed, I used it at the 2013 CPHA conference, and there were people who stopped by my poster because of my tweets. Christian Sinclair at KevinMD agrees, and provides other reasons. More creatively, at the same CPHA conference, Dr Martin McKee used Twitter to get questions from the audience after his keynote, giving a voice to many who might be too nervous to speak up in a room of 800-1000 people.

But here’s my favourite part. Even if you’re not at the conference, you can still be involved. Using Twitter, you can follow conferences in real time by using the conference hashtag. Delegates write short comments and quote speakers, and discussions stem from there, and you can ask for clarification, ask questions, offer opinions and thoughts and still be involved in the conference. I was following along with the #Scioclimate discussion on Twitter, and found it very helpful.

Skeptical?

Consider this: The 2nd National Obesity Summit in Montreal had approximately 800 delegates. Of those delegates, only a handful tweeted. Approximately 500 tweets used the #con11 hashtag, and those tweets reached upwards of 80,000 people. While the conference had enough people to fill a large lecture hall, those tweets reached enough people to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto AND have people waiting outside.

The Rogers Centre can seat approximately 70,000. Tweets from the 2nd National Obesity Summit reached 80,000.

Especially for graduate students who may not have the time or funds to go, this is a great way to remain involved and learn about new research in your area.

Ed. Note: Twitter only keeps the most recent Tweets saved. So the #con11 tag is no longer active as the conference was in May 2011.

Similarly, you can use Twitter to cover any live event. The Golden Globes used the #goldenglobes hashtag, and people commented live as the event unfolded. The Canadian leaders debate used the #cdnpoli and #db8 tags. As the event is going on, people are voicing opinions, challenging what the speakers are saying, and posting quotes from the event. It’s a great way to get other perspectives on an event, and discuss it with others who are interested and passionate about what you are watching.

This can be completely self-driven. While conference themselves may lack the resources or may not want to cover the event using social media, as long as delegates have a common hashtag, you can still tweet through the conference. This highlights the beauty of social media – it can be completely grassroots.

Come back next Monday for the final part of this series.

Ed note: A version of this series originally appeared on Mr Epidemiology (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)