I am a fiction writer who earns his living as a university professor.
I teach classes about the politics of food, otherness, movement and language, material I’ve spent a long time thinking up, then tweaking and shaping.
My entire pedagogy revolves around urging my students to read and listen and observe widely. I want them to try things on the page. Mistakes are permitted, even encouraged.
In mid-March, classes at university, like most institutions around the world grappling with the pandemic, shifted from in-person to remote instruction, and when it became clear in the summer that classes would continue in that vein in the fall, I became anxious, because I harboured a secret I wasn’t prepared to share.
Earlier this year, I had been asked to co-teach a seminar course for seniors in the fall. I was also roped to teach a creative writing class, my first one. I reached out to Carlos Páez, a former student, to help me think through and design a thoughtful online syllabus, partly because he was thinking about a career in education and I wanted him to see first-hand how a syllabus gets shaped and made.
As Carlos and I talked once a week, I recalled how exhausting the previous semester had been, how Zoom had forced me to rethink pedagogy, as well as reflect on the ethics of access, particularly tech and sound. Then after some reflection, because I wanted to be fair to my students, and kind to myself, I decided to put my ear on the syllabus.
I have Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
My symptoms include mild to moderate hearing loss in my left ear, aural fullness, fluctuating tinnitus, and attacks of severe vertigo and nausea that put me on the floor. This semester will be my first semester instructing students with the help of a hearing aid, which doesn’t come in loud colours, like neon or orange, my preference. Instead, I sport a skin-tone device that’s pretty meh, the response a fat cat would have towards a malnourished mouse.
I have lived with Ménière’s for two years. Because the matter was private, I only shared my condition with immediate family and close friends. My parents’ response, shock, then denial, then sadness, mirrored mine. Ménière’s has no known cure, and as much as I’ve grown to appreciate my father’s repeated reminders about consuming more turmeric and ginger, his cure for everything, the people I’m close to have started to notice my relationship to sound, especially the listening part, has begun to evolve.
I found it easy to hide my Ménière’s in the classroom, especially the hearing loss, because of the way I teach. I instruct standing up and pace from one end of the classroom to the other, like a rooster covering territory. When I taught in graduate school, I moved like that to calm my nerves. After the Ménière’s diagnosis, I turned to the habit for comfort, as well as to swivel my head and direct the good ear, my right, towards sound.
I even worked out a system to hide and mitigate my symptoms.
When I misheard students on my left, I would ask them to repeat themselves. When I used the white board, my back turned to the class, I’d shout out what I was writing, to dissuade students from asking questions. Or I’d stand at an angle, leaving the right ear well placed and open to sound.
That wasn’t all. To combat vertigo, I replaced the white light in my office with warmer yellow. I switched off the AC before student meetings. I wore noise cancellation headphones during class trips. And since I knew cooler temperatures helped my state of mind, I carried cold water in my water bottle. Then, for good measure, at the start of every semester, I’d swing by my designated classroom to check whether the AC controls could be trusted. All this preparation for what? To continue to pretend I was a lifelong inhabitant of the world of the hearing, even though my world had shifted.
Once, after a difficult class where I needed a chair, because my balance felt off, I sat in my office, and pulled the blinds down and took my automatic timepiece off my wrist and placed it next to my right ear, then the left.
I have been an inhabitant of the hearing community since I was born. My parents, sister and partner belong to the hearing world. To assume the world of the non-hearing is a brutal unknown would not only be erroneous but unfair and disrespectful to Deaf culture, as well as other members of the deaf community, and those who don’t fully inhabit the hearing world. Yet what I continue to struggle with is how everything came to be.
I went to bed two years ago, to wake up to less sound in my left ear.
There was no explanation. God, whom my otolaryngologist loves to evoke, did not leave a note. The possibility of waking up again to further loss became a recurring nightmare. In the early days, I listed the sounds I found comfort in, and wondered if the hearing loss progressed over time, whether I’d forget those sounds. My main worry continues to be that I won’t have time to prepare to learn more about the world of the non-hearing, before I might be a part of it.
At present I am loitering near its borders, unsure of my membership, informing myself, with the help of writers and scholars and filmmakers, about a world I’ve only just begun to outline, a sobering reflection on how the language of the hearing has dominated the discourse of the living.
I need to describe the ringing. When days are good, I imagine my younger self, with wet finger tips, circling the rim of a wine glass. That’s what the ear sounds like. When days are bad, I return to my younger self, additional wine glasses, a pitcher of water, and a megaphone. Sometimes, I cup my right palm to my right ear. What I hear sounds like tremors in the earth, the roar of the sea. Then I do the same with my left ear. Most days, nothing.
The online classroom carves everybody up into squares. For the most part, none of us, teacher or student, are in the same room. And when you factor in different time zones, it can be argued that the online classroom teleports people from the past, present and the future into one place.
This means disruption. Students feeling watched. Participants at the mercy of dissonance and visual distortion, beholden to tech and spotty wi-fi. The hours spent teaching online made me wonder about student location, what their homes were like, whether they were okay.
As a professor, was I nostalgic for anything specific?
I believe I’d give a month’s wages to hear my students’ laughter fill an old-school classroom, and to observe them think through material as a collective. Zoom chops and ranks sound, herding voice into solitary pens, then pushing noise out. Without question the platform has forced me to confront the way I respond to sound lately, as well as other vulnerabilities.
My anxiety about my hearing loss makes me impatient when my students are quiet, all of us staring at each other from our respective aquariums. Then I have to remind myself that even though the old-school classroom values noise, silence has an important place too. I ended up being so worried about hearing my students, I stopped listening, something I am ashamed about.
Then, after my recent hearing test, which showed further decline in the left ear, I asked for more information about a hearing aid, which I’m starting to learn how to adapt to.
The turning point for me was June 2020.
I was asked to give a Zoom lecture by Ala Younis, an artist and bookmaker I hold in high esteem. I took questions at the end. Before the session came to a close, it was gently brought to my attention that I misheard one question Ala had asked me. She blamed her accent, which wasn’t true of course, and then said she appreciated how my response had taken her thoughts in a different direction.
I apologised but didn’t know how to bring up my ear to a roomful of strangers. The next morning, I sent Ala an email about my ear, an apology and a reveal. I should have said something, I said, I didn’t. My ear was getting in the way. Her response, kindness personified, is one I will always cherish.
The last time I spoke to my otolaryngologist, he repeated, with confidence, his two-year refrain, that I can lead a normal life. As he spoke, I tried telling him I needed to change the way I teach, because I spent the last two summers sleeping off the exhaustion. By now I knew his definition of a “teacher,” someone who speaks, was different to mine, someone who listens.
I tried telling him it was hard to write fiction because the hours spent online, the teaching and the meetings, didn’t help the fluctuating tinnitus, that the ringing was giving me insomnia, that when my partner’s whispers came from the left, I struggled to hear. I wanted to tell him I’d been reading about drop attacks, falling to the ground with no warning, but then I got fed up with being treated like a child, someone to be spoken to.
Before Covid, I tried telling the good doctor it was hard to eat at restaurants with friends, or treating conference invites as no-brainers, or speaking on stage with lights hitting me full on the face. Or deciding whether my ear felt good, my balance stable enough, to say yes to a concert in the open air. Instead, once again, I heard him out, because proper conversation, between patient and physician, is an illusion when the back and forth lasts five, maybe ten, minutes. As far as he was concerned, I looked healthy, normal-like.
As a fiction writer I dabble in the world of make believe.
I peddle my wares as a tale teller and a lie maker. The first class I taught at NYUAD I asked my students to lie to each other when they introduced themselves. Pick a different name, I advised. Make up things about your families. Then, at some point, tell us your real names. That course was called The Outsider.
This semester, in my creative writing class, which I’ve renamed Tale Telling, my students will be invested in many lies and much make-believe. Their first writing assignment was to upload a manifesto, a few sentences about why they write, or hope to write. I’ll write one too, I told them, and as soon as I said it, I thought about the only manifesto I’d written many years ago. I still felt the same about language and rhythm, but revisiting the old draft, if I could find it, wasn’t a bad idea.
The first day of class, September 7, I held up a smart phone, which I’ve had to learn how to operate because I’ve never owned one, then pointed to my left ear, and told my students that I was still learning how to be comfortable with my hearing aid. I may mishear you, I told them, bear with me. And if you could, I continued, please leave your camera on, because that would help me.
I don’t know whether teachers, especially professors, are expected to state their fears in conversation with students or colleagues. We are mostly expected to be professional and put together, rarely vulnerable. The boundaries between our professional and private lives used to be clear. The pandemic has blurred, and in some cases, obliterated some of those rules.
As a functioning member of academia, my employer respects and values my privacy, especially intel about my health, a policy I am grateful for. They have my back and that’s a good feeling. But privacy, I am beginning to realise, can also be used as a shield, a conversation-deterrent, people not knowing because people aren’t talking.
After two years of living with Ménière’s, the online classroom has forced me to confront, and out my symptoms, because I don’t know if I have students or colleagues who belong to the world of the non-hearing, or feel they are somewhere in between, and they are tired and exhausted by online pedagogy and/or instruction, dominated for the most part by the world of the hearing.
This summer, I spent weeks thinking about my ear in the classroom, the opening line to a surreal tale I may eventually write about. But like most stories that incubate for years in my brain, I struggled with the beginning, partly because I didn’t know how to open a class with my ear but had to figure out a way. Perhaps I will be calmer now since the ear is on the syllabus.
My students understand they must leave their cameras on, a gesture I appreciate. And they barely blinked last week when I had to change my hearing aid battery during class time. Their nonchalance turned my forgetfulness into an ordinary moment, another step towards actual acceptance. Perhaps before the year is up, I’ll name my hearing aid, a device I took to the shower with me last week, an accident of course.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is the author of Temporary People.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.