Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Amplify Yourself

In the past year or so, I have become increasingly aware of some age-related occupational hazards that professors encounter in their mid-career years. Of course there's the usual diminishing eyesight, hearing, sanity etc., but in addition to those routine problems, several of my colleagues have recently dealt with vocal-chord damage owing to the strain of talking so much and so loud and so long, presumably during classroom lectures (and for some, faculty meetings).

One colleague has had multiple surgeries to repair his vocal chords, and another was advised not to speak loudly or in his normal tonal range for several months. Recovering from vocal chord surgery during the academic year and/or not speaking in your usual voice are both difficult to do when speaking is your job. A temporary solution for one colleague was to teach an online course for a term. Another went to a speech therapist to learn how to speak without injuring himself more.

Professors who teach are like professional singers -- our voices are our instruments. If our voices are damaged, our art (of teaching) is damaged.

The biggest strain on a professor's voice probably comes from teaching a large lecture class. I have always been jealous of my colleagues who can teach large classes 'unplugged' -- i.e., without using a microphone. I can make myself heard in a large lecture hall, but at high volume I can't modulate my voice very well and end up sounding like I am shouting rather than merely speaking loudly. I also end up even more exhausted than I normally would be after a 50-75 minute class. Therefore, I find it essential to use a wireless microphone so that I can speak comfortably in a 'normal' (albeit amplified) voice.

It turns out that what I thought of as a weakness may have actually saved me from injury through all my years of teaching.

There are probably ways to speak loudly for years without injury, but many of us don't know how to do that. Add to the list of things that new professors need to get started in their teaching career: voice coaches.


Unknown said...

A session with a voice coach was included in the new lecturers course at my institution. I found it very useful - I tend to talk squeaky and fast.

Anonymous said...

My mom is a school teacher and has been suffering from this problem for the past few years. Thanks for bringing this up! And, I am going to suggest that she use a microphone too!

Anonymous said...

I went to a 5-day teaching workshop/retreat a few years back and one of the sessions was actually taught by a voice/acting coach, who spoke about the way our voices work, the anatomy of the voice, and how to avoid injury. She was a flake, but she said some pretty helpful things that have stuck with me.

I'm one of those people who doesn't use a microphone in a large lecture hall. I currently speak for five 50-minute periods on my heaviest teaching days, and it hasn't seemed to give me problems yet, but I should start taking some care. The microphone always just seems like one more thing to have to deal with in the brief transition period between classes.

barbara said...

I have actually considered taking voice coaching lessons since my throat hurt after long teaching hours. Now I have a low teaching load and the problem is gone.

As a side remark, in my direct experience the main health hazards of pure mathematicians are backache, mountain accidents, and alcohol problems. Backache is extremely common (endemic?) but at least it's not life-threatening.

Anonymous said...

What about asking universities to keep class size to a fixed number for example 50-60 students, having multiple sections in case enrollment is more. I was a teacher in a college in India, and we always had fixed class size for all classes (it was 64 in that case), so generally you can teach in your comfortable voice without having the need to shout. This also keeps burden of grading etc to a sane level for faculty. and I used to know all my students by their first name in a small class size, which actually increases the efficiency of teaching/learning.

Anonymous said...

Ask away, Female Post-Doc, but the big universities where I've worked don't really care about optimal class size or efficacy of teaching/learning. They care about the efficiency of getting as many students as possible through low-level classes with as little resource outlay as possible, and that has usually meant filling large classrooms and putting a talking head at the front. My evening classes have 80 students and my day classes have 200; in the case of one of those courses, the only reason it's not a lot more than 200 is that there are not enough classrooms and TAs available to schedule more recitation sections.

Until pressure comes from the students in those large classes--in the form of universities losing enrollment because of their class sizes being too large--change will not happen. It's just business.

Anonymous said...

I quite agree with landsnark. But until that time - do take voice lessons! I did a course together with my colleagues (that was actually kind of fun) and also had individual instruction with a voice coach after my n+1 round of not being able to speak.

I learned some great tricks for clearing my vocal cords, how to breathe right, and to keep drinking water all day to keep the vocal cords wet.

Lucky us - we have class sizes of 44. But at our old campus, we had long, thin, high-ceilinged lecture halls that echoed every sound. The new campus has nice, bright, wide rooms, everyone sits comfortably and concentrates - they can hear and I can speak. What a difference the room makes!

usagibrian said...

Well, yes. It's another of those acquired skills. I entered a voice class my first quarter as an undergraduate since I'd had volume issues since I'd started acting. Four years later, I was one of the few people in my graduate program who could fill any of the available spaces without difficulty (I pitied the poor BFA undergrads at my grad school--there was no structured voice sequence in their program, which was a crime in my opinion). It has allowed me to do (most) professional presentations without a mic, which I prefer.

Even people who know what they're doing occasionally shred their voices. Ironically, the worst damage I ever did to myself was in a production of Once Upon a Mattress playing King Sextimus the Silent. Mime for two hours then about a half-dozen lines at the end of the show. Silly me, I thought I didn't need to do a proper vocal warm-up before that scene.

Anyone who thinks it takes no effort or technique to speak clearly and understandably for 50 minutes has obviously never tried to do it. Amplification will mitigate the problem, but not solve it. So yes, learning how to use your voice properly is definitely on the skill set list for academics heading into the classroom.

Ms.PhD said...

Why not use technology if it's available to you? I think people who ruin their voices have a fundamental problem: being out of touch with their own human frailties, their own bodies.

I don't think anyone damages their voices lecturing without knowing they're doing it, since it requires repeated abuse to get to the point of needing surgery. Why are scientists so stubborn about not taking care of ourselves?