Ah — The — Um — Clicker

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I was a faculty member for a school of social work at a western university. It was not a school that welcomed diversity. Many faculty members used a heavy-handed method for assuring conformity, an approach that was as odds with my beliefs about education as an opportunity to help students learn to unlock their potential. I was astounded when a graduate student related her experiences in a class on human behavior in the social environment. The instructor wanted to teach students to become accomplished public speakers. He noted, “Social workers are so often terrible speakers.” Perhaps, but so are many others from other backgrounds.

The teaching method he used seemed at odds with a program that was purportedly based on promoting a strength-based foundation for working with people. What astounded me in the student’s account was her feeling of humiliation. Public speaking is, after all, the number one phobia of Americans. I still suffer the effects of this phobia. So, I am particularly sensitive to others’ challenges. My colleague’s unique style of teaching this skill quite frankly would make me grow silent.

Rather than focusing on the message, the organization, the audio-visuals, the strengths of voice, facial expression, or a host of other positive attributes, the focus was on a student’s verbal fluency (or lack thereof). That is, the faculty member counted the number of “ums” or “ahs” the student used during his or her presentation. The logic of this approach escapes me. In fact, I found it hard to believe that a faculty member in social work, in a strength-based program, in a program that emphasizes a commitment to social justice, would actually treat students this way. I asked another colleague for confirmation. “Was this practice really happening?” My colleague laughed and said, “Well, yes. But it’s better than it used to be.”

I learned that what used to be was even more troubling, but thankfully students rebelled and the practice was changed. On presentation days, the instructor would arrive with a small instrument, a “clicker.” It was a small twanging instrument with a button that was pressed by the instructor each time a student uttered “um” or “ah” as they presented in front of the class. The audible click each time the button was pressed added to the students’ humiliation. The “clicker” tallied the total number of the deadly space-fillers, and grades were assigned in large measure on the results of the count – the more ums and ahs, the lower the grade.

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I listen to public radio regularly and often wonder why there are so many speakers on an auditory medium whose speech is punctuated by hesitations of various sorts, or whose voices are stridently nasal or lackadaisically monotone. Yet I ask the questions, “What is the most important way to judge a message, even on an auditory medium?,” and “What is the purpose of communication?” I have encountered a lot of gifted snake-oil salesmen in my career, and a lot of people with profound messages haltingly delivered. (I would rather listen to meaningful messages delivered inarticulately than the self-promoting drivel of a snake-oil salesman any day.)

As I write this, I shake my head, still in disbelief. What are the real lessons of this exercise? But this story doesn’t end here.

One of the students who had class with “the clicker” internalized the message that she was not good at communication and needed to improve if she was going to graduate. It was not until her second year that she asked me to serve as her advisor. During our first meeting, she told me that she had been told she needed to learn how to communicate. So, I asked her to tell me what she meant by “communicate.” (I knew from reviewing her past classes that she had been studying dance.) Her response was that she needed to learn to speak in front of audiences. My reply was that speaking was one form of communication, yet 85% of what we understand is based on cues other than the words that we hear. How people look, the pitch and volume of their voice, their body posture and facial expressions often tell us far more than their words. I asked her if she thought of dance as a more powerful form of communication than a speech.

She listened politely, but I could tell (not by her words) that she really wasn’t convinced that anything other than speaking in public was real communication. Over the course of the year, however, she had an opportunity to discover the power of movement as a form of communication. It just so happened that she worked as an intern for an agency that was designed to help teenage girls improve their self-image by becoming involved as leaders in local environmental issues. She became aware of the negative images the girls had of their bodies, and how this prevented them from really expressing themselves as leaders. She worked with the girls to design a presentation that involved movement, not words. When the girls performed their creation at the end of the year, their teachers and parents were profoundly touched by the beauty, strength, and pride expressed through dance.

My advisee did graduate. Yet unique among all of the students, she did not use oral argumentation to support her graduate portfolio. She danced. And amazingly, “the clicker” attended and even participated when the audience was invited to join. Although he was deeply affected by her performance, he later decided that no other student would ever be allowed to defend their work in any way other than spoken argumentation.

Fortunately for all of us in this profession, this student has gone on to use movement and dance as tools in her work with individuals who suffer from mental illness. I am truly grateful that I had a chance to work with someone who was courageous enough to break through the taken-for-granted definition of what it means to communicate. Certainly a method that helps young girls overcome the silencing shame they feel about their body image may offer all of us a way to express ourselves with greater freedom and joy.


Photo Credit: Drawings by Carol A. Hand

As human beings, we have a simple choice. We can choose to relate to others in ways that are hurtful and oppressive. Or, we can choose to help others find their strengths and the song in their hearts. But we cannot help others until we find the song in our own hearts first.


31 thoughts on “Ah — The — Um — Clicker

  1. Reblogged this on Voices from the Margins and commented:

    As I contemplate the reasons why I have decided to finally retire from teaching in the social work profession, I realize how grateful I am for what I have learned from my students. They are the future. I hope they will be guided by the principles of liberatory praxis.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I will continue to learn from you ….you may use your teaching talents as a paraprofessional, a mentor, a neighbor, a friend, a role model.


    1. Thank you for your kindness, Shirley Ann. (Please excuse my slow reply, I was working outside on the one day I had this week – after visiting the dentist.)


  3. I remember the difficulties with public speaking, and the social anxiety. But sharing passions, questions and work which comes from the heart is what seems to set voice free. I think that it’s when we go beyond the numbness, into a desire to respond to the world as it is lived around us, and when we feel passionately about this, that we find our own voices. It’s as if the combination of love for the world, and the will to do something in response to what we see, opens up something deeper, and it allows us to put ourselves out there, no matter what.

    I feel bad for the students who worried about umming, because you do that when you feel self conscious, and you feel self conscious when you feel examined, or measured. But when your voice comes from freedom and insight, it is a different thing, and that helps an awful lot.


    1. Thank you for describing how you overcome anxiety, Nicci. It’s fascinating to learn about a different approach! I actually learned to deal with my terror by going to a training series where all the participants were video taped giving impromptu speeches on a variety of topics. I learned that my fear didn’t show and could actually be a strength if I could learn how to use it because it gave me extra emotional energy. For me, it’s more of an intellectual process – I need to remain mindful of the purpose of my work, take the time to breathe and focus, and make sure that I can move as I talk. This allows me to be fully present to relate to others in whatever ways increase the likelihood of being effective. Sometimes I weave in emotions and passion, and sometimes I need to focus on delivering facts and explanations. It all depends on the purpose, topic, audience. I also learned that a sense of humor helps – and I still laugh about some of my less-than-stellar performances. (And I do perform, making mindfulness crucial so it isn’t about ego…)

      The video tapes I did helped me realize how differently anxiety affects people. Some people utter fillers as they think (um, ah, or ya’ know), some can’t control voices that quiver, some physically shake or have red faces or necks. It takes a lot of hard work to overcome these issues. I don’t think everyone needs to be a public speaker. Everyone has unique gifts – expressing those gifts can come in so many more creative ways than merely speaking. Teaching should be about helping students discover their gifts and the most effective ways to express them. I know you would agree that humiliating people with less power in a given setting is certainly not the way to help them overcome anxiety! Yet the professor in the story seemed to derive a great deal of pleasure from treating students (or colleague) in this way.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. Cruelty was an integral part of the “culture” in that particular department. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to change that, although I was able to buffer many of the most gifted and vulnerable students during my excruciating time there. Needless to say, the “clicker” didn’t appreciate my perspective 🙂


        2. It’s horrible to watch other people being humiliated. Even if he didn’t like your perspectives, at least you let him know. It’s all the people who do nothing who hurt just as much, I think.


        3. Yes, it is horrible to witness humiliation and oppression. Students who tried to speak up were treated even worse, and there were times when nothing I tried could help them. It was particularly problematic for Native American students because of the strong anti-Indian prejudice – the “clicker” was blatantly anti-Native and took it out on students in many ways. It made my job interesting 🙂


        4. Interesting is one way of putting it. But watching a system of blatant disrespect for ‘other’ people being maintained and reproduced, while damaging the humanity of the students involved must have been very painful.


        5. Yes, it was – just as it’s painful for all of us right now to witness what is happening in Palestine, Ukraine, Detroit, Pine Ridge, and the list could go on… All we can do is be kind to those with whom we interact and support others, like you, who are working toward a vision of a more loving, peaceful, inclusive world.


        6. The world has gone mad. There’s all those horrors which happened in Syria as well. And the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped! All this – what’s going on?

          I think you were right to fight against the clinical diagnosis work…as James Hillman says, we’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse…

          Liked by 1 person

        7. Yes, it has gone mad, Nicci. So now I garden and write, both of which help me balance and reflect on what I can realistically do to contribute to creating a kinder world.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s funny you mention public radio. When I was in elementary school, we were severely reprimanded any time we began a sentence with “Well,”. On the radio, it seems every person being interviewed begins her or his answer with “Well,”. Sometimes, I think, it makes the message stronger because the listener gets the sense the person is actually thinking before answering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s good to hear from you, Diane! It’s amazing we survived all of the reprimands for behaviors teachers didn’t like 🙂

      Your interpretation of beginning a response with “well” is a great way to reframe something you were taught was a weakness into a strength! I love it.


  5. Clicking people to shame them has nothing to do with teaching them public speaking and everything to do with enforcing the clicker’s dominance. Shame is an essential component of a mainstream culture based on dominance and punishment instead of cooperation and interdependence.


    1. I agree with your assessment, Stuart. The “clicker” was very skilled at humiliating others to establish his dominance – a gifted snake oil salesman who had little else going for him but whose tenured position (and race, class, and gender) made him invulnerable in a mainstream institution.


  6. Thank you for your kind words, Gator Woman.

    Perhaps some of my former students will be surprised or saddened by my decision, but I suspect many of my former colleagues will celebrate. Serving as a voice on the margins is a heavy burden as you well know from your own work, and those who see things differently aren’t always welcomed. Yet the responsibility to share one’s perspective doesn’t end when one sheds the confining structure of oppressive social institutions. In some ways it is liberating, and in other ways more challenging. It’s heartening to know that there are so many others like you who are each working in their own ways to create a more peaceful world. Miigwetch.


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