Ah — The — Um — Clicker/ A Reblog

Carol A. Hand

This was originally published on August 25, 2013. I thought of this experience again this morning when I decided to join my class via conference call rather than drive on hazardous snow-covered roads. It reminds me why I decided to return to teaching as an adjunct after my formal retirement in 2011. I love the chance to be a small part of liberatory education.


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.

A "Clicker"

A “Clicker”

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


The Dancer - Drawings by Carol A. Hand - Inspired by a courageous and creative student

The Dancer – Drawings by Carol A. Hand – Inspired by a courageous and creative student


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.


Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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32 Responses to Ah — The — Um — Clicker/ A Reblog

  1. Joan Treppa says:

    What a great message…and timely for me as I anticipate embarking on this new adventure of speaking in front of groups large and small as soon as my book is published in 2017. I’ve had minimal experience speaking but enough to think that there may not be an adequately equipped clicker available! But I’ve been told that the passion and honesty in my words stand out above all else. Thanks Carol. Stay warm and have a wonderful Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. smilecalm says:

    clicking silently
    with my smile 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks for that reminder, Carol. I’m terrible as a public speaker but love telling stories through the written word.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Rosaliene. You are a gifted storyteller, and written words can reach a much larger audience and often endure longer. It’s funny to admit, but I can be an effective public speaker even though it still takes a lot of courage and concentration for me to even teach a small class. I just forget about myself and concentrate on my purpose for being there. (I also have the benefit of videotaped classes that let me know a long time ago that my anxiety doesn’t show – no ums or ahs, no red cheeks or trembling voice. I just need to move and pace to release the nervousness.)


  4. Kate Houck says:

    What an inspiring story with a powerful message. Hopefully this post can convince many to tune into the other ways those around them are trying to communicate. I personally am terrible (and fearful) of public speaking though proud of other ways in which I communicate well. Our society puts primary value in the podium sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comments, Kate. Public speaking scares most people, including me. But so many of my jobs required it, so I had to learn how to deal with the terror I initially experienced. I couldn’t eat for two days before any appearance. When all my clothes had to be altered, I decided to enroll in a workshop that helped me learn strategies that worked to deal with anxiety. I learned that fear can be useful. It’s a form of emotional energy that can be transformed if one is clear about purpose – knowing one’s purpose removes ego concerns and allows the use of all one’s abilities to convey a message. I’m grateful that I was able to use those insights to deal with folks like “the clicker” in order to help students.


  5. Sha'Tara says:

    A great article and prime example of how “the power structure” pushes people to the top who are usually non-empathetic, more machine, more robot, than human. Sadly a lot of that has oozed up into higher academic corridors. They also form the vast herd of middle management of corporations and banking. Should I mention government bureaucracy?
    Then along comes “you” and the system gets a shock. I’ve read stories and watched great movies about individuals like yourself infiltrating the power structure and at least to “that” extent, weakening it. Bravo, Carol! By reading your stories and thoughts I know that within “me” there has been nudges and jolts of higher awareness. Thank you.
    Your way is the correct way, the human way. In the next civilization (make no mistake, this one is doomed and will collapse totally) the way of nature will be connected fully with the way of the mind and higher consciousness. The “thinking” machines (computers) will be gone, obsolete, as well as anything resembling religion or social Darwinism. The people will be just that: the people, and nature will be their friend as they will be its friend. All the great social problems we struggle with today will have disappeared. For the time being, our “weapon” of mass destruction is compassion, and the gradual but steady rise in empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your thoughtful comments are always a gift, Sha’Tara. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the clicker did rise to a position of even greater power, and, of course, made sure I would never get tenure. He wasn’t the first or last to do so, but I’ve learned to view that as a special commendation. Ultimately, it liberates me so I can move on to challenge oppression in yet other institutional settings. I agree with your assessment that “our “weapon” of mass destruction is compassion, and the gradual but steady rise in empathy.” I would add that celebratory joy is an even greater “weapon.”


  6. sojourner says:

    “(I would rather listen to meaningful messages delivered inarticulately than the self-promoting drivel of a snake-oil salesman any day.)”

    Ditto for me, Carol!

    Content is no longer important, it’s all about presentation, whether it be public speaking or music performance. We live in a shallow age of mediocrity, where students and listeners must be entertained more than informed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So true, Dave. Throughout my career I’ve been learning how to do both – deliver meaningful content and entertain. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but in either case, it still gives me material for funny stories. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great story! And your summation sent chills down my body. You are so right about that dear Carol. If we can’t find our own “song,” there is no way we can help anyone else do the same. However, sharing our stories often inspires others to want to start looking and listening for the song in their hearts. So kudos for telling this one. Love, N 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Rajagopal says:

    I really appreciate the sensitivity with which you moulded an apparently deficient student. And therein lies the dedication and commitment of a great teacher, in the way he or she reaches out to handhold where needed with appropriate edification. Public speaking is a bogey for most people, yet it is a skill that must be mastered to the extent possible. Everyone may not become another orator in the classical mould such as Demosthenous, who himself struggled with crippling deficiencies before he rose to become an accomplished orator. That said, communication happens at many levels of which speaking is only one. The first chief minister of my home state of Kerala was a diminutive person, who was known for his stammering. Yet he was very popular among the people as a very analytical writer and effective public speaker. Youngsters must be encouraged to rise above their constraints. Wishing you enjoyable days ahead dear Carol…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments and reflections, Raj. As I just replied to Kate,

      “Public speaking scares most people, including me. But so many of my jobs required it, so I had to learn how to deal with the terror I initially experienced. I couldn’t eat for two days before any appearance. When all my clothes had to be altered, I decided to enroll in a workshop that helped me learn strategies that worked to deal with anxiety. I learned that fear can be useful. It’s a form of emotional energy that can be transformed if one is clear about purpose – knowing one’s purpose removes ego concerns and allows the use of all one’s abilities to convey a message. I’m grateful that I was able to use those insights to deal with folks like “the clicker” in order to help students.”

      From my perspective, public speaking is just one of many skills that can be used either to liberate or oppress. The examples you gave (Demosthenous and chief minister of your home state of Kerala) appear to be people who were motivated to overcome challenges in order to share important messages in ways that would be understood. I’m grateful that the student I worked with was able to uncover her many skills and do the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ronnie says:

    Terrific post Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I so enjoyed this! My fear of speaking persists after a lifetime of trying everything from Dale Carnegie, to Toastmasters, to hypnosis, etc. Now at 75 I just chuckle fondly when our Prime Minister speaks. There’s no point in counting all his ah’s and uh’s. We like him just the way he is 🙂
    You wouldn’t be overdoing it if you re-posted this regularly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such delightful comments, Fearless Analyst. My fear of public speaking persists, too, despite years of practice. Teaching still requires me to do so occasionally.

      I love your comments about your Prime Minister – ums and ahs shouldn’t distract us from who people are and the significance of what they have to share. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post. This is a beautiful message and you did an amazing job of communicating it even though you did it with words. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind and playful comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Certainly. I thoroughly enjoyed what you wrote. You inspire me. That’s a beautiful thing.

        And, thank you for “liking” the first essay I ever posted on my blog. (It was a spontaneous rant that had been building for a while). It’s so old, I’d forgotten about it. 🙂 I wanted more people to know about Edward Bernays and to actually think about how insidious the marketing industry has become.

        I always hope that if people think about what’s done in that business, how they manipulate fellow citizens without regard to the consequences to every living being on the planet, maybe they’ll change the mindless, obsessive consuming so many of us take part in.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. That’s great. Is it by Adam Curtis? His film “Century of the Self” should be watched by everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is “Century of the Self.” The class focuses on social justice from an historical social welfare perspective. It’s a foundation to (hopefully) better prepare students for future classes – community organizing and research. I will be co-teaching it with a colleague using a hybrid format that lends itself to using videos, written reflections, and dialogue (50% face-to-face and 50% online). We have yet to develop the details for the course and assignments. I welcome any suggestions you may have.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, I spent a fairly long time on a reply, then was asked to log in again in a new window. When I went back to this page my reply was gone. Here I go again:

    I’m sure you have better ideas than I could possibly come up with. I’m just a high school graduate with experience in music, animals and construction. I know that video is a powerful medium, much more powerful than reading – and I love to read.

    The only thing I can think of is to incorporate the technique in which labels are used to manipulate discussions, how they trigger specific ideas and opinions. (I don’t recall if Adam Curtis went into detail about this). For example, how Socialism causes many people to think of dictators and the suppression of rights despite the fact that, as far as political systems go, it’s a better match for democracy than Capitalism. Hitler did it by using the term in his political party and today mainstream Capitalists equate Socialism with Nazism. It’s almost funny.

    We need to teach creative thinking and learning through diverse sources of information. Even with the internet providing so much information at our fingertips, many of us are lazy and too easily distracted by soundbites of dysfunctional drama. Even people with compassion are misdirected toward heartless political views by this. There is a disconnect between our ideals and our opinions.

    I might have gone off in an unrelated direction. If so, I apologize. 🙂 I wish you and your colleagues well in this project. Thanks for listening to my ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for taking time to respond in such a thoughtful way. I can’t help adding an insight – it’s important to recognize that we often learn the most important lessons from “ordinary” people. (I consider myself one of the ordinary people, although others may disagree.) I have often thought about the fact that I learned far more from the residents in a state facility for people with mental retardation or from elders in nursing homes than I did in most university classes or textbooks.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I learn from many types of people – including from people who appear ignorant, highly dysfunctional and angry. I receive lessons in humility, tolerance and patience from them. It’s much better than getting angry and complaining. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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