A Stutterer Who Became a Professor: Stuttering through Grad School

Years before becoming a professor, I started graduate school to pursue a PhD in history without thinking too much about the implications of my disability on my chance of building a career in the profession that would require me to speak publicly every day. Perhaps I had been too excited and optimistic about the prospect of fulfilling my dream of becoming a career scholar that I had somehow forgotten all about my stuttering. Then came Day One in graduate school that served as a harsh reminder that I had entered a world in which my soul would be crushed on a daily basis because of my inability to verbalize the ideas that I had worked so hard to form and wanted so much to contribute to my new scholarly community. I arrived full of energy and enthusiasm in my historical methods seminar that day to present a reading report and discussion questions on Marx that I had volunteered to prepare for the class. Before the first hour of the seminar passed, it became clear that I had picked a very bad stuttering day to present my first oral report in graduate school. My professor, whose patience had run out, asked me to stop my desperate attempt to get the Marxian theory out of my mouth so the class could move on. It was just one of the countless soul-crushing moments that would make me feel unworthy of the education that I had the privilege of undertaking. At the end of that academic quarter, the same professor, an influential scholar in his field, noted in his narrative evaluation of my performance in his class that my poor oral communication skills were a serious hindrance to my scholarly and teaching career. In my second year in graduate school, another highly respected white male professor, a preeminent historian whose seminar I enjoyed, wrote a narrative evaluation describing me as “excessively diffident,” although I thought I had performed well as a discussant in his class.

Nevertheless, I kept clinging to the dream that I would one day complete my degree and become a professional historian, because I was lucky enough to find a greater number of professors and cohorts in my graduate program who were genuinely interested in my work and had enough patience, compassion, and intellectual generosity to hear my ideas. They accepted me as who I was and played an indispensable role in my intellectual development. My dissertation advisers didn’t think that my speech disorder would jeopardize my career, embraced me as their student, and also respected me as a future colleague. I went on the academic job market knowing that they had my back. But I was far from convinced that our profession was ready to accept or accommodate people like me who have communication disorders. Rather, I was convinced and am still convinced that the profession remains an environment inaccessible and hostile to many of us. For instance, there are few alternatives to the traditional paper sessions and discussion panels at academic conferences, the most important venues where we present our work, build professional networks, and prove our scholarly productivity crucial for career advancement. The intensity of the 15-minute presentation format at these conferences is challenging enough for those without speech disorders. Although I have learned to enjoy giving conference papers and other scholarly talks over the years, preparing these presentations and handling Q&As (in both friendly and hostile environments) has been one of the many stress-inducing aspects of my job as an academic who stutters.

For stutterers (probably for non-stutterers, too), however, no conference presentation compares to the atrociousness of academic job interviews. 

To be continued…


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