From ten-minute phone interrogations to longer Skype interviews to interviews at major conferences to campus visits full of meetings and presentations, academic job searches are designed to scrutinize how candidates communicate verbally in the most intense settings possible as a measure of their intellectual prowess and sociability. Consequently, those with disabilities that cause speech disfluencies —those that are bold and determined enough to pursue a career in this profession in spite of their communication disorders — are at a serious disadvantage.
Like all of my peers in the professoriate, my path to a tenure-track professorship wasn’t quite easy. Every PhD I know who has joined the world of academia has a unique story of how they have survived graduate school and the job market. The academic job market has not been kind to most of the PhDs that I know — gifted thinkers and writers, prolific researchers, and dear friends — some of whom have left the academe while others keep struggling, keep dreaming of landing a job somewhere. So, I am one of the lucky ones that got a coveted tenure-track job at a “research one” public university. I am a lucky one because the stars aligned for me — the timing of the search, my work’s fit for the position and the institution, and a million other factors that made me a viable candidate for the job. But the way I presented my work in my interviews, delivered my research talk, interacted with my prospective colleagues during my campus visit, and convinced the search committee that I was the strongest candidate probably mattered a lot, too. That’s where the significance of my stuttering comes in.
I was lucky because the interviews and campus talk for my current job took place on days when I happened to stutter not as badly as usual. More importantly, I was lucky because my current colleagues — the ones who reviewed my application materials, interviewed me for the job, heard me present my research and respond to questions at my job talk in sentences full of “uh’s” and “um’s,” and saw me interact with students on my campus visit — judged me and accepted me as one of their own based on the strength of my work, my potential as a colleague, and the content of my speech rather than the style of my speech (or a lack thereof). I have a disability (more on stuttering as a disability in a future post) that could have ended my career before it had even started. On more than one occasion upon entering the academic job market out of graduate school, I completely bombed interviews because I stuttered so badly and couldn’t complete my answers to simple questions about my research topic and teaching interests. On one particularly “bad” day that I stuttered so severely, I had to inform the search committee in the middle of a phone interview that I was unable to carry on with the interview, effectively withdrawing my candidacy for the job.
I imagine some people, maybe even some among stutterers, may have issues with seeing stuttering as a disability worthy of accommodations. Even medical professionals once saw stuttering as a psychological or behavioral disorder, rather than a physiological one. Although studies have found that causes of stuttering are in fact neurophysiological or hereditary, a speech disorder can easily be mistaken for a social, psychological, behavioral, or even cultural issue. For instance, as an Asian American man who stutters, I am far too often subject to being racially stereotyped as socially awkward, timid, inarticulate, and lacking confidence (more on being a stuttering professor of color in a future piece). Even one of the speech therapists I’ve worked with in the past suggested that my cultural background must have had something to do with my speech “behavior!” (I stopped seeing that therapist after a few sessions.) As I continue to confront those who react to my stammer this way or even with pity (“Relax,” “I know you’re nervous,” etc.–more on this in a future post, too.), I sometimes see my landing an academic job — the job that I’ve always wanted and love — as nothing short of a miracle.