The Ups and Downs of Being a Dyslexic Academic

Chaucer's Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

Chaucer’s Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

“And ‘a’, and ‘b’, and ‘c’ … xyz, xy with esed, and per se, Tyttle Tyttle Tyttle than Est and Amen.” 

This string of alphabetic letters and puzzling interjections comes from a medieval manuscript, London, BL MS Harley 1304. It probably looks like gibberish, or reminds you of the incomprehensibility of the written page you felt when you were learning to read. But for a medieval child, these marks had meaning: aside from the alphabetic letters, the ‘esed’ tells a child how to say the letter ‘z’, while the ‘and, per se’ (‘and, just as it is’) provided a key to the & symbol included at the end of the traditional alphabet. Every word and name, however odd, had a meaning, but they also remind us how easily written culture can become strange and incomprehensible.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about dyslexia and being an academic for, ooh, about a year now, but I’ve been putting it off. And then, today I read this excellent post by a fellow dyslexic academic, in which she pointed out that it’s Dyslexia Awareness Week. So, here’s a post. It’s not everything I want to say, but it’s something.

For me, for a long time, being dyslexic was something I was pretty comfortable with, something I’d acknowledge easily, but which honestly didn’t affect my academic life much.

I was much more likely to need help with the boring day-to-day side of things. I’ll give you an example of why. Imagine you’re in the Post Office, posting a parcel using a self-service machine to print the label. You need to type in the Post Code. Now, a normal digit span is between five and nine. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll err on the low side and say six. That’s the number of digits most people can comfortably manage to keep in mind for a moment or two, while they write it down. If you think about it, you’ll see how most things are nicely adapted to this – bank cards come with the numbers separated neatly into groups of four, post codes are six or seven digits, your PIN is four digits.

Oddly, this seems to be something that’s stayed consistent for a while. Medieval educated people knew about chunking things into sixes and sevens. But, they didn’t immediately adapt their numeric system, because few people really needed to use it for big numbers. They mostly used Roman numerals, and you can see that these aren’t the best adapted for large numbers. 1998, for example, is four digits, while its equivalent MCMXCVIII is more than double that.

My digit span is three at a push and two to be comfortable. So, it’s 1/3 of normal.

Imagine you’re standing at a self-service machine, trying to type in the postcode for the letter you’re trying to post. Only now, imagine that postcode is OQFXJD298 894PLZGFH. And imagine that the buttons you have to press are arranged in a random order, too, so you need to look for each letter and number. You don’t track well, so imagine they shift around slightly every time you look away. The machine is set up to assume you can type this string of letters and numbers pretty much instantly, without pausing to check it where the buttons are. So it’ll time out if you take too long.

You can probably see where I’m going. I time out. I hate using self-service machines. I’d rather queue, and if I’m not allowed to do that, someone has to come and help me. Mostly, if that person isn’t impatient (actually, they’re often not), they will assume they’re dealing with someone with low literacy. They’ll be kind, and I have on occasion had someone ask me if I’ll get home ok. It’s thoughtful, but it’s the kind of help doesn’t easily sit alongside careers in academia in most people’s minds.

But in academia, it was a different story. Writing a PhD, or even doing an undergraduate degree in English, is actually reasonably dyslexia-friendly. It’s also very isolated.

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I initially wanted to focus on non-standard medieval reading, so obviously, I did disclose my dyslexia, because I using it as a research tool. My supervisors were quick to make accommodations, so that was fine. It perhaps should have been a warning sign that one of my supervisors occasionally commented that I seemed to have a slightly unusual process of drafting chapters – but I didn’t worry too much. Last summer, I finally handed in my thesis – some inch-and-a-half thick block of A4 pages full of footnotes and picture captions and transcriptions of Middle English. At some stage in this process, my supervisor suggested I should let my examiners know I was ‘severely dyslexic’. I winced back from that term. It’s one that’s used (in my experience) in formal reports, and I knew I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination severely dyslexic. But she pointed out she’d rarely taught students who struggled as much as I did.

This wasn’t something I’d been aware of. I’d been coasting along quite happily, and it was a bit of a shock to wiggle myself back into that old identity as the struggling dyslexic student – the one I hadn’t really felt was ‘me’ for a long time. To cut a long story short, I did pass my PhD, but I did fail my corrections the first time around. My internal examiner was, to put it mildly, Not Happy. She’d put a lot of time into making a very clear list of corrections – why on earth hadn’t I bothered?! If I’d known I wasn’t managing the corrections, why hadn’t I asked for help?

The answer (obviously, but I didn’t immediately understand) was that I’d had no idea I was having problems on the level she saw. I’d skip thirty lines and not even notice. I’d make a correction, then put it straight back. I couldn’t keep track of which page I was on.

Eventually, I took a breath, and asked for help. I got a lot of proof-reading from friends (and my very generous supervisor) that year – and that’s a lot in the context of PhD students, who ask each other to proof-read all the time. I resubmitted my corrections and held my breath, and this time, I did get through.

At the moment, I’m lecturing medieval English, which is something I’m sure my infant school teacher didn’t quite expect. I’ve made a lot of progress. Five years ago, I struggled to read a twenty-minute conference paper. I had to learn to memorize it, instead of reading aloud. Now, I can memorise an hour’s lecture and I know how to sort out my lecture notes (14 point type, double spaced, short paragraphs, lots of italic and bold and pointy arrows) so that I can glance at them if I need to.

I can even lecture for an hour on Piers Plowman, and that is hard, reading aloud in Middle English and unpicking syntax on a powerpoint I can’t read for myself. I’m thankful alliterative long lines only have four or five stresses. It’s draining doing those lectures, but fun to know I can do it, too.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know of any dyslexic academics. If I was taught by any, they didn’t make a point of talking about it. I’m trying to talk about it, not just to make excuses, but because, actually, you can adapt to most things. Slowly, I’m bringing together the two sides of how I deal with dyslexia – the side I use in the Post Office queue, where I ask for help and I know it’s obvious I’m struggling, and the side I use in academia, where for a long time, I didn’t feel as if there should be any struggle at all. I really enjoy being dyslexic. I’m interested in the pedagogy of it, and the psychology, and the histories of orthography that inform how our own reading systems developed. I’d like to think there will be more and more of us working in academia, who can bring these slightly skewed perspectives to the table.

Every now and again, in a medieval manuscript, I come across some scribbles by children learning the alphabet. And every now and again, I notice some of the letters are backwards, in the wrong order. I can’t show you a picture, because I don’t have the copyright – but you can imagine that when I see that, it really makes me feel at home.


For more on the medieval alphabet, see Daniel T. Kline’s book Medieval Literature for Children (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), especially the article by Martha Dana Rust, from which the alphabet above is quoted.

For more on Dyslexia Awareness, see the pages by the British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action.