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.

19 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Being a Dyslexic Academic

    • Oh, thank you! And thanks for the link. Her point about ‘autopilot’ errors is something I completely agree with.

      And yes, seeing scribbles in manuscripts is the *best* thing. You suddenly think, wow, that is someone real, 600 years ago. I love it.

  1. I am full of admiration for all your hard work, your learning of lecture notes, and the way you map them out to make them navigable. It is such a shame how society’s reaction to deemed human shortcomings, such as a lack of facility in managing written language, veers on a scale between surprise to intolerance. But well done you, both for dealing with it, and for writing about it.

    • Thank you!

      I think all academics have areas where they have to work particularly hard, and this just happens to be mine. But I think it’s useful to talk about it, so other dyslexics know that they’re not unusual in having to think a little bit about where to concentrate energy. And to know they could go into academia if they chose (I know I’ve not being doing it for long enough to say that, but other dyslexics have!).

      I feel very lucky to get to do this.

  2. Very fine post. I’m legally blind, with enough vision anomalies that my ophthalmologists all call dibs on my eyes when I die. The best one, though, for living in the world, is that I have double vision in each eye, which means by the end of the day (which is sometimes early afternoon), I see four of everything and they are all blurry. Stairs are the most fun, with anything involving flame a very close second. I just want to say that I admire both your hard work and very positive attitude. Thanks for giving me such a lift.

    • Oh, gosh! That sounds really tricky, and must be incredibly tiring. I had to grin at the opthalmologists squabbling over eyes, though.

      Thank you for writing this, so much.

  3. Thank you for this great article! I think I had always just made the assumption that people suffering from dyslexia were not the type of people who would *want* to become academics, which is frankly ridiculous now that I really think about it. Well done for persevering and doing something you love!
    Dyslexia is something that I would like to find out more about, as I sometimes think that my boyfriend, who constantly muddles up letters and sometimes leaves the endings off words when writing, may be a bit dyslexic. I’m going to have a look at those dyslexia awareness websites you posted 🙂

    • Thank you for commenting!

      Interesting about your boyfriend – lots of people do get diagnosed as adults (or end up considering that there might be a reason for what they do, at least). I hope the websites are useful.

      I do really love what I do. I feel very lucky to have been able to do it. 🙂

  4. One of my best mates is a science teacher with a PhD in botany, and is also dyslexic. And one of my cohort who are currently (hopefully) graduating with our PhDs at our virology institute. So I don’t think dyslexic academics are all that rare – nor should they be. You and my friends are among the most intelligent people I know!

    • Thank you!

      And no, I don’t think dyslexic academics are or should be rare (especially in sciences and engineering, where I think there’s more of a culture of expectation). People are getting to be more and more open about it, which is really important, so that people coming up through undergraduate degrees and beyond know that they’re not alone.

    • 😀 Yeah, I also use ‘dyslexic’ as a shorthand (in my case ‘you have dyslexic tendencies and a bit of dyspraxia and, er, it all looks very odd …’).

      Thank you for commenting. I love that there are so many more of us than I’d ever have expected ten years ago when I was starting out.

  5. Thank you for sharing, and I think you are very brave.
    I have dyscalculia, a math based learning disability, which I didn’t find out about until I was in my early thirties. I was a mature student working on my BA and through the suggestion of my roommate at the time, I self referred to a psychologist. It was a relief to find out.
    I grew up in the UK and left the country to return to the US in ’82. I wish I had known, as I am sure school and exam results would have been different.
    Again, I think it is great that you disclosed. Hopefully, more and more as you say will have the courage to come forward and share as you have.

    • Thank you for replying!

      I think late diagnoses are really tough – it is infuriating no one picked up the problem earlier. But I can relate to that feeling of relief that there is an explanation, completely.

  6. Thank you for writing this. My own dyslexia manifests itself in missing words, a tendency to drop the suffixes and a habit of writing hard to follow sentences. Got through my Ph.D. and several appointments so far by dint of working really hard. Your experiences resonated with me. Lecture notes remain an issue for me too as I can’t always read or understand what I meant when I wrote the slides. I use cue cards for serious presentations and have trained myself to do things from memory. That’s really hard. But it sort of works. I wish I had know about other scholars with dyslexia when I was a grad student, I would have stopped beating myself up for ‘bad’ writing. Ironically, I now seem to have better handwriting than most of my undergraduates who are so used to computers that they can’t form letters…

    • Thank you for commenting! I miss words out too – I don’t miss suffixes, but do have a bad habit of changing subject mid-sentence. Oh, the fun.

      I agree with you, I wish we all knew each other more. But I think we are becoming more visible as a group within academia. I know a fair few other dyslexic academics now, and it is great.

  7. Hello.
    I see that the comment immediately preceding mine is dated two years back, but then again, your post is from two years previous to that, so why not add comment? Thank you for writing and posting this. It’s very affirming & I am oft in want of affirmation regarding my allegedly oxymoronic identity as an LD academic/student. Your post gives me an urge to rhapsodize at length upon it, but the keyboard & I are not friends (esp. flat keys, which is what’s presently at my disposal), so I shall just give three highlights.

    1) Your description of your frustrations with certain machine input systems. For word processing, I have found the higher end versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking very helpful, but it doesn’t work well w/ other classes of programs and I don’t imagine voice-input on limited-purpose machines (like at the post ofc) is coming soon…

    2) Your statement “I really enjoy being dyslexic.” I don’t think I’ve heard or seen this sentiment so simply, yet, unequivocally expressed. When I imply it myself, people look at me as though I’m delusional, perhaps lacking in self-awareness. It seems it is too far beyond them to appreciate the positive aspects or how interesting it is…there is a schism between our ontologies.

    3) Knowing you and the prior commenters exist. I feel my LD & my bibliophilia are both integral to who I am, even intertwined. I also feel nearly alone for having this outlook & it does me well to have evidence that I am NOT. Also, I will soon be beginning my postgraduate degree and am ever on the lookout for positive role models.

    So (after an hour of typing), thank you.

    • Oh, thank you for writing this! A lot of food for thought. You write so eloquently – you should write more (when you’re not typing on a flat keyboard!). Good luck with the degree! You will be brilliant.

      Thank you for commenting. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Top Tips for Starting a PhD | Dr Laura Varnam

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