Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Academic Philosophy (guest post)
An undergraduate student in philosophy has been wondering whether their dyslexia gives them a strong reason to avoid pursuing graduate study and a career in academic philosophy.
The student asked their professor to write in to see what the readers of Daily Nous thought. Here’s what the professor said:
My situation is this: I have an extremely bright, creative and highly motivated undergraduate student. The student is also dyslexic, to the extent that reading text is much more difficult for them than it is for the average student. In my view, the student is otherwise clearly capable of succeeding at the graduate level in philosophy, should they be admitted to a good, supportive program. They have a great deal of intrinsic motivation to teach and research, and great ideas. However, they’re wondering whether their dyslexia might be a decisive reason to avoid this career path. I hadn’t encountered this question before, so I was wondering if your readers might have opinions here.
It is likely that especially valuable comments on this topic will come from philosophy graduate students and professors who have dyslexia, dysgraphia, or other conditions which make reading and writing difficult, and I hope they choose to voice their opinions on this matter.
My wonderful colleague here in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Tyke Nunez, is one such person, and he kindly wrote up his thoughts on the matter, posted below.
Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Academic Philosophy
by Tyke Nunez
If a student is dyslexic and otherwise shows potential in philosophy, is it worth encouraging them to go on to graduate school? I’m a colleague of Justin’s who is severely dyslexic and dysgraphic. (Unaided, I read at roughly a third to a quarter of normal pace and I exhibit three or more standard deviations between my processing speed index and other WAIS-3 scores.) My short answer is ‘Yes.’ But let me elaborate through answering a few questions that you might be wondering about.
Is philosophy a good thing to spend your life doing if you’re dyslexic? Going into academia in the humanities is likely not where a dyslexic will find their competitive advantage, as the economists say, but that’s a strange way to think about one’s life. If you love it, dyslexia should not prevent you from going to graduate school in philosophy. Among humanities disciplines, dyslexics also seem well suited to philosophy, because philosophy requires reading slowly and carefully. When I picked up the Republic in high school, it was the first thing that I’d read that seemed worth the trouble and pain of reading. My dyslexia and dysgraphia mean that the various dimensions of research and teaching preparation that require reading and writing take me significantly longer. As a result, I have always had to spend a much larger amount of my time working than my peers. For me it’s worth it, because there is nothing else that I’d like to spend this amount of my life doing.
Will being dyslexic be a hindrance to getting into grad school, succeeding in grad school or getting a job? What is it like to be in the academy as someone with dyslexia? Professionally, my sense is that by disclosing a learning disability one will face some discrimination, and that this is not a kind of diversity that is valued in the academy today. As an undergraduate I had professors who were extremely resistant to accommodating my disability, however, as a graduate student I didn’t. This is likely because in graduate school one tends to know one’s professors well, and I didn’t ask for many accommodations. Looking back over my application materials for graduate school from 2005/6, it looks like I included a statement about my disability for several of my applications. I did not get into any of those schools, but I got into many comparable or better ones for which I did not include such a statement.
When I was applying for jobs at universities and colleges, I deliberated about discussing my learning disability in my diversity statement. I ultimately decided to do it because I think it is important for people with learning disabilities to be visible in the profession. I had one interview with a department that asked for my diversity statement. As a professor, I always talk about my dyslexia with my students at the beginning of every semester. It helps to put us all on an even footing. I’m also an avid whiteboard user that spells at an eighth-grade level, so it’s obvious. Otherwise, my disability is not very apparent from the outside, say, if you are reading my work or on a committee with me.
What accommodations are there that make philosophy doable with dyslexia? Obviously, spell-checker has been essential. I also would not have been able to make it as an undergraduate, let alone through graduate school, without the use of audio-book services like Learning Ally or text-to-speech programs like VoiceDream reader. Even in philosophy, you can’t read everything slowly, and without these aids I would neither be able to skim (listening sped up, no underlining) nor read carefully at a workable speed (listening sped up while following with my eyes, but stopping to highlight and take notes). Likely if a student is thinking about graduate school, they have already cultivated a base competency with these skills. Of course, even with these aids I read much more slowly than someone who does not have dyslexia.
Even more than my dyslexia, dysgraphia—which often accompanies and is conflated with dyslexia—has been a hurdle. Before I reached college, I thought I might want to go in to philosophy professionally, but early on a professor made it clear to me that the coin of the realm was the essay, and that mastering argumentative writing was a requirement on a life in philosophy. In my first two years of college, I had the good fortune of having professors who would closely read and edit draft after draft of my papers, which improved my writing. Twenty years on, writing is still a laborious and painful process. It is orders of magnitude more cognitively demanding than speaking. But it is also a daily practice that I now crave. I imagine that if I had grown up using speech-to-text programs like Dragon Dictate, I might have been able to become a faster, more fluid, more elegant writer than I am. Now, however, I’m accustomed to my writing process, and learning to use such programs feels forced.
There should be more acceptance of learning disabilities in the academy. A requisite step is recognizing and fostering the academic potential of students with such disabilities. Of course, this comes with challenges, but the transition to graduate school is difficult for everyone. Many of my peers struggled to learn to read slowly and carefully. I struggled to learn to read quickly and cursorily. Both are basic skills. As an undergraduate, I did not look like a standard good philosophy student. If you are already seeing the philosophical potential of students despite their differences with this standard, then you are already well down the path to making the profession more accepting.
Note: Some minor clarificatory edits were made to the post since it was first published.
UPDATE: Lex Academic has created a new scholarship for graduate students with dyslexia who are studying philosophy. The scholarship includes £500 and free proofreading of the recipient’s thesis or dissertation. Details here.
I have a similar background disability-wise. I never read novels because I cant read at the pace they are written (something that many wont understand) but philosophy isnt written in this way and suites a slower read. However, I wouldnt encourage pursuing the subject as a profession as the reading mass could be too great no matter the passion possessed. I taught for a couple of years but retreated to armchair status where I enjoy research at my own sweet pace.
But, as the writer and many other will prove, dyslexia isnt necessarily an insurmountable barrier.Report
I find your example of not being able to read novels “at the pace they are written” interesting. Would you say it’s comparable to watching a film in slow motion, so as to keep up with the subtitles? I’m trying to imagine what that disconnect in pacing feels like.Report
Yes, the film in slow motion analogy is close; life has a pace that is reflected in fiction and is, for me, difficult to access in novels.
Maybe, unsurprisingly, I’m fine with actual films (as long as I dont need subtitles!).Report
I’m dyslexic. In second grade, I could barely read and write. I passed through early education by memorizing words and figuring out how to please teachers. After being diagnosed in 1982, I worked with LD specialists from 2nd grade through high school. In middle school, I dictated papers to Mom, and she would write my essay in pencil so I could trace her handwriting in pen before I turned in my report to my teachers. In college, I had a note card on how to spell out numbers to write checks.
I went to a college with an established learning disability program that worked with dyslexic students and graduated in 1992. There are far more resources for dyslexic students now.
In my opinion, most academics struggle to understand dyslexia because it is difficult for many intelligent people to grasp processing and decoding problems with language. Judgments about what a person with dyslexia can’t do by other academics, in my opinion, are a much more significant impediment to an aspiring student’s success than dyslexia itself.
It’s vital to focus on the skills and talents of any promising philosophy student. Focus on their actual abilities and capabilities. If a dyslexic graduate student is like me, they will rely on text-to-voice software, Grammarly, and kind proofreaders (thanks, Zach Hoskins!). But preparing a manuscript for publication or writing a dissertation while trying to avoid dyslexic mistakes is far less important than the skills necessary to think about and write an argument and inspire students to think about philosophy.
For any aspiring dyslexic philosopher or any dyslexic student, please feel free to contact me.
I graduated from college in 1996! But that’s an example of a kind of dyslexic mistake I make.Report
“There are far more resources for dyslexic students now.” Yet getting diagnosed is an seemingly impossible task.Report
I want to express my appreciation of this post and also for the resources like Lex Academic. I never came across it (Lex Academic) before and I was desperately looking for a service like as I’m completing my PhD dissertation.
I also want to add some other thoughts to Tyke Nunez’s post from my own experience.
Here are some things I’ve learn about my learning style:
All of this!! I am a physics major and (overall) an A student but I have extreme difficulty with certain aspects of math (algebra in particular) because of my tendencies to flip and transpose symbols.
Seeking math support has been a non stop series of “you should have learned this in high school” (I did learn it in high school, and did later pass it at a college level, but I need support and accomodations to be successful), “everyone finds this difficult” (there is a difference between difficult and incomprehensible gibberish), “you just need to grind until you get it” (I’m “grinding” to the point of nosebleeds and I still cannot work through the problem algebraically, but I can do it geometrically, it just takes a stupidly long time), etc.
Some really stand out microagressions have been “I just don’t think there are many dyslexic people in STEM”, “I don’t understand why you don’t understand this, you are acting dumb”, “algebra is easy, you obviously aren’t putting the necessary time into review”…
Exhausting, and disheartening.
It would be possibly helpful to find out what my specific issues are but I am struggling to get diagnosed (I was told I was dyslexic as a child, but I don’t have a formal diagnosis anywhere)Report
What a heartening and wise account! I applaud your candor and helpfulness. I hope lots of professors and potential grad students read it — and apply it to their own situations. A big tent is good. Cheers!Report
Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath’ had a chapter on how dyslexia is overrepresented among CEOs and plausibly provides some advantages, though I can’t remember the figures (also: standard disclaimers about Gladwell). It seems to me many of the arguments there would apply here too. If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably not going to be the thing that takes you out of the running as you’ve probably got other qualities which compensate for the ways in which the difficulties of dyslexia are disadvantageous. (Of course, given so many grad students don’t go on to academia there may still be a high chance of this not happening).Report
My partner (a philosophy professor) is dyslexic. In her early years as a PhD students, she felt she could never catch up with the readings and was thinking about quitting. Fortunately, a mentor of hers, who also has dyslexia, told her to experiment with various text-to-speech apps that read books and journal articles aloud, and she eventually found the one that works the best for her. Being able to listen to, rather than to just read (in the narrower sense of “reading”), the literature has transformed her academic career and her life more generally. Hopefully it would also work for OP or others with similar conditions.Report
I’m dyslexic, and I’ve always deeply struggled writing/editing my papers. Nevertheless, I’ve had decent success in a professional setting. My collaborators and colleagues have all been excellent when it comes to not judging my dyslexic faux pas. (I realize this is just an anecdote – perhaps I’m just lucky.)
I’m writing mostly to share a tip that’s helped me immensely over the years: The “read aloud” function in Word is a life saver for me. Before sending any paper off for review, or for someone else to read, I listen to the entire paper in Word. I catch many, many mistakes this way that would otherwise be almost impossible for me to catch visually.
I’ll add that dyslexia shouldn’t scare anyone off from pursuing philosophy. If it’s of value to you, you should study it. As noted above, my impression there are many people in the field, like myself, who understand the struggle. Second, I’ve have as much professional success as of my peers who don’t have any obvious learning disabilities. It’s a challenge to overcome dyslexia and other similar disabilities to be sure – but, as many are reporting on this thread, it’s not insurmountable. Keep at it!Report
I am dyspraxic, which means I have some specific struggles with writing. I often leave out words, type words in the wrong order or write a different word from the one I intended. Philosophers prize accuracy, so this is not great, but I muddle along. Reviewers’ comments always say something about “sloppiness” “proofreading” etc.
I also have trouble remembering names and specific words. This makes things time consuming. I have written relatively long pieces with the help of a dictionary or the internet. It can require some creativity. Let us say, you forgot the word “philosophy”. You then have to free associate – “Ancient Greece” “Plato” – then type it into a search engine. Yes, it is painful, but I turn it into a game.
Any learning disability will make tasks more time consuming. The question is, is the student prepared to put in the extra effort, maybe turn it into a game and ignore the reviewers’ comments etc.? You need patience and a sense of humour. Or at least that’s my experience.Report
I’m not sure I’m allowed to chime in or not. I did my MA in Theological Studies. I have ADHD, dyslexia etc. It is important to have a school that is supportive of your work and disability. I graduated with PTSD from seminary because, frankly, the expectation there as in every other part of the world is that if you are neurodiverse you have to do twice the work to be ‘normal’. I chose my school in part because the theology department was headed by a scholar of disability theologies, who, it turns out, did not see my disability as being legit. I gave up my Phd dreams (but not my writing, researching etc dreams – I just had to change my definition of success). I hope you get the support you need but be aware that these schools are not always supportive.Report
I think whether dyslexia gives a student a strong reason against pursuing academic philosophy would really depend (at least) on the contours of their specific divergence. My variety of dyslexia was relatively debilitating in early education (still reading/writing at roughly 1st grade level by 4th grade), merely inconvenient / embarrassing in college (e.g. reading out loud was still at roughly middle school level, but solo reading was maybe just 50-75% of average rate), further waned through my MA and early PhD studies, and then was largely managed by the time I was ABD. Now that I’m in the profession, I see the divergence, and my experiences managing it, mostly as a gift as opposed to a burden.
That said, it definitely left scars. For one, I think I’m just now over the imposter syndrome that came with it. To give one example, I still vividly recall the intense anxiety I would feel every time I walked across the ANU campus to the mostly empty 400 seat auditorium where I was teaching Logic and Critical Thinking. The fact that I would need to read text off my slides, and that the whole thing was being recorded for students who needed to view the lecture from home (by state mandate), kind of terrified me. And this was many years after any signs of a reading impairment were gone.
In my case, I spoke fairly openly about my dyslexia with my graduate school friends and some professors by the time it was no longer causing serious issues, but I did tend to bury it when I first went on the job market. I think by the time I had eight or ten publications, I decided it was time to stop burying, and I added it back into my Teaching Statement and Diversity Statement. I figured any committee that still holds it against me after they read one of my solo authored papers isn’t the kind of group I want to work with. And I do think the challenges I faced with my own learning have made me a much better teacher; so in that sense it ought to be seen as a positive. But I do wonder whether that was a mistake. After all, in this market, committees are looking for any reason they can to make the pile more manageable. Over the last few job market rounds, my conversion rate for interviews has been worse than it was during the burying days, but any number of things could explain that.
Although getting settled in the profession has been a challenging experience, each time I’ve gotten close to leaving the field I’ve spent some time reflecting on whether I regret forming what I recognized at the time to be an extremely irrational long term commitment. Each time, I have had no regrets. I think the way I see and understand the world now was worth the trials, and I’ve developed an interesting suite of useful skills. So my overall advice would be that in a lot of cases it is well worth the attempt. But they should also know it’s very likely to be challenging and very likely to leave some scars.Report
I keep finding myself coming back to this conversation. Something in it resonates with me, plucks a chord in me. In seminary (yep, theologian-pastor not philosopher. Sorry for any deception). As an ADHDer I struggled with the reading, my dept head prof would read at us from 30 pages of typed notes for 2 or 3 hours. I couldn’t keep up. I’d talk to her about the reading and walk away from her office with extra readings. We were an independent school on the UBC campus and no one was sure if the disability resource office was a thing I could use or not. When I told people I was struggling I was told ‘this is how academics do it’. I watched as other students were considered for TA positions, conference presentations, secret dinners – but because I couldn’t keep up I was discouraged from attending. I still remember my fellow MA students planning to go to AAR and learning I was not invited – by my very dept head because I did not fit the neurotypical definition of a ‘real scholar’. Towards the end I was vomiting daily for over a year and still have PTSD. I will never do a phd, as much as I want to. I can’t let my self get that sick again. Even if I’m starting up my research again, even if I have to redefine what my theological and philosophical work looks like.Report
I am late to this discussion but I was sexually assaulted on Friday and wanted to take some space before I contributed (I’m OK).
I enjoyed reading this post and the comments. I was especially struck by remarks Tyke Nunez made about the denial of accommodations as an undergrad and acceptances/rejections to grad school; Jeffrey Brown’s remarks about external judgements of dyslexic students; and all of Dyslexic, dysgraphic grad’s comment.
I think what needs to be resisted is the institutional motivation to naturalize certain ways of knowing and learning. We know what this does and who is subjected to it. Feminist philosophers have convincingly argued, for example, that women (among others) have been denied epistemic authority on the grounds that their thinking is too emotional, particularistic, perspectival, etc. The way forward has been to challenge what counts as knowledge, who counts as a knower, why they do, and so forth.
This sort of structural response to exclusionary notions about knowing, learning, understanding, thinking must also be taken with respect to the apparatus of disability and disabled people. The frame must shift from “Can this student (and students like this student) do it?” to “How can professors, departments, institutions make it possible for a large number of students to do it?”
Professors, departments, and institutions bear the responsibility for the pedagogical practices under which students learn. Universal Design in Learning (UDL) is an established field that can enable faculty to develop new methods and techniques that facilitate the engagement and learning of a wider group of learners.
The academy is ableist. Philosophy is deeply ableist. Disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, are engaged in an act of enormous struggle and resistance to dismantle the current state of affairs with respect to academic ableism and ableism in philosophy in particular.
The Dialogues on Disability series of interviews that I conduct with disabled philosophers (students and faculty) has been a very effective means in which we continue to do so. You can find the archive of more than 90 interviews here: Dialogues on Disability – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
I highly recommend the Dialogues on Disability series to any disabled student or faculty member who wants to learn more about the subjective experiences of disabled philosophers, what they do to counter the ableism that they confront in philosophy, what ableism in philosophy looks like, its structural mechanisms, and so on. Indeed, much of the content of the BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY blog revolves around these sorts of concerns and problematizes them.
A number of items on my PhilPeople page will also be of interest. You can find my page here: Shelley L Tremain – PhilPeople
Thank you for opening this discussion.Report
Thank you for your comments here. Let me start by sending you good thoughts and love – your Friday experience sounds heartbreaking. Your comments here really touched me. It was my hope while in seminary to write a liberation theology from inside the experience of ADHD/Learning Disability/Neurodiversity. Just we have fields of BIPOC, feminist, womanist, LGBTQI, First Nations etc theologies and philosophies – why not an ADHD one? What does it mean to say that ADHD/Neurodiversity is not a learning disability but ‘learning, disabled’ (we disabled the assumptions of knowing and knowledge, we disrupt thinking systems that undergird injustice etc). I left grad school with PTSD and a Phd is just a thing I can’t do so this project of mine is a SLOW one – its only now because of my sons struggles with the school post-diagnosis and reading this conversation that I am finding energy to get back to it, add it to the rotation of ADHD hyper focuses so I can move forward at whatever pace I achieve.
We don’t just need neurodiverse philosopher and theologians, we need NEURODIVERSE THEOLOGIES and PHILOSOPHIES.Report
I want to add that any disabled philosopher who wants to do an interview with me for the Dialogues on Disability series can contact me at [email protected]. I’m currently scheduling interviews that will be posted to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY from June on.Report