Make Room For The Stuttering

Should Prof Help Stuttering Student?

Posted on: February 4, 2011

Last night I got a call from a professor from an elite university here in my area. She is teaching a graduate level physics class which is just getting underway for the semester. One of her students is from China and is pursuing his graduate degree in engineering.

The professor shared with me that he has a severe stutter. She says she talked with him about it and he told her that there is nothing that can be done for him. She wanted to find some resources to educate herself and to pass on to him, if she senses he would be OK with that.

She told me on the first night of class, she partnered students up in pairs for introductions, and she purposely paired herself with the student who stutters. As she told me this, her tone seemed to imply that she thought she was protecting him. Each person in the pair had to introduce the other.

When the professor introduced this student, she told the class that he stutters, that it is nothing to fear or shy away from, and that it will be an expectation of the class that he participate as often as everyone else and that patient listening would be the norm. She asked me if I thought she did the right thing.

My immediate reaction was, Yes, if he was OK with it. I asked her, “How did he seem to react to that? Was he embarrassed?” She said no – he seemed fine with it, maybe a little even relieved.

I then said that I thought it was great she was taking the initiative to make it OK to talk about. I shared with her how I felt in college, when I was presenting and felt so humiliated, and no one said anything, just didn’t look at me and looked liked they pitied me. I told her I would have much rather been in an open, supportive atmosphere, which she is obviously trying to do for this student.

She asked me for resources, specifically if I had any experience with therapy. I shared with her what was available in the area, and explained my take on fluency shaping and stuttering modification. She asked specific questions about both, and I could hear her writing this information down. (Smile!)

I also gave her some information on self-help and support, and some web resources, again realizing she was writing all of this down. She even asked md if there were any good books that I could recommend, so she could educate herself, and in turn, her student. I gave her information on Van Riper’s and Guitar’s stuttering textbooks and Jezer’s memoir about his life experiences with stuttering.

I was really happy this woman called and I was able to answer some questions. She had seen my name affiliated with a newspaper article I had written and with an upcoming workshop I am doing at our community library.

I was also impressed that a university professor took the time and showed an interest in educating herself to better help a student.

What do you think? Do you think the way she introduced the issue of stuttering to her class was appropriate?

16 Responses to "Should Prof Help Stuttering Student?"

It’s not for me to judge if she did the ‘right’ thing, or how the student should feel (sounds like he’s OK with it!), but reading this reminds me of younger kids entering a new school where their Mama had to walk them in on the first day and help introduce them to the rest of the class.

I respect your feelings about it, Pam, but I don’t like what she did. Who in a graduate level class hasn’t encountered stuttering? And who knows how a student from China really feels, when their culture promotes fastidious self-effacement and deference toward professors? Speaking for him in this way — it’s like he’s a child in kindergarten and she’s explaining that he’s not contagious. Seems unnecessary and condescending all around.

There’s no doubt in my mind she paired herself with the student out of good intentions but, honestly, I probably would have been mortified. Because it subconsciously tells the student and the class that he needed to be paired with the teacher and that he needed her to speak for him. If he felt relieved, then I’m glad. I know I feel differently about ‘seeking help’ than many other stutterers so I’m probably the extreme example. 😉 For me, I think I would have been more embarrassed to be paired with the teacher than one of my colleagues. This individual is obviously very bright and capable. But again, it depends on the person. We all have different sensitivities and needs.

Good on her for at least addressing it. It’s no longer the elephant in the room.

Like Lisa said, I do not doubt she was coming from a good place. I do wonder if she was looking out for her own nerves and her own discomfort with his stuttering in some way over the student’s. I would suggest other teachers first talk with the student about a strategy for “coming out” to the class, if that is even what the student wants. Sometimes when I hear that the person reports “He didn’t mind at all” I take that with a grain of salt. She is the professor he is the student, of course he will give the peaceful response to a question that could be very emotional. All in all, I commend the teacher for looking into resources for that student and herself.

You absolutely handled it correctly. I remember when I took Public Speaking in college, my prof asked us all to team up with someone, I barely new this one person so we teamed up. She introduced me first, told them about the stuttering and it made it so much easier for me. At the end of the class after we had done our last speech one of the other students said my speeches were so interesting they hardly noticed the stuttering. Boy, did that make me feel sooooo good.

I think it’s great that she’s taking an interest in the student and is going to such a great effort to get resources for him. There aren’t many that would take the time. However, I’m concerned about the fact that she didn’t ask the student first if she could talk about his stuttering. If he’s pretty severe and overt, it may have indeed been a relief for him to have her address it for him. But I could hear the collective gasp of the covert stutterers who read your blog because many would be horrified to have it brought to the attention of the class. But overall, kudos to her, and you!

To everybody – thought provoking, huh? Thats why I wrote about it. Obviously, the student and professor had talked about stuttering, as he told her “nothing can be done”. But she didn’t mention if during thier introduction exercise, if she had asked him if it was ok to let the class know. That I don’t know.

So it makes sense there are varied reactions. Lisa of course would be horrified, b/c you are in a different place, and see “help” from the lens you experienced it. And Beth, yeah, I can’t wait to hear from coverts – I am sure their GASP will be heard around the world-wide stuttering community.

And Mandy makes an interesting point as well – parental figure treating him as a “poor helpless child”. I think these are the very issues we have to keep talking about in the stuttering community, because stuttering is so much more than just what comes out of our mouths, obviously.

It is self-perception, other-perception, shame, fear, ignorance, desire to help vs. pity, all rolled up into one sometimes.

I appreciate all these great responses. So now we are all thinking wow, did she make things worse for him, or will the average college students in the class just move forward and this will be a non-issue? Will the professor really seek out resources for him, or as Jill suggested, is she doing it to assauge her own feelings of “not knowing what to do?”

I still feel really glad she called me. But now I wonder, did she do it only as a knee-jerk reaction because she saw my name and number in the newspaper. If she had not saw my name, would she have dug deeper to find some resources?

Interesting . . . . all of this . . . yes?

This is a very sensitive question, for sure. I suppose there is no absolute answer. I am quite surprised however that she did not ask him before doing it.
This is not a criticism. Many professors would not even have cared, or worse, they would have been inconsciously upset at the stuttering student. But I wonder what process in her mind made her stop just before asking him.

Hey Burt, I don’t know if she asked him before announcing it like she did in her introduction of him. I didn’t ask and she didn’t mention whether she did or not. Maybe she did, and he was OK with it. In hindsight, I should have asked her, but as we spoke, I wasn’t thinking of blogging about it. I was thinking of how I could help her in the moment.

Honestly, I was in a bit of awe that she was calling me to inquire about resources and support. She mentioned she knew about another college in our area that provides stuttering support, and said she assumed I knew about it too. So for her to be calling me over someone at that other program was a bit of a “high” for me.

Anyway, it is indeed a very sensitive question, as no two people who stutter, or care about people who stutter, are going to view it the same way. Sure is provoking great discussion though, and that’s what blogging is for! ~Pam

Hi all, I was very glad to read your piece Pam. As the wife of a covert stutterer and the mother of an overt stutterer, I think this professor’s actions were fine, as long as it was a ONE-TIME “under the wing” type situation. My husband who never, ever received one lick of assistance from the world around him, would have been elated for that type of support. My daughter on the other hand, would like that for a one-time class ice breaker. Not all people realize someone is a stutterer…most adults are in their own heads, preoccupied with their own stuff, it just rolls off in many cases. The best thing she did was call you and seek out information. She obviously wants to do right by the student and isn’t just covering her a–. Your article rang a bell with someone, who remembered your name and sought you out 🙂

I think that this Professor deserves great credit for being interested in her student and for seeking to inform herself about stuttering. It would appear to me that she is very genuine in her desire to be helpful.

However, one has to wonder if she is a ‘fixer’ by disposition and if her intervention actually was helpful. I suspect that maybe it wasn’t. Given the power differential in their respective positions, it is possible that the student wasn’t able to be entirely honest with her. I’ve been in situations similar to this student where I’ve felt infantilised by a lecturer speaking to a class on my behalf. My acute embarrassment was always compounded by a degree of resentment at the expectation that I should be grateful and was further complicated by the need to recognise the other person’s kind intentions.

I have a severe stutter and a major issue for me, when I was at college, was the reactions of teaching staff. The least helpful were obviously those who were impatient or rude. One person made the most appalling and offensive remarks. Another persistently made me speak in class, despite my obvious and extreme difficulty answering his questions. This engendered such discomfort amongst other students that they formally complained, even though I asked them not to. I’ll never forget the distress I felt at being in such a situation. Another person did something similar to this Professor and took the initiative of seeking information on therapy options. When she showed me the emails she had written, I was less than impressed that she had given my name and alot of personal information without any prior consultation.

Without doubt, the most helpful teachers, in my experience, were those who respected my difficulty speaking and who made no issue of it. Equally helpful were those who privately acknowledged the problems presented by my stutter and who offered one-to-one assistance if I wished to avail of it. It obviously must be very difficult for a teacher to know how to manage the issue of a student who stutters. The diversity of responses to this post reflects the individuality of the stuttering experience. However, perhaps it’s always best for kindness and understanding to be offered in an unobstrusive and sensitive manner. I suspect that the Professor might unwittingly have fallen down on this front. My sincere apologies for writing so much but this post struck a very raw nerve!

Hi, Pam,
Thanks for posting such interesing material. My own experience – I was more comfortable with teachers who made no issue out of my stuttering at all -asked me the same as other students, and didn’t tried to do anything special for me. The most annoying people were those who thought they can offer some advice, even though their knowledge about stuttering was very limited compared to mine. One lady kept telling me to “breathe” and “sing” my answers. This was awfully annoying. They meant well, but sometimes a bit of respect is all that is needed.

Hi Pam,
I think she meant well. Not sure if there is a correct way to handle this. I myself would have been mortified. I think I would have asked him first if it was ok. I think it was great she called you because it shows she is interested.
I still have to ask if most of your prior fluency shaping experience was with grad students and if yes, at what frequency? I am asking because when I hear fluency shaping talked about in general it implies there is only one way of teaching it. Can you be more specific? I have wonderful success with intensive courses with not only myself but patients I treat, however, in grad school I had little positive experiences. The students meant well, but they weren’t experienced enough to help me. tks Lori

Thanks Lori! All of my experience with FS therapy was indeed with grad students. And I explained this and SM to the professor because a blend of both is what is offered at the local college here, and she knew about that, just didn’t know what the distinction was between the two approaches. I explained to her that what is offered here locally is known as a synergistic approach, combining FS and SM with talking about attititudes and feelings. (Hopefully, I explained it right). But yes, my experience was limited to working with grad students, different one each semester, for 45 minutes a week. It was basically teaching targets for fluent speech. It didn’t work for me, but I enjoyed going because of the comraderie with other people who stutter. I have not been involved in any therapy efforts for myself for almost a year now.
I also got an email today from a librarian in California who knows a 7 year old boy with a severe stutter. She told me she had suggested to his mom that he get referred to school SLP, and wanted to know what I thought and if I knew of any other resources for kids. She saw my name in an article that I wrote that somehow she saw! We emailed back and forth and I gave her some leads on resources in her area. ~Pam

It is good that people are reaching out to you as a reference source. You have important information to provide.

My first though when I read this was “Wow, how could a physics class require that much participation?” In my experience (I’m finishing up grad school in physics), physics classes always consist of the professor writing notes on the board and the students frantically copying everything down.

But putting that aside for now, if something like that ever happened to me, I would absolutely die … and probably drop the class and consider transferring to a new school. But I suppose what this professor did was ok ONLY if the student said it would be helpful. In fact, depending on state laws and/or university policies on accessibility for disabilities, the professor could be opening herself up for discipline if the student didn’t specifically request this “special treatment”. This depends, of course, on whether stuttering is considered a disability or not.

That being said, I think its really great that this professor did care enough about her student to look for more information and the fact that she contacted you, Pam, really shows how many people you are reaching.

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