When you’re a lecturer in a business school but you can’t spell ‘business’

Don’t be afraid to reveal that you’re a dyslexic in academia; Ben Marder – a ‘busyness academic’ – explains the benefits of ‘coming out’

December 8, 2018
Woman reading with letters emerging from the book
Source: iStock

I would like to encourage my fellow dyslexic academics to “come out” and even to be proud. 

In the first stage of my career, like many of us, I suffered in silence. A few months into my first academic job, I sat with a student writing some advice points on an essay draft. While I was scribbling away on the assignment, the student – with a shocked and slightly disgusted expression – pointed out to me that I had written “busyness” instead of “business”, snidely remarking on the seriousness of this crime given my position in a business school.

After this experience, I am ashamed to say, I adopted a new strategy: if I wasn’t completely confident in spelling a word, I would make my writing strategically illegible.

The tribulations of dyslexia only started with teaching: an academic job also involves research. What are the tasks dyslexic people are worst at? Reading quickly and writing coherently. And what are two skills crucial for publishing research? The very same. I somewhat enjoyed the irony of my career choice despite often feeling incarcerated because of it.

Dyslexia was truly a massive thorn in my side, as it had been my whole life – even though for most of it, dyslexia was just an undiagnosed pain.

One of my earliest memories of school is that I would have to be moved from the “green table”, where I did maths, to the “red table” when our class was learning English. In hindsight, I am not sure if this was intentional symbolism, but the tables seemed to resemble traffic lights – the green table was all go, while the red table was very much no movement.

I remember how, after a month of colouring different letters, I asked the teacher why we were doing this seemingly pointless task. Her reply contained some counter-intuitive logic: “You are a bit behind in English, so you need to catch up.” The only perk was that on the red table, we were given rubber pencil grips in cool colours that smelled like strawberries, which made our high-achieving colleagues envious.

About 28 years on from the good old days on the red table, I am now, humbly, a very successful academic at an internationally recognised top university, having worked there for six years.

My view on dyslexia has changed: in my mind now, “dyslexia is sexier” – well, perhaps “sexy” is not the right word, but it rhymes and you get my point. This is because as the years went by, I made peace with my dyslexia and developed strategies to work with it; in some aspects of work, I actually use it to my advantage.

First, I became very good at skim-reading academic papers, being able to focus on the parts of the articles that were most important.

Second, because I knew that I could not rely on my writing skills, I started to see papers not as 8,000 words that I had to write, but as more akin to a Lego tower that I needed to construct one brick at a time, with different colour bricks for different components.

Third, I tell my students and colleagues upfront that I am dyslexic and apologise in advance for spelling errors. I have found that students appreciate the disclosure and have had no sarcastic comments since.

Fourth, I take comfort in the fact that dyslexic people think in novel ways. Eloquently put by a fellow anonymous dyslexic academic blogger: “dyslexics think so differently to other academics, their work is intrinsically original. We’re not just seeing the wood rather than the trees, we are seeing the spaces between the trees and occupying those spaces, which are invisible to others.”

My core sentiment for aspiring academics with dyslexia is not to fight the wave but rather to swim with. Tell your colleagues and students and seek support from the university’s disability service. “Come out” and be proud!

Ben Marder is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Edinburgh.

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